Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol turns 175 years old this year. And over the course of its long life, it has become so iconic — so often parodied and adapted and mimicked and quoted — that even if you’ve never read the book, you probably know exactly what it’s about.
You know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the bah-humbug-shouting miser who despises Christmas, charity, the poor, and everything besides his own money. You know how he’s visited first by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his dead business partner, and then by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future; how, as a result, he learns to love and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.
And you know about Scrooge’s virtuous employee, Bob Cratchit, who asks nothing of Scrooge but to take Christmas Day off, and about his virtuous son, Tiny Tim.
Part of what makes A Christmas Carol so beloved is its morality, and the way, as Current State contributor Scott Southard put it, “Scrooge remembers his lost humanity … [and] learns to see it in others.” But the other thing that makes A Christmas Carol so enduring and so compelling even now is the force of its aesthetic contrasts.
A Christmas Carol is a true ghost story, and its ghosts are genuinely creepy. Yet it is also deeply invested in coziness, and familial warmth and love and generosity, to the point of self-parodying sentimentality. The rapid switch between these two aesthetic modes is what makes the book work.
So as it begins, we get passages like this one, where Scrooge is first visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past:
“The hour itself,” said Scrooge, triumphantly, “and nothing else!”
He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy ONE. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of his bed were drawn.
The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.
Let’s be clear: This is straight-up nightmare fuel. There’s the flash of light; the hollow sounding of the bell; the hand on Scrooge’s bed curtain that appears in the passage before the rest of the body, so that in the reader’s head it becomes a disembodied hand — and, most horrible of all, there’s the narrator off-handedly informing we readers that he is standing at our elbows but we can’t see him. What the fuck? That’s terrifying.
But as the book progresses, it moves away from the eeriness of the ghosts to the cheery coziness of an ideal Victorian family Christmas. And that coziness reaches its most iconic and oft-quoted peak at the Cratchit family’s holiday dinner:
Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!
Dickens is rarely more comforting than he is when he is describing piles upon piles of food. Here, the sensual pleasure of the food descriptions is matched by the warmth of the image of the Cratchits working seamlessly together to get their dinner served: the oldest children cooking the side dishes, the younger children setting the table and trying not to yell, Mr. Cratchit looking after angelic Tiny Tim, and Mrs. Cratchit overseeing goose and gravy. And of course, Dickens being Dickens — and as such unable to resist throwing in a pathetic child at any opportunity — there’s the touch of sentimentality in Tiny Tim’s feeble cheer. (The character, to be fair, probably read as slightly less sentimental in a time of widespread child labor.)
The warmth of the Cratchit family dinner is all the stronger compared to the eeriness of the Ghosts’ arrival — and the Ghosts are all the creepier for appearing in such cozy, comforting surroundings. And the dizzying turns from terror to comfort are what gives A Christmas Carol so much emotional power, and ultimately make its iconic ending all the more cathartic.
Why, ‘tis (almost) Christmas Day. God bless us, every one.