In this post, Mary Hind-Portley (@Lit_Liverbird) comments on Dickens’s Christmas Carol with a focus on its religious elements.
As our thoughts turn to Christmas, and we think of what to read and what to watch, we might consider reading or watching ‘A Christmas Carol’. For many people on Twitter, including many teachers, Christmas is signalled by the songs of ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’’ and it is one of my own favourite films.
There is also much nostalgia around Dickens’ ‘Ghostly little book’ and it is a staple part of our Christmas; from the ‘Bah! Humbug’ Christmas jumpers to our concerns that the turkey may not be big enough to feed everybody. We are comforted by the retreat from modern life back to the Christmas celebrations of the Victorians. Indeed there is a biographical drama entitled ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’ (2017) about Dickens and the writing of ‘A Christmas Carol’. However, beyond our fascination with Scrooge, the Cratchits and the ghosts are Christianity and the true meaning of Christmas present in this story?
Dickens opens with the news that ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’ He has received a Christian burial but we are left in doubt that he will return in some form! The reader is tantalised by Marley’s ghost and the presence of other ghosts outside the window, uttering “sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory”. Yet his presence offers “chance and hope” to Scrooge; thus Scrooge embarks on his journey to redemption and salvation.
The Ghost of Christmas Past continues Scrooge’s journey. In Stave 2, we move from the darkness and fog of London outside Scrooge’s home to the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past, a light which Scrooge is desperate to extinguish. Christian readers may see this as a symbol of Christ as the light of the world, similar to the famous painting by Holman Hunt. Scrooge is not yet ready for Christ’s redeeming light to enter his dark world.
For me Stave III and the Ghost of Christmas Present is where we begin to see a stronger presence of religion with blending of the pagan and the Christian in his character. The traditional winter leaves are present linking the pagan with the wreath which could echo the image of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. Here, Scrooge sees the Ghost of Christmas Present as a representative of God: “It has been done in your name, or at least that of your family”. This is a subtle yet strong indication that the Spirits are sent by God and therefore that it is a religious story rather than a secular tale. It is, however, hard to ascribe Dickens’ Christianity to any of the different Christian sects of the 19th century.
Tiny Tim also reminds the reader of Christ’s presence in the world of the novella. He goes to church and shows his piety and also his piousness. The lame child, who is brought back to life through the change wrought in Scrooge, has echoes of Christ healing the lame and the sick; although I am not proposing that Scrooge is a Christ-like figure!
The Ghost’s speech causes Scrooge to be “overcome with penitence and grief”. Scrooge is beginning to repent and understand the harm of his words and actions, as the Christian tradition would desire. Scrooge is again confronted with his unchristian words from Stave I “decrease the surplus population” and must learn the importance of beneficence and benevolence.
This Stave shows us a world which is empty and soulless for Scrooge; his lack of benevolence and beneficence has ensured he is still “solitary as an oyster”. He has to accept Christ into his world and atone for his sins otherwise he will not defeat the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, presented as the Grim Reaper. Dickens deliberately presents a secular world of business and transactions with no regard for human feeling. His worldly possessions and wealth have no worth for him in death. Without redemption and salvation, he too will be weighed down by chains and the cash box, excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. He must accept and “honour Christmas in [his] heart”.
We now see a reversal, Scrooge has accepted how he must change and his world is filled with light. Whilst we do not see an overt conversion to Christianity, we are shown Scrooge behaving in a Christian way: he shows benevolence and is welcomed into both families and he becomes beneficent and gives generously and secretly to charity and to the Cratchits, “he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge”.
Dickens presents us with a character who has accepted his misdeeds and is not the “sinner” of Stave I.
In ‘A Christmas Carol’, we see Dickens’ faith through Scrooge’s journey from miser to benefactor, from ‘sinner’ to penitent, to redemption and then to salvation.
His chief aim […] was to promote individual “salvation” and bring about social reform. His “religious” views, while perhaps not strictly sectarian, were meant not so much to undermine orthodox belief as to demonstrate that a “practical” and humanitarian Christianity that reflected the life of Christ could solve personal and social problems. Michael Timko (2013)
‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’
Thank you for reading.
• Ackroyd, Peter (1994) Dickens abridged edition; Vintage Books, London
• CLiC Dickens clic.bham.ac.uk. Mahlberg, M., Stockwell, P., de Joode, J., Smith, C., & O’Donnell, M. B. (2016). CLiC Dickens: Novel uses of concordances for the integration of corpus stylistics and cognitive poetics. Corpora, 11(3), 433–463.
• Davis, P. B. (1990). The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. Yale: Yale University Press.
• Hunt, W. H. (1905). Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood London: Macmillan
• Faber, M. (2005, December 24). Spectral pleasures. The Guardian.
• Landow, G. P. (2013, October 4). Sabbath observance, Sabbatarianism, and social class. The Victorian Web.
• Timko, M. (2013). “No Scrooge he: The Christianity of Charles Dickens”. America: The Jesuit Review.
• Tomalin, C. (2012). Dickens: A Life. London: Penguin Books.
• Taft, J. (2015). Disenchanted religion and secular enchantment in A Christmas Carol. Victorian Literature and Culture, 43(4), 659–673.