December 17, 2013, marked the 170th anniversary of the publication of a classic work, one which has influenced literature, Christmas customs, and even the English language itself: A Christmas Carol by that writing genius, Charles Dickens.
Before he created A Christmas Carol, Dickens had been writing for about ten years, starting with a collection of stories published under the pen name “Boz.” (“Boz” was a corruption of the name “Moses,” Charles Dickens’s youngest brother’s nickname. When a person with a cold says “Moses,” it sounds something like “Boses.” The fact that “Boses” lasted long enough in the Dickens family to be shortened into “Boz” leads one to believe that they must have had more than their share of coughs and sniffles.) Sketches by Boz was successful enough to launch Dickens into the completion of The Pickwick Papers and a career in writing.
More books followed, all published serially and all wildly popular in both America and Dickens’s native England. His writing was so popular in America, in fact, that in 1842 Dickens made a trip to our shores with a twofold purpose in mind—to speak up for the abolition of slavery and to argue for better protection of copyrights internationally. He did not make much headway in the latter purpose. The American press hinted that he should be content with his popularity and learn to regard piracy as a backhanded compliment.
Dickens went home thoroughly disgusted with America and American ways, especially tobacco chewing. His next two works, American Notes for General Circulation and Martin Chuzzlewit, tended to ridicule what Dickens viewed as the stereotypical American, thus alienating a formerly enthusiastic audience. His sales suffered accordingly.
This placed Dickens in an awkward position in the fall of 1843. His publishers were beginning to suspect that his best days were behind him, and meanwhile he was running into debt trying both to support his comfortable lifestyle and to supply his parents’ and brothers’ incessant demands for money.
But it would be unfair to allege that Dickens’s only motives for his next move were mercenary. He had long felt a deep concern for the poor of England, especially for impoverished children. Earlier that year he had decided to write a pamphlet which he had intended to title, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” He had not yet started on it. The idea needed a little more tinkering before it could deliver the “sledgehammer blow” Dickens was seeking. He was waiting for an inspiration.
The Birth of A Christmas Carol
That inspiration came on October 5, 1843. Dickens was speaking at a fundraiser for the Manchester Athenaeum, an organization seeking to provide education to the working people. His subject was educational reform, and his audience was spellbound. Something in that setting kindled a spark.
Dickens hurried outside as soon as possible after his speech to take a long walk. That pamphlet was on his mind. The goal of standing up for the child worker was a worthy one, but Dickens had a feeling he had chosen the wrong means of going about the task. A pamphlet would not awaken the sympathy of the people. What he needed was a compelling story. Perhaps if he hurried he could have it ready in time for Christmas. Why, that was the very thing! A Christmas story!
When Dickens returned home to London, he set to work writing furiously. He had no notes or outlines other than the basic storyline set out in “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” a somewhat similar tale originally published in The Pickwick Papers. When he needed inspiration, he set off on a late-night stroll through the city, often walking fifteen to twenty miles at a time, laughing and crying the whole way.
The story took shape. Scrooge’s greed and cynicism would contrast sharply with the joyful life of his poorer, but wiser, clerk, Bob Cratchit. But Scrooge was to undergo a change of heart. In his dreams, his business partner, Jacob Marley, would come back from the dead to warn him of his peril and commit him into the hands of the three spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past would remind Scrooge of forgotten scenes and rouse his sleeping conscience. The jolly Ghost of Christmas Present would show him all the joy he had missed. The outstretched finger of the fearsome Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would point to the doom that awaited him if he failed to repent. And Scrooge would be a better man for it in the end.
In six weeks the story was finished. Dickens handed the manuscript over to the publishers for the final touches. A Christmas Carol made its debut on December 19, 1843, and it sold out only five days later. By the following spring, the story was already in its sixth printing. It went through 24 editions in the next few years, and by the end of the Civil War it had even redeemed Dickens’s reputation in America. Today there is probably not another book so strongly associated with Christmas as A Christmas Carol.
The Christmas Carol Legacy
It is impossible to estimate precisely how much impact Dickens’s “sledgehammer blow” delivered, but there is no question that the effect of A Christmas Carol was profound:
- It launched Christmas to the status of an annual family occasion.
- It replaced the lingering medieval stiffness of the holiday with merriment and joy.
- It associated Christmas with charity in some minds.
- It apparently inspired an eruption of turkey-buying on the part of generous employers.
- It introduced the word scrooge to the dictionary.
- It popularized the terms “Merry Christmas” and “Bah! Humbug!”
