Skip to content

180th anniversary of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

  • Home
  • Posts
  • 180th anniversary of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Authored by Laura Wales
Published on 19th December, 2023 9 min read

180th anniversary of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Today (19/12/23) marks 180 years since the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The novella, officially titled A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, is composed of five chapters, known as staves, that recount the transformative tale of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Scrooge, an elderly miser who is “as solitary as an oyster”, is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, on Christmas Eve.[1] Marley tells Scrooge that he will receive three further supernatural visitations from the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Condemned to wander the earth weighed down by the chains of sin that he “forged in life”, Marley’s ghost cautions Scrooge to heed the warnings of these spirits in the hope of sparing him from the same fate. [2]

It is worth reflecting — briefly — on why Marley’s ghost truly scares Scrooge and, indeed, struck fear into the novella’s Victorian readership. It could be argued that what people really dreaded was Purgatory actually being a reality, and that a good many of them might just end up there. A Roman Catholic doctrine that emerged during the Middle Ages, Purgatory is held to be the place or state of suffering inhabited by souls who are expiating their sins before proceeding to heaven.[3] It has tended to be envisioned as a sort of grim, transcendental prison. It would seem, going by A Christmas Carol, that the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent hegemony of evangelical Protestantism, especially in Britain, never fully succeeded in vanquishing the fear of Purgatory within the Protestant imagination. Despite having been an observant Christian who subscribed to a zealous work ethic, Marley hasn't simply got into Heaven. He appears, rather, to be serving his time, in chains, in an intermediary place, precisely the spiritual state of affairs that Protestantism claimed did not exist. Thus, Dickens cleverly played upon the deep-seated, spiritual doubts and fears of his contemporary readership. The visions generated by the spirits fill Scrooge with regret, and “with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character”, he reevaluates his avaricious ways and begins atoning for his sins in this life, as opposed to in the next. He therefore becomes a kinder, more compassionate man. [4]

A Christmas Carol has never been out of print since its publication in 1843. The novella has also been adapted for countless stage and screen productions. Its annual return to our screens and shelves has become something of a Christmas ritual. The Carol captures the zeitgeist of Christmas in the early Victorian period, depicting many of evolving traditions, such as carols, seasonal food and drink, and festive games.The story has become so ingrained within British culture that few are not familiar with the tale of Scrooge’s redemption. His name has even become synonymous with the word “miser” in our dictionaries and daily vocabulary. What is perhaps lesser known about Dickens’s Christmas classic, however, is that it was intended as a critique of attitudes towards wealth and poverty in Victorian Britain.

The dominant attitude in the Victorian period was that the poor were a problem that had to be dealt with: that they were to blame for their circumstances. Society did not see them as individuals who needed help. If they could not provide for themselves, they would be directed to the workhouse system. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge describes the poor as “the surplus population”, a widely used phrase coined by the influential cleric and economist, Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), to describe those deemed a burden to society.[5] Dickens disagreed with this view and sought to reform attitudes towards the poor.

Arlene Bowers Andrews, a Professor of Social Work, has argued that Dickens’s “sensitivity to the plight of the poor and working people can be attributed in part to the fragility of his childhood social and economic status”.[6] Dickens was born in 1812 to a middle-class family and attended school until the age of 12 when his father, John Dickens, was incarcerated in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Here, the inmates were forced to pay for their own board while trying to find the money to pay off their debts — the presentation of Marley’s spirit paying the price for the chains of sin that “he forged in life” might just be traced back to this phase of Dickens’s biography. Charles’s parents and his four youngest siblings ultimately went to prison. This meant that Charles was forced to leave school and become the breadwinner of the family. He began working long hours at Warren's Blacking Warehouse. There, he experienced the harsh manual labour and working conditions endured by many. The family were released from prison after a few months when Charles’s paternal grandmother died. She left a small inheritance which covered the debt. This allowed Charles to return to school and to reassume a relatively middle-class lifestyle. Yet his taste of factory life left a lasting impression upon him. It influenced his writing and his associated drive for social reform.

In 1842, Dickens visited America. He spent a month giving lectures in New York City and was shocked to discover that, due to a lack of copyright laws, his work had been pirated and was being sold without royalties across the US. He entered a legal battle, supported by a group of 25 writers, which he eventually lost. Embittered by this experience and in need of a distraction, he returned to England. In 1843 he accepted an invitation to deliver a fundraising lecture for a philanthropic organisation at the Manchester Athenaeum. In his speech, Dickens urged employers and workers to unite to combat ignorance with educational reform. According to the literary critic, William Wrigg, upon observing crowds of the working poor, Dickens:

“was seized with pangs of remorse for having allowed his selfish financial problems to so embitter him. At that moment he knew he must capture the wholesome spirit of good will which he perceived before him and place it in contrast to the rancor he had been experiencing for the past several months. Christmas, his favorite season, was fast approaching; he would weave the theme racing through his mind into a story of Christmas”.[7]

Six weeks later, A Christmas Carol was complete. Initially intending to publish a political pamphlet titled An Appeal on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child, Dickens decided that implanting his message in a festive story would ensure that it reached a wider audience. He used the text to confront the problems of “Want and Ignorance” that pervaded Victorian society, personifying them as two “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous” children.[8] When the children are revealed to Scrooge by the spirit, he is filled with horror and realises the consequences of his ways.[9]

It is easy to identify the origins of Scrooge’s redemption narrative in Dickens’s own biography. Dickens had become embroiled in his own financial predicament and the injustice of having his work stolen. It was only when he looked upon the working people of Manchester that he was reminded of their suffering. He realised how ignorant he had been with regard to the wider injustices of society. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to draw attention to the poverty and hardship experienced by so many working people. He wanted the book to “awaken the reader’s conscience”, in the same way that the spirits provoke Scrooge’s transformation.[10]

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea”, as Dickens declared in the preface to the novella.[11] In a time where the cost of living continues to soar, and an increasing number of individuals rely on the support of foodbanks and charitable organisations, Dickens’s “Ghost of an Idea” continues to haunt us.[12]


[1] Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” in A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings, ed. Michael Slater (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2010), 34.

[2] Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” 47.

[3] See Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (London: Scolar Press, 1984).

[4] Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” 59.

[5] Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” 39; Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 [1798]).

[6] Arlene Bowers Andrews, “Charles Dickens, Social Worker in His Time,” Social Work 57, no. 4 (2012), 298.

[7] William Wrigg, “Dickens' Message of Christmas,” The English Journal 48, no. 9 (1959), 538.

[8] Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” 92.

[9] Arthur P. Patterson, “Sponging the Stone: Transformation In "A Christmas Carol," Dickens Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1994), 172.

[10] Andrews, “Charles Dickens, Social Worker in His Time,” 299.

[11] Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” 29.

[12] Robyn Vinter, “A Christmas Carol is not cosy, and its angry message should still haunt us,” The Guardian, 2021, accessed 28 November 2023, available at 

Authored by Laura Wales

Laura Wales

Laura Wales is a Marketing and Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives. She is an English Literature graduate from Durham University. She has a particular interest in the history of the First World War, along with the legacies of historical literature in contemporary writing.

Share this article

Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

Get Social

Back to Top