I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.
Faced with mounting debts and flagging sales of his latest book, Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843 was turning into a bleak year for Charles Dickens. He needed a hit—something that would bring in some quick cash and simultaneously restore his luster with the public. The hit would be A Christmas Carol and not only would it burnish Dickens’ reputation, but it would indelibly place a Victorian stamp on the celebration of Christmas.
More than an author, Dickens was a social crusader who in novel after novel drew the public’s attention to the deplorable living conditions experienced by England’s poor and working classes. While on a speaking tour in Manchester during the autumn of that year, he first conceived a story that would dramatize the season in which, “Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” He was consumed by the idea like a fever for several weeks before settling down and writing A Christmas Carol in only seven days. By this time, it was November and his publishers balked at the idea of issuing the title by Christmas. Dickens, however, was insistent and agreed to front all the costs himself. With his deep sense of social responsibility, he decided to produce a book of the highest quality and sell it at the lowest possible price. He personally attended to every detail himself; from the russet binding to the gilt page edges, to the blue and gold title page. And it was a success. On December 19, 1843 the book was released to the public and immediately sold out the first printing of 6,000 copies. Within a year seven more editions would be printed, though profits remained small because of high production costs. None-the-less, Dickens was satisfied and was unrepentant that he had sacrificed profit for quality.
Unrepentance, of course, was hardly the theme of the book. To the contrary, the redemption of Scrooge was what the story is ultimately all about. That may seem odd; because that’s not what most people remember about A Christmas Carol. And that’s too bad, because a redeemed Scrooge is a powerful symbol of hope and optimism for all of us. When he finally awakens and discovers that it’s Christmas Day, Scrooge immediately sets about transforming his life. He begins by accepting the ineffable joy of being alive. He’ll spend a good part of the day simply being present in the world and celebrating all that is good. He also quickly begins addressing past mistakes. He’ll send a turkey to the Cratchit’s who’ll have already spent a week’s wages on a single, meager holiday dinner. He’ll visit his nephew Fred—the only soul who ever believed Scrooge’s redemption was possible—and begin the process of rebuilding a family. He’ll make a substantial donation to the poor and promise to provide additional help. And looking ahead, he’ll save Tiny Tim and, become, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”
As one year ends and another begins, it might be a good idea to adopt the Scrooge perspective—what’s gone wrong, how can I fix it and how can I keep it from happening again. Scrooge knew some would laugh at his transformation and he laughed it off, because, the message of redemption is that it’s never too late to make a new start. What better time than now. Merry Christmas! —Ebert