Today, December 19, in 1843--170 years ago--the book, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, launched on its journey to popularity in England, and soon to the United States. The first run of 6,000 sold out by Christmas Eve. By May 1844, a seventh edition had sold out. In all, 24 editions ran in its original form. Moreover, it has never been out of print. What makes it eternal?
By the early 19th century, industrialization in England had encouraged a seriousness, even cultural somberness, and had resulted in a large population of poor people. Especially children. Dickens was a victim himself. His father was imprisoned when Dickens was a young child. At age 12, he pawned his precious collection of books, left school, and began working in a blacking factory. Even though his father was released soon thereafter, Charles was forced to stay on at the factory. He claimed to have never recovered his former happy life with his father, and the disturbing memories haunted him the rest of his life.
Scrooge in his story represents Dickens's father. Readers are brought images of the former joy and warmth Dickens knew and the unforgettable images of darkness, despair, coldness, and sadness that plagued him later. Scrooge himself is the embodiment of this winter mind-set until his cold pinched heart is restored to the joy and light of a happier, more generous time, perhaps Spring. Through this autobiographical telling, Dickens, intentionally or not, transformed Christmas celebration rituals and introduced new customs, such as Christmas trees, greeting cards, family gatherings, and festive generosity.
As an adult, Dickens toured much of the country, only to find children working in appalling conditions, uncared-for illiterate street children, and a terribly inadequate education system, such as he had known as a child. He considered writing and distributing pamphlets and making speeches to raise public awareness and activate reform. But in the end, he decided the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population about the concerns he had seen was to write a story. It worked.
Charitable giving in Britain skyrocketed. Robert Louis Stevenson generously shared his wealth with the poor after reading the book. Thomas Carlyle staged two huge Christmas dinners; in America, a Mr. Fairbanks in Boston closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey. According to some historians, the current Christmas rituals are largely the result of the mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. Certainly, we can thank Dickens for the model of sharing with our society's marginalized during the Christmas season.