Honestly, you know you’ve made it big when The Muppets adapt your work. Though whether people knowing the notes of your novel due to overexposure to cartoons and parodies rather than actually having read it could be counted as success, could be up for debate. In any case, upon realising that I knew basically the entire story without any lick of its original context, I picked up Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the next leg of my foray into classics.
If I’m being honest, I was originally going to review Great Expectations, but—while being full of colourful characters and clever social commentary—it left me in such a weary state I decided to try out something with more bounce. A Christmas Carol is a standout work of Dickens’, different to his usual style and one could argue less ‘mature’, but never let it be said it’s not literature because it’s full of melodrama and ghosts and barely-veiled-to-the-point-of-being-preachy morals about humanitarianism.
A Christmas Carol (as I’m sure you all know, whether from Mickey Mouse or Muppets or anywhere in between—if my Google image search serves to inform, there’s even a Sonic the Hedgehog version) is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a… well, a quintessential scrooge (funny that) who hoards money and loves no one, and scoffs in the face of the jolly nature of Christmas. We first meet him when he’s huddled over in his office, begrudgingly giving his assistant one day off with pay, saying “bah! Humbug!” to festivities, and commenting that we ought to start burning orphans for fuel so The Poor contribute something to society. Well, not quite, but damn near close enough. Basically, he’s a privileged, entitled old white man turned up to eleven on the ‘people you wouldn’t want as your neighbour’ scale. If he was alive today, he’d probably write to his local newspaper complaining about immigrants and Millennials.
After snubbing his nephew’s good-willed invitation to Christmas dinner, Scrooge hobbles to his sparsely-lit home (what if The Poor huddle outside the window and steal some of the heat!!) to find that his doorknocker looks rather like his dead business partner’s face. He initially brushes this bizarreness off, until the fully-fledged ghost of said business partner materialises to tell Scrooge what for, and vows that three more spirits are on their way to teach him a lesson: the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.
Past reminds Scrooge of his unhappy childhood, and Present demonstrates how much fun everyone’s having on Christmas, even the family of Scrooge’s assistant, who are doing their best despite having very little money and a crippled son (the infamous Tiny Tim, who by now of course is so infamous that he doesn’t seem quite real). Yet to Come drops the bomb that Scrooge, as he is, is basically going to die alone and unmourned, with people literally stealing the clothes off his dead body and waving away his funeral as an awkward inconvenience. Naturally, all this sends Scrooge into a whirl, and when he wakes from his supernatural adventure he makes a 180 turn into the most generous, joyous man who ever lived.
Christmas is an interesting framing device for the story, mostly from a historical point of view, because the Victorian Era was when the quintessential ‘Christmas season’ as we know it was really taking shape. Most of the traditions we associate with a modern (Western/English) Christmas originate in the 1840s onwards, from Christmas trees (brought in by Queen Victoria’s German husband, and thus very trendy) to Christmas cards (becoming a booming industry with the invention of coloured printing and emergence of a mass postal service) to roast turkeys (previously beef and goose had been the thing, with the feasting tradition going back to the Middle Ages, but greater turkey breeding meant the juicy, family-sized birds became perfectly accessible to the middle class). A lot of the carols we sing today were Victorian inventions, and the idea of gift-giving was moved from its traditional spot on New Year’s Day to a few days before. Christmas being a family holiday was also an idea cemented in this era, as well as its themes of charity, love, peace, and good will to all.
Obviously A Christmas Carol didn’t invent these concepts, but it’s largely credited as being one of the first books to document it, and with its popularity, spread them throughout England. This novella was one of the first—if not the first—over-the-top seasonal story about whacky hijinks, family love, and discovering the Christmas Spirit. We effectively have Charles Dickens to blame for every cheesy Christmas comedy and romance that exists today, though unfortunately modern ones tend to come with fewer ghosts.
The fantastical element was really quite fascinating—each ghost had a unique design, theme and personality, and each created an entirely different atmosphere for their respective sections of Scrooge’s story. As well as being a shining example of Victorian Christmas spirit, it’s also, of course, a shining example of the Victorians’ obsession with spooky stuff. A Christmas ghost story was, when you think about it, pretty much guaranteed to be a bestseller in the 1840s. The prose is effectively designed to read aloud, whether to children or adults or a mix of both, and as you read you can practically picture a family gathered around their fireplace (perhaps with one of those newfangled decorated pine trees in the corner) in their waistcoats and bustles and frills, listening intently as someone reads from the book in their hands, spinning the comic and terrifying over-the-top tale of Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts.
Because it is very over-the-top, full of dramatic flair and rampant spookiness and characters loudly announcing how they feel. The whole “Scrooge learns that The Poor are People Too” plot is also so hammy I’m surprised it wasn’t carved up for Christmas dinner, and I can see why dear little Tiny Time, the embodiment of innocence and struggle that awakens such remorse in Scrooge, has become an archetype rife for parody. All I’m saying is less well-off people shouldn’t need to be pure of heart, adorable and crippled to garner sympathy. But if Scrooge is an extreme on the unsympathetic upper class scale, I suppose Tiny Tim needs to be at the other end to balance things out.
Even with its serious message (which essentially comes down to “don’t be an asshole”, which I can always support) A Christmas Carol is just tremendous wintry fun, and I can see why it’s such a beloved little story. It’s got bouncy, fairy tale-esque prose, a flair for the dramatic, a delightfully awful main character, some really cool ghosts, a quality moral message, and a beautiful passage of description all about Christmas food in the markets, which I cursed Dickens for, as I read this book when I’d just had my wisdom teeth out and thus couldn’t even dream of satisfying the roast turkey craving it gave me. God bless us, every one!