A Christmas Carol Historical and Social Context
by Charles Dickens

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

“A Christmas Carol” is deeply rooted in the important nineteenth-century question of how Christian morality would survive in the face of an increasingly utilitarian and capitalistic world brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The financial success that Scrooge enjoyed is precisely the goal of capitalism, but a fixation on the accumulation of wealth seduced Scrooge into seeing every aspect of life in such terms. Not only Christmas, but his fiancé, his dying friend and business partner, his reputation, his office staff, and his only living family member are all weighed against their financial cost and found unworthy. The costs of such selfishness and bitterness are not borne by Scrooge alone, however. Dickens’s portrayal of the social costs—prisons, workhouses, increased mortality, the creation of ghettos and slums, the miserable state of both wealthy and poor alike—clearly makes a case for morality and social justice on a larger scale.

On the other hand, the solution to social injustice in “A Christmas Carol” is not a social movement but individual redemption. The world becomes a better place almost immediately following Scrooge’s conversion. In fact, the story implies that a renewed connection to humanity is, in fact, the very essence of redemption. Though the Christmas setting invites a traditional Christian interpretation of Scrooge’s redemption, his change is rooted not in a commitment to deeper spirituality or orthodoxy but in an authentic connection to and investment in the lives of other human beings. This “conversion” is not introspective and personal; it is outward-looking and social. While the results seem to change nothing about the social structure itself, the compassion shown by individual people changes the social relationships they share.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Victorian Christmas

At the time when Dickens was writing, the Christmas tradition was not nearly as important as it is today. Celebrating Christmas started in the fourth century, incorporating many of the symbols, such as holly and wreaths, of pagan holidays, such as the Roman Saturnalia and the Saxon Yule holiday. The date of December 25th was borrowed from pagan cultures—it was the date of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.

For centuries Christmas grew in importance slowly, but treating it as a celebration was looked upon suspiciously because of its pagan origins and because it made a festive celebration out of one of the most solemn days on the Christian calendar, the birth of Jesus. During the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century that sought to turn the church away from worldly and materialistic concerns, celebrating Christmas was actually outlawed for a short time. Yet it wasn't long before the symbolic, festive aspects of the holiday started showing up again as people carried on the traditions they had been taught.

During the reign of Queen Victoria in England, the Christmas tradition gained popularity. One reason for this was that the monarchy supported it: Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, brought the German tradition of decorating the Christmas tree when he came to England. Another reason was economic, as the Industrial Revolution was creating a population shift from rural areas to cities, where new manufacturing techniques required workers. This growing urban population found comfort in the Christmas traditions. As the city became more crowded and dirty, the citizens looked forward to celebrations, especially Christmas.

Urban Life

In the mid-nineteenth century, London was a crowded, dirty place, a fact that no one did more to publicize than Dickens himself. Industries were not regulated, and widespread pollution and exploitation of the work force resulted. Laborers, many of them children, were required to work fourteen-hour days in order to help their families pay bills; if a family was unable to make ends meet, they might end up in Debtor's Prison—as Dickens'...

(The entire section is 1,141 words.)