A Christmas Carol

December 20, 2022
Macabre History

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Let’s talk about Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” - the OG holiday ghost story that brings together two great tastes that taste great together - hauntings and shit-talking rich people. 

I recently watched the FX’s 2019 iteration of the story. I can’t recommend this miniseries enough - it’s dark, grim, and fantastical. This version puts the GHOST back into “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” (the original full title). The visual aesthetic matches the original literary descriptions of industrial age urban England - ratty, dirty, smoky, dark. You’re cold just watching it. Scrooge gets a traumatic backstory, Tiny Tim is a bizarre looking child with the cloud of death over him, the ghosts are epic and terrifying. Dickens’ tales take on the morality of the period they’re read in, and this version has a distinct veneer of the evils of late stage capitalism to it. It’s on Hulu and Netflix now so GO WATCH IT. 

Since you probably haven’t read the actual book in a long time, I did that for you, and now we are going to have a Christmas Book Club - HAUNTED EDITION. Bah humbug, hoes!

THE GHOSTS

First and foremost, A Christmas Carol is a fucking GHOST STORY!! Ebenezer Scrooge is haunted by the ghosts of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Yes, of course the ghosts are allegories for Ebenezer’s life and fate, but they’re also depicted with delightful creepiness and are absolutely worthy of the best Gothic fiction.

The book sets a grim tone from the state. It’s full of death references - things are described as being “sepulchral,” there is a “mournful dirge” in the air. The language of the grave is everywhere - from shroud like fabrics to a staircase wide enough to drive a hearse up. Scrooge’s house - where the hauntings take place - is dark and claustrophobic. It’s a drafty old mansion full of strangers who let rooms as offices. Only Scrooge sleeps there, with his miserable gruel and tiny fire. After all, “darkness is cheap.” 

An etched illustration of Scrooge in his nightclothes being startled by the pale ghost of Marley, who is wrapped in chains attached to padlocks and large books
Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Fred Barnard, 1878)

Scrooge first sees the ghosts as a kind of hallucination. He thinks his mind is playing tricks on him. He thinks he sees Marley’s face in his door knocker, and he searches his dark room looking for anything that could be waiting for him. He checks under the bed and in the closet, like a child, before settling in for the appearance of Marley’s ghost. 

Jacob Marley appears as a lifelike apparition covered in chains made of the instruments of commerce. He clanks them all around like a real ghost! How do I know that ENGLISH GHOSTS CLANK CHAINS?? Because Scrooge himself remarks that he remembers that ghosts must carry chains, but Marley’s are made of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds and heavy purses.” Is the imagery a little overwrought? Sure. Does it get the point across? YEAH DUDE. 

Marley appears like he’s straight out of the grave. He wears a kerchief around his head - maybe you remember this from some of the popular productions. The wrap is an old fashioned way of holding the jaw closed in death. It’s like, corpse wear. And when he takes it off to talk HIS FUCKING JAW FALLS DOWN AND HANGS OFF!!! THIS IS IN THE BOOK!!!  I don’t remember the Goofy interpretation doing this. Later he ties it back on with a loud CLACKING OF THE TEETH. Just like a real dead boy. 

Marley bids Scrooge to look out the window at the world full of ghosts. They’re seen to be flying all over outside the house, like the scene in Ghostbusters when the city shuts down the containment unit, or the Graveyard Scene in the Haunted Mansion. Why am I obsessed with Disney today? Because Mickey’s Christmas Carol is canon for Generation X. Also because Disney is sly as hell with these things.  They knew goddamn good and well what that kerchief was for and put it on Goofy anyway. 

The next ghosts that visit are all different. The Ghost of Christmas Past has beams of light coming from its head and a gentle demeanor, like an angel.  The Ghost of Christmas Present gives off big Pere Noel energy - he’s kind of pagan, full of nature and bounty, and he’s also the most closely associated with religion. There’s a dark side to this one, though.  He carries with him the twin specters of Ignorance and Want, who are depicted as yellow, starving, wolfish children hiding under his coat. Seriously - imagine Santa appearing to you in a dream as the Spirit of Christmas Present, showing you the error of your ways, and then slowly unveiling the shriveled ghost demon children under his coat.  The Ghost of Christmas Future, also called “The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” is a classic grim reaper figure, dark and silent and gliding through the night, pointing out the tragedies to come with a bony finger and a grim consternation. 

