Soon after Charles Dickens finished A Christmas Carol, a work he produced in a whirlwind six weeks in 1843, he wrote to his actor friend William Macready who was touring America at the time: "I have sent you … a little book I published on the 17th of December, and which has been a most prodigious success — the greatest, I think, I have ever achieved."
Little could Dickens imagine the success his holiday morality tale would enjoy more than a century and a half later or how Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit would so insinuate themselves into the cultural meme of Christmas as to become essential ingredients.
Here is my advice: Don't rely on the many movie and television adaptations of the Dickens classic, as delightful as they are. Read the slim book instead. Only by savoring the words can Dickens the master wordsmith and social commentator be fully enjoyed.
Dickens' story was a warning to those who have much. He was rudely aware of the plight of London's poor. His father famously landed in debtor's prison, and at age 12 Dickens was forced to work at a boot-blacking factory, where he soon realized that the poor were not indolent, as he'd been taught, but good people held down by circumstances and exploitation.
Dickens' tale is as much about the evils of economic and social inequality as it is about Scrooge's personal redemption. Bob Cratchit is the poor, hard-working clerk who shivers in Scrooge's freezing counting house while his employer gets rich off his labors. With a few tweaks it could be a lament of America's corporate greed and the plight of today's poverty-wage workers.
To whet your mistletoe, here are some passages that are sure to bring a pang of conscience to the season of cheer.
Bob Cratchit's working conditions:
"Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn't replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed."
Warnings from the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's former business partner:
" 'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
" 'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!' "
The Ghost of Christmas Present critiques those who claim to speak for the spiritual world:
" 'There are some upon this earth of yours,' returned the Spirit, 'who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.' "
The Ghost of Christmas Present describes the wretched children that are man's bitter legacy:
" 'This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased …
'Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge. 'Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses?' "
Dickens' work was an instant classic not just because it was a ripping good yarn, though that it was. A Christmas Carol was a call to us all to open our eyes to the economic injustices of our age, a timeless message that is never out of season.