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How much does Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ shape our holidays?

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Charles Dickens in his study. Dickens wrote the timeless classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

Charles Dickens in his study. Dickens wrote the timeless classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

Library of Congress

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been more than 175 years since Charles Dickens first published “A Christmas Carol,” but the book and its themes are as ingrained in the Christmas season as much as ever.

“It’s about a miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who gets visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve,” said Natalie McKnight, president of the international Dickens Society, in an interview with the Deseret News. “Over the course of the night the ghosts reveal to him what he has become through visits to his past, current Christmas moments, and dark glimpses of what his future might bring.” 

Dickens wrote a book that mirrored elements of his own Christmases. Like the characters in his book, he enjoyed spending the holiday with friends and family, eating good food and catching the movies of his time McKnight refers to as “magic shows and theatricals.”

Natalie McKnight is president of the Dickens Society and dean of the College of General Studies at Boston University.

Natalie McKnight is president of the Dickens Society and dean of the College of General Studies at Boston University.

Provided by Natalie McKnight

But just as Christmas today seems to make everyone a bit kinder, Dickens also sensed the possibilities of redemption more keenly. 

The theme of redemption appears early in the book, most notably through Scrooge’s witty sense of humor.

“This is one of my favorite parts!” said McKnight. “His humor lets us see early on that he is not beyond redemption, that there is still a human being inside there.”

“As early on as the visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past, he starts regretting how he treated carolers earlier that day,” said McKnight. “His redemption really begins when he feels for himself as an abandoned boy at school, and weeps. Having let himself feel his own pain, he starts being able to feel for others.” 

Without giving away nearly two-century-old spoilers, Scrooge embarks on a series of adventures that teach him about his own redemptive potential. The businessman who is constantly sucked in by selfish motives and the demands of work may seem like a quaint 19th-century example, but McKnight says Scrooge is still relevant today.

“Most of us — including Dickens — have a tendency to shut down, close ourselves off, and become a bit miserly when overwhelmed with work and requests for money,” said McKnight. “It’s human nature and the Christmas season can add to the pressures.”

“‘A Christmas Carol’ helps us see what is perennially wonderful about the season, and how the real danger is not in opening ourselves to that wonder, but in shutting it out,” McKnight said. 

Dickens didn’t invent the idea of redemption, but he succeeded in making the theme easily. As a result, his name has become nearly as synonymous with Christmas as hot cocoa and caroling. 

What would Dickens think of being so closely associated with the season?

“He would be amazed, and joyful and humbled,” said McKnight, who is writing a chapter on Christmas fiction for the tentatively titled “Oxford Handbook of Christmas” that will be released next year. “His presence at Christmas 150 years after his death is ubiquitous, and while he may have dreamed that would be the case, I think he’d still be shocked at how much ‘A Christmas Carol’ shapes our holidays.”