Here’s an experiment for this holiday season: Watch out for all the “Bah humbug!”s and references to Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, or benevolent ghosts you spot in TV ads, store displays, and greeting cards during the annual commercial frenzy leading up to Christmas Day.
“You’ll see Scrooge and A Christmas Carol everywhere,” says Fred Schwarzbach, dean of liberal studies at New York University and author of Dickens and the City (Athlone Press, 1979). “If you’re looking for proof that this is still an important part of our culture, that would be it.”
Dickens, already a wildly popular journalist and author of the novels The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, published the novella A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas on December 19, 1843. The story was an instant hit, and Dickens would continue writing stories for Christmas and publishing a holiday-themed edition of his magazine All the Year Round each year until his death in 1870—helping to solidify the popular traditions (including family dinners, gifts, and charitable giving) that define the season today.
The novella has since been adapted for stage and screen countless times, with everyone from James Earl Jones and Kelsey Grammer to Jim Backus (as Mr. Magoo) and Michael Caine (with Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit) tackling the crotchety leading role. Its tale of kindness and redemption has become the modern template—arguably more so than any religious text—for telling the story of the “meaning” of Christmas. And the holiday-themed episodes we’ve come to expect from favorite TV shows are also, perhaps, a legacy of Dickens’s commitment to publishing new Christmas material annually.
NYU’s Eileen Reynolds sat down with Schwarzbach, editor of Dickens’s American Notes, and president of the American Friends of the Charles Dickens Museum, to talk about Dickens’s popularity, A Christmas Carol’s enduring appeal, and why we tend to hold out hope that the Scrooges in our own life can be reformed.