Dickens wasn’t the first to introduce ghosts at Christmastime - the English have a long tradition of telling these stories during the holidays. His ghosts, however, serve a moral purpose. As Colin Dickey writes, “Dickens’ genius was to wed the gothic with the sentimental, using stories of ghosts and goblins to reaffirm basic bourgeois values; as the tradition evolved, however, other writers were less wedded to this social vision, preferring the simply scary. In Henry James’s famous gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw, the frame story involves a group of men sitting around the fire telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve—setting off a story of pure terror, without any pretension to charity or sentimentality.” 

The ghosts are not the only gothic parts of  this book!!! There are two horrifying, instructive death scenes to fill it out. First, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his death and it IS NOT GOOD. His servants and neighbors hate him so much that they bring his shit to a pawnshop on the bad side of town to sell it. The location is pure horror - all dark alleys, cesspools, crime, filth, and misery. Inside the pawnbrokers home are piles of crap, greasy offal, and old rags - “secrets that few would like to scrutinize were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags and masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchers of bones.” DAMN. 

Scrooge’s maid steals the bedcovers and curtains off his bed to sell, leaving his body in an old shirt under a sheet on a bare bed. She takes his best shirt to sell, lest they bury him in. So deep is her scorn and hatred for this man that she takes every element of dignity from him that she can, and sells it to a greasy fence in the London underworld. 

Second, there is the Tiny Tim death - a macabre spectacle couched in bizarre religious overtones that I’m sorry, you just love to see. Christmas Future draws Scrooge into the shabby BUT LOVING home of the Cratchit family, where they are wrecked with mourning over the loss of their youngest. His little crutch is propped up in the corner like a relic. Tiny Tim’s tiny body is laid out in his parents bedroom, which was “lighted cheerfully and hung with Christmas.” Can you just imagine him popping up from his little cooling board for one last “God Bless us, everyone!” I could write a whole dissertation on Tiny Tim as a Christ figure  but I’ll go ahead and spare everyone. The real image I want you to take away from this is a DEAD CHILD AMONG THE CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS. Did this teach Scrooge a lesson? You bet your ass it did! Talk about bourgeois values!

Dickens gets some great jokes in, too. When fundraisers show up at Scrooge’s door, he tells them that the poor would rather be dead than go to a workhouse, then they “had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” - which is fucking COLD but also do you know about the eugenics movement that is about to start? When Ghost of Christmas Present shows a frail Tiny Tim, Scrooge begs him to spare the boy, and the Spirit replies “What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” BURN. 

THE POLITICS 

Dickens was a very popular writer, and he is probably best known for his social commentary. He was a reformer; he wanted to make Britain a better place, and he wanted to do it through stories. He’s known for his wit, his accessible prose, and his memorable characters. Rather than lecture people about treating the poor with dignity, he preferred to inspire empathy through relatable characters and stories with exciting plots that exposed the problems of Victorian society. Personally, I like a mix of yelling, jokes, AND lectures. 

Like Dickens’ other works, A Christmas Carol was written as a work of social commentary, or a morality tale. “Dickens had a lifelong devotion to helping the underserved due to his own family’s experiences with debtors prison, which forced him to drop out of school as a boy and work at a factory. As Dickens’ biographer Michael Slater described, the author thought of A Christmas Carol as a way to ‘help open the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless.’"

An etching of a courtyard at Marhsalsea prison - two figures sit on the stone yard near some washing hung to dry. The overall impression is bleak.
Courtyard of the second Marshalsea prison, London

Dickens knew what he was talking about. As a poor child, he endured England’s brutal workhouse system. His father was a clerk who tried to improve his station but was bad with money and got into debt. As a result, he was sentenced to a debtors’ prison. The whole family had to move into the prison with him, save for Charles, who worked at a factory to try to pay down the debt. He was only 12 years old. 

Dickens’ family was caught in a trap. The father couldn’t work in the prison, and his child could never make enough money at a boot blacking factory to pay the debt off. They were saved by an inheritance, which Dickens knew to be luck. Experiencing the inhumanity of the Victorian Poor Laws firsthand made him a social crusader. He used his books to generate empathy for the poor and marginalized.