“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
- Variety of formats
- Version with the original manuscript in Dickens’s handwriting
- Condensed version with meanings to unfamiliar expressions
- Audio (Campbell Playhouse radio broadcast featuring Lionel Barrymore)
Copywork, Writing, and Other Literary Suggestions
- Copywork — Copy the first paragraph of Stave One:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
- Find out what ‘Change refers to.
- No one can turn a phrase quite like Dickens. Read the second paragraph of Stave One. Explain how it relates to the first paragraph. Underline the simile in your copywork.
- “As dead as a doornail” is an idiom. Make an idiom booklet featuring five common idioms.
- Read the sixth and seventh paragraphs of Stave One. What an incredible description of a very cold person! Think of someone who is the opposite — a very warm person. Using the paragraphs as a model, write a description of the warm person using similar language.
- Copywork — Copy the following quotation from Stave Two:
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
- Describe Mr. Fezziwig’s ball.
- Throughout the book the traditions of a Victorian Christmas are described. Choose five of those traditions mentioned and compare/contrast them with the ways in which we celebrate Christmas today. You can use this interactive compare/contrast map at ReadWriteThink.
- Instead of the above suggestion, you may prefer to imagine you are headed to one of the celebrations mentioned. Use this party planner worksheet at ReadWriteThink to help you record who you will be and what you will be doing.
- Copywork — Copy the following quotation from Stave Three:
“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
- Find the idiom and simile in the copywork above.
- Who is Bob referring to? Find Scripture passages that support your conclusion.
- Copywork — Copy the following quotation from Stave Four:
Quiet. Very quiet. The noisy little Cratchits were as still as statues in one corner, and sat looking up at Peter, who had a book before him. The mother and her daughters were engaged in sewing. But surely they were very quiet!
- Dickens often uses repetition to make an impression (see the opening paragraph). And yet, he not only tells us that the normally boisterous Cratchits were quiet, he shows us that they are quiet, as well. What words or phrases does he use to convey this (excepting quiet)?
- Remember or imagine a family scene that is rather noisy. Using the paragraph as a model, write and show that the family is noisy.
- Scrooge vows, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” What is he saying? How do you think he might do that?
- Copywork — Copy the following quotation from Stave Five:
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.
- We don’t typically use the word good too often as it is not a particularly descriptive word: good in what way? to what degree? How has Dickens used to this word to provide an incredible description of Scrooge’s new self?
- Write a sentence using the copywork as a model, and including the repetition, to describe a person, place, or thing. Notice there are four comparisons (friend, master, man, city) with the last also compared four times (city, town borough, world).
- Compare/contrast Scrooge’s attitude and mood in each stave.
- Choose a character to describe and include the words and phrases that Dickens has used to help you know that character.
A Christmas Carol
Study guide for the book covering the themes, organization, vocabulary, and issues, along with research/project ideas.
The Truth About Tiny Tim
The story of how his final disposition was originally left out of the book, but remedied at the “eleventh hour” by someone in the print process.
A Christmas Carol Biblical Application
Copy these Scriptures and explain how they apply to the story.
A Christmas Carol Projects
Many options for interacting with the literature.
A Humbug’s Grammar
Here is a fun way to review English grammar — A Humbug’s Grammar: A Review of English Grammar Based Upon the Prose of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol!
A Christmas Carol Folder Project
Create folder to summarize what you have learned. Think of this as a lapbook for older students! (Free registration required.)
A Christmas Carol
Animation via guinea pigs. It helps to know the story before watching!
A Day With Charles Dickens by Maurice Clare
A peek into the way Dickens spent his writing days.
A Christmas Carol Book Set & Advent Calendar
These are out of print, but we have enjoyed ours so much each year that we’ve included it anyway. Each day you can read one piece of a very condensed version of the story and then place that small book on the tree as an ornament.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
A Christmas Carol Classroom Lessons
Many quality enrichment ideas covering word meanings, literary devices, characters, and more!
A Christmas Carol Classroom Lessons — Middle Grades
Many quality enrichment ideas covering a how-to essay, character analysis, using the right words, then-and-now comparison/contrast, scene building, and more!
A Christmas Carol Lesson Plans
Includes discussion questions and student activities.
A Christmas Carol
BBC radio school that includes nine audio retellings, text, synopsis, and teacher activity guide!
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Author Notebooking Pages
Simple pages that include room for copywork, narrations, an illustration and dates of birth/death of the author, and books by the author.
Dickens Christmas Carol Notebooking Pages
Make a notebooking page to summarize what you have learned.