Prior to the time that Charles Dickens wrote and published his novella A Christmas Carol, in 1843, the celebration of Christmas itself had been on the decline in England. Only recently had there been renewed interest in the holiday, prompted in part by what was to become the tradition of the Christmas tree, which Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, brought to England from his native Germany in 1841.
Elements of a Victorian Christmas found in A Christmas Carol include caroling—which Ebenezer Scrooge apparently detests—family get-togethers, partying, games, and the Christmas dinner.
The Cratchit's Christmas dinner contains all the elements of a Victorian Christmas dinner, including the goose and the much-anticipated Christmas pudding.
Chicken and turkey were expensive during the early part of Victoria's reign, so for all but the upper classes the Christmas dinner had roast beef in northern England and goose in southern England, particularly in London, where A Christmas Carol is set. Poorer people had to settle for rabbit.
Most Victorian families didn't have an oven in their home, so the goose was cooked in the oven at the local baker's shop.
And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker’s they had smelt the goose, and known it for their own; and basking in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion, these young Cratchits danced about the table ...
Master Peter, and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession. (stave 3)
It's noteworthy that after Scrooge undergoes his transformation near the end of A Christmas Carol, he has the expensive "prize turkey" delivered to the Cratchits for their Christmas dinner.
Christmas dinner was not complete without a Christmas pudding, usually made from flour, bread crumbs, raising, currants, suet (animal fat), eggs, milk, candied orange peel, and spices. The ingredients were formed together in a ball, wrapped in cloth, and boiled for several hours.
Scrooge had something to say about the Christmas pudding very early in stave 1.
"If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” (stave 1)
The Cratchits had a considerably more positive attitude toward their Christmas pudding.
But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone—too nervous to bear witnesses—to take the pudding up and bring it in. ...
In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said. (stave 3)
In addition to portraying the happier side of a Victorian life, Dickens also severely criticizes what he considered the failings of Victorian society, including class distinctions, the Poor Laws and debtors' prisons, poverty, child labor, and the lack of education, particularly in the lower classes of English society.
In stave 1, two "portly gentleman" appeal to Scrooge to make a donation to a fund for the poorer people of London.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.” (stave 1)
In stave 3, Scrooge notices something protruding from underneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. (stave 3)
The Ghost of Christmas Present brings the lesson home to Scrooge.
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?” (stave 3)