Why Did Charles Dickens Write "A Christmas Carol?"
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
The title is really important, but is a story that takes place at Christmas enough to make the story Christian?
Why Did Dickens Name His Book “A Christmas Carol?”
A “carol” is a religious song, and Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Christ’s Mass, or the Mass celebrating the Nativity (birth) of Christ, is where the word “Christmas” comes from in English.
The title itself is the first indication that this isn’t just a story with a happy ending; it’s an intentionally religious story.
So other than the title and the setting of Christmas Eve, how is the story about Scrooge a Christian story?
Charles Dickens wrote his stories in a Christian context, even though he didn’t spend much of the story showing his characters practicing their religion. (Click here to read my previous post on "A Christmas Carol" and why Dickens wrote a ghost story for Christmas)
There is a brief mention of Bob and Tiny Tim Cratchit going to church, and of course the bells ringing, but other than that the story doesn’t take place in a church, rectory, or other obviously Christian religious setting.
Scrooge’s Nephew Fred
In a lot of the movies and retellings, Fred’s character is usually downplayed. He’s portrayed as just a really nice guy.
Not in Dickens’s version!
Fred is the character who constantly reminds his Uncle Scrooge about the real reason for the season.
When we first meet him at the very beginning of the story, and Scrooge is grumbling, Fred reminds his uncle about the real reason for the season:
There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, returned the nephew; Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
Fred doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about his care for his uncle despite Scrooge’s constant rejection of him.
He even tells his friends that he will always invite his uncle. No matter how awful Scrooge is, Fred won’t give up on him, and that’s because of Fred’s great charity.
His charity towards others is almost perfect; no matter how badly his uncle treats him, he refuses to respond in kind and instead maintains his love of the “reason for the season” and his love for his uncle despite knowing Scrooge as he really is.
This is why he responds the way he does after he finally accepts his uncle’s refusal to join him for Christmas:
I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I'll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!
There should be at least one character that shows some aspect of Christ, and in this story, the most obvious one is Tiny Tim.
Tim is perfectly innocent and completely good
Everyone who meets him instantly sees his suffering
Everyone, including Scrooge, also immediately recognizes his goodness
His suffering isn’t caused by anything that he did
He was born to suffer and die through no fault of his own
Everyone who reads the story, or watches any of the many re-tellings of the story, falls in love with that character and grieves his loss when he dies.
Seriously, is there anyone who doesn’t cry at that point? In any version of the story???
Even Scrooge is distraught, and Tiny Tim’s death truly breaks Scrooge’s heart.
When Scrooge sees his grave, he can’t bear the thought that this innocent, loving boy has died through no fault of his own.
Added to that, is the knowledge that through his own actions, he had a hand in the death of Tiny Tim.
When Tiny Tim is alive at the end, it is the resurrection of Christ. It’s because of his suffering and death that Scrooge repents, and it’s through his encounter with Tiny Tim that Scrooge is saved.
Just reading the story, we experience the same suffering at Tiny Tim’s death—which is why everyone cries!
What could we have done?
How could such an innocent child have been saved from his suffering and death?
This is the Moment of Transformation
That transformation isn’t just for Scrooge, it’s also for us:
We’ve gone through the story with Scrooge
We’ve seen his suffering, and some of the reasons for that suffering
We saw the consequences of his choices, and his sorrow and regret when he saw them
At the End
Scrooge is a caricature, and the actions he took and choices he made were exaggerated, but how often do we make those same choices?
Did you just see Scrooge, or did you also see yourself?
We make those same choices on a smaller scale, which is partly why the story resonates with people in every time and culture.
This is why it’s also about our salvation, not just Scrooge’s
In the end, we share the same desire to repent and change our ways that Scrooge does—we’re even rooting for him!
This is symbolic of the process of redemption: we’re confronted with the truth so that we can see our sins and some of their effects in the hope that we will repent and receive salvation.
God isn’t a character in the story because Dickens wrote it as an allegory for salvation, so Scrooge’s choice is that of virtue over vice. Christ opened the gates of heaven and offers salvation to everyone, but we have to choose it freely. He doesn’t force us to be with Him in heaven, and we know that the souls in hell are there culpably—no one ends up in hell by accident. This is the choice given to Scrooge and to each of us.
And this is why Dickens ends the story about the salvation of Ebeneezer Scrooge the way he does:
It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Delve deeper into this Christian story in the course:
Quotes in this post are taken from the original version of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and are in the public domain in the US.