A Ghost Story of Christmas

It was the winter of 1843.

Long after the sober folks had gone to bed, Charles Dickens paced the streets of London.

Unaware of time and place, he would walk fifteen or twenty miles many a night, his head filled with thoughts about his latest project.

It was nearly finished.

Victorian London, Drury Lane. Credit spitalfields.com
Victorian London, Drury Lane. Credit spitalfields.com

A Christmas Carol was born of an idea that the best way to bring about awareness for the plight of the poor was through story.

Dickens had considered writing pamphlets and essays, but these were not the ways to reach people’s hearts.

People loved stories.

A few weeks earlier, his friend the Baroness Burdett-Coutts had considered donating to the system of religiously-inspired schools known as the “Ragged Schools”.

She had asked Dickens if he would visit the school at Saffron Hill in London and relay his impressions.

Cruikshank represents a ragged school at the Saffron Hill slum in London, which Charles Dickens visited on behalf of philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts in 1843. This visit undoubtedly shaped his conception of Ignorance and Want — and the importance of elementary education as an antidote to poverty — in A Christmas Carol). (Philip V. Allingham)
Cruikshank represents a ragged school at the Saffron Hill slum in London, which Charles Dickens visited on behalf of philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts in 1843. This visit undoubtedly shaped his conception of Ignorance and Want — and the importance of elementary education as an antidote to poverty — in A Christmas Carol). (Philip V. Allingham)

Dickens was shocked with what he saw.

I have seldom seen in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children (Mackenzie, Dickens, pp. 143-44).Charles Dickens

It was his personal experience that imbued Dickens with a sense of duty to help the poor.

Growing up, his father, John Dickens, was imprisoned in Marshalsea debtors prison, while Charles was forced to leave school and work in a blacking factory.

Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse. Charles Dickens is here shown as a boy of twelve years of age, working in a factory
Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse. Charles Dickens is here shown as a boy of twelve years of age, working in a factory

Before the Bankruptcy Act of 1869, debtors in England were routinely imprisoned at the pleasure of their creditors.

Marshalsea Debtors Prison
Marshalsea Debtors Prison

Memories of this period would haunt Dickens for the rest of his life.

Although he loved his father, he saw in him a cold-hearted miser, inspiring the dual characters of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice…Charles Dickens

Victorian London was experiencing an economic boom, but one that left the poor behind.

Poverty and Wealth by William Powell Frith, 1888
Poverty and Wealth by William Powell Frith, 1888

Moving to London in search of opportunity from the harsh agrarian life in the country, many became disappointed, disillusioned, and destitute.

The industrial revolution brought huge wealth to a tiny percentage of the population, with the majority scraping a living in damp, noisy factories, and cramped, filthy slums.

A Poor-House by Gustave Doré, c. 1860
A Poor-House by Gustave Doré
Dwellings of the poor in Bethnal Green, water supply 1863. Credit Wellcome Images
Dwellings of the poor in Bethnal Green. Credit Wellcome Images

Dickens and the Baroness felt that education was the solution. At least it gave hope even to the poorest of families that their children might one day break the mold of poverty and join the rising middle class.

With the Saffron Hill Ragged School still playing on his mind, in October of 1843 Dickens visited a workingmen’s educational institute in the industrial city of Manchester, England.

It was here that Dickens had his “eureka moment”.

Instead of writing a journalistic piece on the plight of the poor, he would write a ghost story—A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. Chapman & Hall, London, 1843. First edition. Title page.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. Chapman & Hall, London, 1843. First edition. Title page.

Through story, Dickens asked for people to recognize the plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution had displaced and driven into poverty, and the obligation of society to provide for them humanely.

Critical praise poured in.

A tale to make the reader laugh and cry – to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable … a dainty dish to set before a King.the London literary magazine, Athenaeum
a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.William Makepeace Thackeray in Fraser's Magazine
brings the old Christmas of bygone centuries and remote manor houses, into the living rooms of the poor of todayThe New York Times

Scottish writer Margaret Oliphant described it as “a new gospel”.

The impact was astounding.

In the spring of 1844, there was a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain.

Scottish philosopher and writer, Thomas Carlyle, staged two Christmas dinners after reading the book.

After attending a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1867, a Mr Fairbanks closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey.

British stage actor Sir Squire Bancroft raised £20,000 for the poor by reading A Christmas Carol out loud in public.

With today’s information revolution displacing many livelihoods, the story is as relevant as it was for Charles Dickens.

In advocating the humanitarian focus of the Christmas holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects that are celebrated in Western culture today —family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit.

At this time of feasting, let us reflect on A Christmas Carol and the social movement it inspired.

Fatigued Minstrels by Augustus Edwin Mulready, 1883
Fatigued Minstrels by Augustus Edwin Mulready
There a group of handsome girls, all hooded and fur-booted, and all chattering at once
There a group of handsome girls, all hooded and fur-booted, and all chattering at once
Soup for the poor by Albert Anker
Soup for the poor by Albert Anker
Illustration from A Christmas Carol
Illustration from A Christmas Carol
The Forlorn (Poor Children) by Octave Tassaert - 1855
The Forlorn (Poor Children) by Octave Tassaert
The Christmas Hamper by Robert Braithwaite Martineau
The Christmas Hamper by Robert Braithwaite Martineau
Halfpenny dinners for poor children in East London. Credit Wellcome Images
Halfpenny dinners for poor children in East London. Credit Wellcome Images
Chester Square, Belgravia, London by John Edwin Oldfield
Chester Square, Belgravia, London by John Edwin Oldfield
London Slums
London Slums
Hush! by James Tissot
Hush! by James Tissot
Applicants to Admission to a Casual Ward by Sir Luke Fildes
Applicants to Admission to a Casual Ward by Sir Luke Fildes
The Way by James Tissot
The Way by James Tissot
Some Poor People by Henry la Thangue
Some Poor People by Henry la Thangue
Christmas by Felix Ehrlich, (German, 1866 - 1931)
Christmas by Felix Ehrlich, (German, 1866 – 1931)
Christmas Eve by George H.Yewell
Christmas Eve by George H.Yewell
Happy Christmas by Viggo Johansen
Happy Christmas by Viggo Johansen
The Poor Schoolboy by Antonio Mancini
The Poor Schoolboy by Antonio Mancini

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