He was so good at this that his name is now an adjective used to describe the byzantine and cruel social conditions of the Victorian era - Dickensian. At the time of Dickens’ writing, the Industrial Revolution was underway in England. People were moving from the countryside to the city to work in factories. Their cheap labor drove an economic boom, but it also created an underclass that lived in grimy poverty. Cities were full of filthy, crowded slums. Disease ran rampant, pollution filled the air. This side of London makes itself known in the novel through crowded housing, dark streets and alleys, and the filthy hovel of the pawnbroker. 

Despite the conditions, poor folks were better off if they had a dangerous, low paying factory job - otherwise they’d be thrown into the workhouse. The 1834 Poor Law mandated that anyone living on the street be forced into a workhouse, which was essentially a prison for the poor. Upon being sentenced there, families were separated and their belongings sold off. They lived in crowded, disease ridden dormitories where they were not allowed to talk, and forced to labor at useless tasks in order to redeem themselves. The people in workhouses were so despised, so abused, that their bodies were the first to be offered to anatomists after those of prisoners. This is the shit Dickens wanted to end. 

NOW - Compare this to today’s DICKENS FAIRS, which are multi-day costume filled extravaganzas of Victorian “tradition.” This is the Ren Faire for people who are into chimney sweeps. It’s a place to eat chestnuts, drink eggnog, and shop for handcrafted ornaments while wearing a hoop skirt and a top hat. I was going to talk some shit about how the DIRTY SMOG, RICKETS RIDDEN CHILDREN, AND VIOLENT FACTORY DEATHS are missing but then I looked at the photos for the one in SF and - THEY’RE ON IT! They have dust covered miners drinking beer, a man emerging from a coffin, devious looking swindlers and what appear to be prostitutes???? BRB I’m going to the Cow Palace!

ARE THERE NO PRISONS?

Dickens’ works are timeless, and people tend to project their own values onto the morality lesson depending on when it’s being read. “The Victorians read it as a retelling of the Biblical Christmas story, focusing on Scrooge’s pilgrimage. The Edwardians recast A Christmas Carol as a children’s story. It was only in the 1930s, following the Wall Street Crash, that Dickens’ text was adopted as a critique of the dangers of capitalism, a historically situated interpretation that survives today.”

One of the most famous lines in A Christmas Carol happens when Scrooge is asked to donate money to the poor. “Why?” He retorts, “Are there no prisons?” As in - fuck the poors! Send them to the workhouse! Why should I pay any more to help them! 

Luckily, this attitude has evolved - HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAAAA NO. NO, WE STILL SAY THIS SHIT.  People think San Francisco is  positively Dickensian, darling -  Fox News and local centrists alike. How many memes have you seen about sidewalk poop, open air drug markets, and tents? I would link to a Google search but it would probably break the fucking internet at this point. The city has one of the largest wealth gaps in the nation and the most expensive housing market. We also have a large and visible homeless population, which a lot of people want to just put away.

We want drug users arrested, tents confiscated, and mentally ill folks confined against their will. We passed a law that bans people from SITTING DOWN ON THE SIDEWALK and install bars on benches to keep people from lying down on them. And it’s more than that - the labyrinth of bureaucracy that people in crisis need to navigate to get help is itself Dickensian. The shelters are regularly described as dangerous and draconian, and we wonder why people don’t use them. 

A few years ago I took my kids to see the local production of “A Christmas Carol.” When we left the theater - on the edge of the Tenderloin - there were lots of people panhandling outside. One of the kids in our group said “Why aren’t we giving them any money? Wasn’t that the whole point of the play?” and as adults, we had no response. We were not prepared for this harsh a read by a 4th grader. 

Why don’t we give panhandlers money? Well, we try to support local organizations like foodbanks and shelters, we don’t want to encourage begging, we don’t want people to spend it on drugs, the list goes on. In reality, we’re all suffering from compassion fatigue - we’re sick of seeing it on the streets all the time. We’re over it. After all, are there no shelters? No rehabs? No soup kitchens? 

It turns out, A Christmas Carol holds up, even 170 years after publication. We see what we need to Scrooge and his journey to compassion. It’s Christmas - go read some ghost stories and give some money away, babes. 

Court

Ghostess with the Mostess

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