By mid-1843 Dickens began to suffer from financial problems. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit were falling off, and his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with their fifth child. Matters worsened when Chapman & Hall, his publishers, threatened to reduce his monthly income by £50 if sales dropped further. He began A Christmas Carol in October 1843. Michael Slater, Dickens’s biographer, describes the book as being “written at white heat”; it was completed in six weeks, the final pages being written in early December. He built much of the work in his head while taking night-time walks of 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 km) around London. Dickens’s sister-in-law wrote how he “wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in composition”. Slater says that A Christmas Carol was
“intended to open its readers’ hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor”.
George Cruikshank, the illustrator who had earlier worked with Dickens on Sketches by Boz (1836) and Oliver Twist (1838), introduced him to the caricaturist John Leech. By 24 October Dickens invited Leech to work on A Christmas Carol, and four hand-coloured etchings and four black-and-white wood engravings by the artist accompanied the text.
The phrase “Merry Christmas” had been around for many years – the earliest known written use was in a letter in 1534 – but Dickens’s use of the phrase in A Christmas Carol popularised it among the Victorian public. The exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” entered popular use in the English language as a retort to anything sentimental or overly festive; the name “Scrooge” became used as a designation for a miser, and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as such in 1982.
In the early 19th century the celebration of Christmas was associated in Britain with the countryside and peasant revels, disconnected to the increasing urbanisation and industrialisation taking place. Davis considers that in A Christmas Carol, Dickens showed that Christmas could be celebrated in towns and cities, despite increasing modernisation. The modern observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday. The Oxford Movement of the 1830s and 1840s had produced a resurgence of the traditional rituals and religious observances associated with Christmastide and, with A Christmas Carol, Dickens captured the zeitgeist while he reflected and reinforced his vision of Christmas.
Dickens advocated a humanitarian focus of the holiday, which influenced several aspects of Christmas that are still celebrated in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit. The historian Ronald Hutton writes that Dickens “linked worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation“.
The writer James Joyce considered that Dickens took a childish approach with A Christmas Carol, to produce a gap between the naïve optimism of the story, and the realities of life at the time.
The largest impact of A Christmas Carol was the influence felt by individual readers. In early 1844 The Gentleman’s Magazine attributed a rise of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens’s novella; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson, after reading Dickens’s Christmas books, vowed to give generously to those in need; and Thomas Carlyle expressed a generous hospitality by hosting two Christmas dinners after reading the book. In 1867 one American businessman was so moved by attending a reading, that he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey, while in the early years of the 20th century Maud of Wales – the Queen of Norway – sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim‘s Love”. On the novella, the author G. K. Chesterton wrote “The beauty and blessing of the story … lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him. … Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us.”
Contemporary reviews of A Christmas Carol “were almost uniformly kind”. The Illustrated London News described how the story’s “impressive eloquence … its unfeigned lightness of heart—its playful and sparkling humour … its gentle spirit of humanity” all put the reader “in good humour with ourselves, with each other, with the season and with the author”.
There were also critics of the book. The New Monthly Magazine praised the story, but thought the book’s physical excesses—the gilt edges and expensive binding—kept the price high, making it unavailable to the poor. The review recommended that the tale should be printed on cheap paper and priced accordingly.
In January 1844 Parley’s Illuminated Library published an unauthorised version of the story in a condensed form which they sold for twopence. Dickens wrote to his solicitor:
“I have not the least doubt that if these Vagabonds can be stopped they must. … Let us be the sledge-hammer in this, or I shall be beset by hundreds of the same crew when I come out with a long story”.
Two days after the release of the Parley version, Dickens sued on the basis of copyright infringement and won. The publishers declared themselves bankrupt and Dickens was left to pay £700 in costs. The small profits Dickens earned from A Christmas Carol further strained his relationship with his publishers.
Analysing the changes made to adaptations over time, there are changes to the focus of the story and its characters to reflect mainstream thinking of the period. While Dickens’s Victorian audiences would have viewed the tale as a spiritual but secular parable, in the early 20th century it became a children’s story, read by parents who remembered their parents reading it when they were younger. In the lead up to, and during, the Great Depression, some saw the story as a “denunciation of capitalism… most read it as a way to escape oppressive economic realities”.