Last Tuesday night I began reading my battered copy of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as I have done every December 20th for the past forty eight years. The date’s carefully chosen so that I can read a chapter of the story every night and finish with the final scenes on Christmas Eve. I try to make finishing A Christmas Carol the last thing I do before I go to sleep.
Now this might seem – no, actually is – obsessive, but Christmas doesn’t start for me until I’ve read Dickens’s magical story.
A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843. It was an immediate success, has never been out of print, and has been recreated on TV, stage, screen and radio dozens of times. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a hard-hearted miser: unloved and unloving. He’s wasn’t always like that, but the passing years have gradually hardened his heart. One Christmas Eve he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns Scrooge that time is running out for his redemption. He tells Scrooge that, to help him see the error of his ways, he will be visited by three other ghosts: those of Christmases past, present and future. During the ghosts’ visits Scrooge is gradually brought to see the consequences of his actions and warned of the sad and lonely fate that awaits him if he doesn’t change his ways. As a result Scrooge becomes a reformed and benevolent character.
I love the story because it’s great fun to read, despite its underlying seriousness. I think Dickens’s greatest talent in all his books was the way he blended comedy with the serious social issues of his day. The theme and tone of the book is optimistic and perfectly judged, even when dealing with issues like poverty and death. For a short story, Dickens introduces a large cast of memorable characters, which add comedy and pathos to the story.
I think it’s easy to identify with the story for two reasons. First, the message at its heart is simple: that anyone can be redeemed. Dickens didn’t make his message an overtly Christian one, which has helped make its popularity universal. Second, despite Scrooge’s awfulness at the start of the story, Dickens still manages to make him a sympathetic character and I really want him to win through at the end.
After forty eight years my pleasure in reading A Christmas Carol goes far beyond the story. I don’t think I just read it any more: I live it. Not only can I quote passages by heart, I have a powerful image of each scene and almost feel that I am there in person. I get totally carried away with events and into the heads of the characters.
What’s most important to me now is the way A Christmas Carol has become the thread that unites all my Christmas memories. I’ve read it in good years and bad, and each reading connects me to all the people and places from my past, and provides a link the present, and to what may come in the future. It’s almost as if the ghosts that visit Scrooge visit me too. For me it’s important to have some things in life that are stable, continuous and reliable. A Christmas Carol is all those things to me, and it’s also a fun, powerful and inspiring story.
Reading A Christmas Carol this year will make me feel happy and contented, as it always has done and always will.
If you’re interested in reading A Christmas Carol it’s easily and cheaply available on the internet. My personal copy is the same one I’ve always used. It’s from a complete works of Dickens that belonged to my maternal grandparents. The spine cover’s fallen off it now and it’s stitching is loose, but it’s a very loved book: probably the most precious one I own.
If you liked this review, why not share it with a friend? I’d also like to know whether you have a special Christmas book, and what it means to you.
In writing this review I’ve referred to The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens, edited by Paul Schlicke (Oxford University Press, 2011).