Past, Present, and Future: The Dickensian (Christmas) Spirit

This post has been contributed by Catherine Quirk.

In The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (1990), Paul Davis argues that A Christmas Carol adapts itself to each historical era; that is, since its publication subsequent generations of readers, play-goers, listeners, and viewers have been able to find their own contemporary situation in Dickens’s story.[1] This ease of adaptability, of recognition, of identification, accounts for the exorbitant number of adaptations in every available medium. Though written in 1843 for the society of the Hungry Forties, A Christmas Carol is always and always has been a story for an ever-shifting present. Central to all of these adaptations is some form of the charitable message of the tale, or what has come to be known as the quintessentially Dickensian Christmas spirit: a moral paradigm that is communal rather than individual, joyous in the face of loss or pain rather than nostalgic for brighter times, and – most importantly – a spirit that should permeate the whole year rather than a mere twelve days at its end. In Dickens’s original A Christmas Carol, he embodies his moral judgment of English society of the 1840s in Ebenezer Scrooge. The story’s moralistic centre stems from Scrooge’s supernatural journey through past, present, and future – a journey which leads Scrooge, and (Dickens hopes) the reader, to realise the perennial necessity of the Christmas spirit.

The ghosts who lead Scrooge on this journey remind the miser of his obligations to his own immediate family, and of those to his wider human family. The progression of scenes Scrooge encounters while accompanying the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him in turn of the individuals in both of these families – immediate and extended – from whom he has turned in the course of Christmas Eve day. The earliest visions bring Scrooge back to the “boy singing a Christmas carol at [his] door” (59), and the visit from his nephew, both of whom deserve consideration at Scrooge’s hand from their position as members of his (extended) family.[2] Fezziwig’s jubilant Christmas Eve ball calls to Scrooge’s mind his own duty of care to his clerk; the two scenes with Bella suggest what might have been had he allowed himself to follow the natural course of marriage and children, increasing the number of his immediate family rather than the amount of his wealth. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two very different Christmas celebrations – that of the Cratchits and that of his nephew Fred – made similar in the Christmas spirit both families embody. The most telling parallel, and the one that most affects Scrooge, comes when first Bob and then Fred pledge Scrooge’s health in his absence. The two men lead their respective family gatherings in expressing the epitome of the Dickensian Christmas spirit, even towards Scrooge.

These joyous visions of happy family gatherings stand bookended by visions that show Scrooge his own state. The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet To Come force Scrooge to see his own isolation at what is meant to be the most communal time of year – an isolation, Dickens suggests, that has both led to and is the result of Scrooge’s miserly, bitter character. As a boy, he was left at school over the holidays, alone – both isolated from his fellow students and neglected by his immediate family. In death, as prophesied by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, Scrooge again finds himself alone. These visions of isolation – of Scrooge’s own distance from the communality integral to the Christmas spirit – provide the necessary impetus to spark the character’s change of attitude. While he feels “uneasy in his mind” (61) when faced with elements of his forgotten past, and while his own actions become more in keeping with the spirit of the season as he accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Present, he does not assert a specific desire to change his own outlook, to embrace the spirit of Christmas fully, until faced with the final isolation of his own friendless death-chamber and solitary grave: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!” (110). Scrooge discovers that not only does the Christmas spirit begin at home, as it were, it must begin with one’s self, and radiate outwards.

In contrast to these scenes of isolation, the Cratchit family Christmas dinner marks the centre of the story – and the centre of Dickens’s delineation of the Christmas spirit. Bob’s communal Christmas toast, “God Bless us” (82; emphasis added) – and Tiny Tim’s famous repetition of the phrase – mimics and starkly contrasts Scrooge’s earlier surprised “Bless me” (61-2; emphasis added) when he sees Dick Wilkins in the vision of Fezziwig’s ball. While many of the family members are given Christian names, they are primarily referred to as a whole – as “the Cratchits,” or as “the Cratchit family” (78-84). Even when differentiated into separate characters, the Cratchits work at a single task – preparing the meal, for instance, in the act of which each family member works towards a communal whole: “Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody” (80). Dickens here incorporates the communal work of the Christmas spirit into his prose, separating the Cratchits’ individual actions only by semi-colons: they belong to the same sentence, and so read as if they are performing a single action.

What has nostalgically (and often simplistically) come to be considered this Dickensian ideal of Christmas permeates Dickens’s works much more widely than its usual association with Scrooge’s transformation suggests. Dickens’s other Christmas writings certainly describe a similar sense of community at the holidays, though one more often underscored by a sense of loss that even the most widespread seasonal philanthropy cannot cover. “What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older” (Household Words 1851), for instance, focusses on the empty spaces left at the family table, spaces that are felt throughout the year but which become more overt and more poignant in a season that generally involves large family gatherings.[3] Even in the face of inevitable loss, however, Dickens repeats that Christmas is a time of charity and community, and the Christmas spirit one of “active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness, and forbearance” (249).

Perhaps more significant, though, especially when considering the enduring nature of Dickens’s message, is the fact that the author did not limit this ideology to his Christmas fiction. Think, for instance, of the commentary he inserts after the death of Jo in Bleak House (1853): “Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day” (734).[4] The sentiment expressed here emphasises the innate charity of all men and women (“born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts”), and parallels that of the Dickensian spirit of the Christmas stories, though no mention of the season of giving anchors the charitable concerns of this later text. Rather, Dickens suggests (to paraphrase Jacob Marley) that charity is the business of all human creatures, and a business that should concern us not just at Christmas but all the year round.

As Fred implies early in Stave One of A Christmas Carol, however, charity must begin somewhere, and the holiday season, with its associations of family, feasting, and festival, and its lightening of the darkest days of winter, provides a natural foundation. In Fred’s view (and, by extension, in Dickens’s), Christmas is “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time […] in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys” (36). This ideology of fellow-feeling, this deliberate removal of self-consideration in light of a fellow-creature’s suffering, forms the basis of Dickens’s social criticism throughout his writing career. In these dark months of winter, and in these dark times of ours, we might all benefit from a reminder of the spirit of Dickensian Christmas, and a return to that “broad beneficence and goodness that too many men have tried to tear to narrow shreds” (“As We Grow Older” 252). Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


[1] Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.

[2] Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol.” A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings. Michael Slater (ed.), London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003: 27-118.

[3] Dickens, Charles. “What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older.” A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings. Michael Slater (ed.), London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003: 248-52.

[4] Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

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