Why do we love A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens so much?
First published in 1843, this slim volume has been adapted and readapted and transformed so many times. It’s a world that has become so pliable that Mickey Mouse, Twilight Sparkle, Patrick Stewart, and George C. Scott have all taken cracks at it. (Incidentally, if you think that the Muppet Christmas Carol isn’t the best adaptation, you’re wrong, but I suppose we can still be friends. Probably.)
There are certain stories that our culture comes back to again and again. I’m not talking about TV Tropes, though be careful if you click that link. You’ll be lost for hours. I’m not talking about the Hero’s Journey, though that’s also a compelling narrative. Obviously.
There are certain stories that we can’t seem to let go of. Stories like Cinderella. Stories like Robin Hood.
And A Christmas Carol falls into this pattern, too. There have been so many adaptations, and more than their fair are pretty entertaining. What is it about this world that we love returning to it in so many different shades of color?
You could argue at this point it’s simply a cultural touchpoint; everyone knows it, so if your tv show wants to do a Christmas special, simply slot your characters into the various positions and poof! You’re set to go!
(Incidentally, I really want to see Jean Luc Picard play Ebeneezer. Not Patrick Stewart, mind you. We already have that one. I want to see the cast of Star Trek: the Next Generation slotted into the roles. Imagine Worf as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, or Barclay as Bob Catchit!)
I think there’s more to it than it simply being a cultural touchpoint – otherwise it would never have made it to being a cultural touchpoint in the first place.
It doesn’t follow a lot of normal story beats. I mean, the bad guy protagonist isn’t exactly normal even now, is it? Sure, we have Wicked and Maleficent and all that now, and so many good guys are really gray guys in dark worlds, but Scrooge is set up to be the guy we cheer against!
And time travel wasn’t exactly a normal trope when it was originally written. (Time travel isn’t a normal trope for most TV series adapting it, either.)
Really, none of the “main characters” have much agency in the story, either. Scrooge is carried along by the ghosts. He doesn’t even agree to the process. It’s forced on him. While Scrooge surely grows through the story, it’s not by his own doing. Bob Cratchit, who in most stories would be the protagonist, is ogled by Scrooge as he’s carried along, but Bob just keeps on keepin’ on. The most agency he has is asking for some more coal!
And really, how many stories these days come with morals, especially as typically up-front as this story is?
In other words, A Christmas Carol has a lot going against it when it comes to “normal” storytelling. I want to note that I’m not claiming any of this is bad; I’m simply noticing that it’s unusual. I have a feeling if I analyzed the story structure with any standard “how to write book” I’d wind up tossing the whole thing out.
So why is the story adapted so many times? Why is it so well-loved?
I think it comes down to a message:
If you shape up your life, you won’t be dragged to hell.
Isn’t that the main message? Marley visits Scrooge, and tells him to listen to the ghosts to come if Scrooge would avoid his fate. The original story has Marley show Scrooge many other ghosts condemned to see others in need and never be able to help. If Scrooge just starts helping others, he can save himself.
What’s fascinating to me is that this message is pretty blatantly anti-Christian.
John 3:16 may be the most famous summation of Christianity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I prefer Ephesians 2:8-9 myself: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Christianity is not about what we do, but about what Jesus did for us. And with Christmas being the day Christendom celebrates Jesus’s birthday (though he was more likely born in the springtime), it’s interesting that story that’s about what we do to rescue ourselves gained such traction.
But I understand. It’s an attractive message, isn’t it? Work hard, and you to can rescue yourself.
Which isn’t what I believe. (Usually I save these theological discussions for my other blog, but this has more to do with a story than theology!)
Any which way, it’s still a story I love, even if I disagree with the moral as usually presented. And yes, the Muppet Christmas Carol is the best adaptation.
Come at me, bro.
What about you? Why do you think this story is so well-loved?
2 thoughts on “Stories of Christmas Past”
It’s popularity is rooted – in my opinion – in the very thing you disapprove of: We can save ourselves. I also agree with you that this is an anti-Christian message at the deepest level. That was my first thought, in fact, when I read A Christmas Carol.
Yet in this secular world of Santa Claus, it fits in there nicely, giving a kind of (phony) bridge between secular and sacred. If you’re fully rooted in this world, A Christmas Carol is salve for the guilt written on your heart. And it brings a message: If even Scrooge can be saved, then I’m good to go. And a character or two saying, “God bless us every one!” helps, too.
Honestly? The Christmas Special tradition that make a good bridge between secular and sacred is A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Interesting side note: Charles Dickens himself read A Christmas Carol to audiences for years. He changed the story with every reading. He always read from the same copy of the book and its margins were filled with details and changes.
You gave a good analysis. 😀
I would love to see those notes… I know Dickens originally wasn’t a fan of the story and hoped the next year’s Christmas story he wrote would be better received.