Dickens and the Gospels

-- A Christmas Carol--

Keiichiro Ihara

A Christmas Carol, a little book in a crimson-and-gold binding with some colored illustrations by John Leech, was published on 17 December 1843 by Chapman & Hall. As Philip Collins notes, the Carol started "a new publishing genre" -- publishing a book suitable for Christmas at Christmas time.1 The book was, said Dickens in his letter, "a most prodigious success -- the greatest, I think, I have ever achieved."2 So he continued to write books of the same kind near Christmas until 1849 (except 1847).3

'A Christmas carol' is "A song or hymn of joy sung at Christmas in celebration of the Nativity." (OED, 'carol,' 2) The title, A Christmas Carol, suggests that the book is to celebrate the Nativity of Christ and eulogize the spirit of Christmas. As Dennis Walder points out4, 'A Christmas Tree,' an article that appeared in the first Extra Christmas Number of Household Words (1850), indicates what the sounds of Christmas carols once meant to Dickens:

What images do I associate with the Christmas music as I see them set forth on the Christmas Tree? Known before all the others, keeping far apart from all the others, they gather round my little bed. An angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travellers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure, with a mild and beautiful face, missing a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the water to a ship; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children round; again, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, health to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do.' (292)
Christmas carols had an important meaning to Dickens, because they taught him the deeds and lessons of Christ in his childhood before he read the Bible. My supposition is that the Carol was written under the great influence of the Gospels, and the aim of this paper is to examine the connection between the Carol and the lessons of Christ.


Scrooge visits the country where he spent his childhood, taken there by the Ghost of Christmas Past:

"Good Heaven!" said Scrooge, clapping his hands together, as he looked about him. "I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!" The Spirit gazed him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man's sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!' "Your lip is trembling," said the Ghost. "And what is that upon your cheek?" Scrooge muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would. (70)
Seeing the landscape of the past once familiar to him, he all at once remembers thoughts and feelings of his childhood and weeps.5 Remembering the past is the first step in his conversion. Then the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a vision of his solitary former self "intent upon his reading" when left alone at school, neglected by his friends; he sees:
Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading an ass laden with wood by the bridle. "Why, it's Ali Baba!" Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. "It's dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! And Valentine," said Scrooge, "and his wild brother, Orson; there they go! And what's his name, who was put down in his drawers, asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don't you see him! And the Sultan's Groom turned upside-down by the Genii; there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I'm glad of it. What business had he to be married to the Princess!" To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed. (72)
Scrooge is beside himself with joy to see the images of Ali Baba and other characters from The Arabian Nights, Valentine and Orson, and Robinson Crusoe (72-3) which he enjoyed reading when he was a boy. As Deborah Thomas comments, "This vision of long-forgotten childhood reading and Scrooge's emotional involvement with the vision mark an important stage in his movement away from utilitarian practicality."6 He has entirely recovered his former self as a child at this point and he maintains that self. For example, he acts "like a man out of his wits' at his master Fezziwig's ball at Christmas -- "He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation" (78); he falls into raptures over the forfeits at his nephew's Christmas party to such an extent that he begs the Ghost of Christmas Present "like a boy to be allowed to stay until the guests departed" (106); and in the last Stave he says in ecstasy:
"I don't know what day of the month it is! . . . I don't know how long I've been among the Spirits. I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!" (128)
When he has recovered the spirit of childhood by seeing all the visions shown by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge's conversion is almost complete, for he says "submissively" to the Ghost of Christmas Present:
"Spirit . . . conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it." (87)
In other words, Scrooge had to remember his childhood to change his heart and character.

What is the characteristic nature of a child? In David Copperfield (1850) there is the following passage:

This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go farther back into such times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect, may with greater propriety be said not to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood.7
Children have the "freshness," the "gentleness," and the "capacity of being pleased" by nature. These three qualities coincide with what Scrooge recovers by seeing the visions of past. For example, we find them in his following behaviour in the last Stave:
He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the bead, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchen of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk - that anything - could give him so much happiness. (131)
In the Carol, not only gentleness but also a sense of play and laughter is given great importance, because these qualities cannot be considered separately.8 This is illustrated in Fezziwig's dance hall scene (76-8); in the blind-man's buff and the forfeits (love one's love, How, When, and Where, Yes and No) scene at Scrooge's nephew's Christmas party (104-6); in the mentioning of Scrooge's clerk, Bob Cratchit's going down "a slide on Cornhill" and running home "to play at blindman's buff" (53); and, in the description of the Scrooge's nephew's laugh:
When Scrooge's nephew laughed in this way: holding his sides, rolling, his head, and twisting his face into the most extravagant contortions: Scrooge's niece, by marriage, laughed as heartily as he. And their assembled friends being not a bit behindhand, roared out lustily. "Ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha!" (102)
There is the following comment concerning playing at Christmas: " . . . it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself" (104). As Scrooge restores his gentleness and a sense of play simultaneously by returning to his childhood, so people do recover their gentleness by playing at Christmas.

As the narrator's commentary cited above indicates, to become like children is related to the lessons of Christ. Quoting a passage from Matthew, Walder says, "'Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven' (18: 3); the saved Scrooge almost literally follows this injunction, becoming 'as merry as a school-boy,' and frisking about his chambers, crying, 'I'm quite a baby.'"9 As Walder indicates here, converted Scrooge believes in God as innocently as little children do.


Why did Scrooge lose the spirit of childhood in the past? His fiancee's words suggest the reason. She says gently to Scrooge:

"You fear the world too much. . . . All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain engrosses you. Have I not?" (79)
The world oppresses the poor; under this notion Scrooge is obsessed by money little by little until at last, as his fiancee says, money becomes his "Idol" (78). The connection between Scrooge's attitude toward money and the lessons of Christ is to be found at this point. What Christ thinks about money is shown in Matthew, chapter 6:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (19-24)
People "cannot serve God and mammon"; Scrooge can see nothing but money. Moreover, Christ says that "The light of the body is the eye." It should be noticed that the first intimation that Scrooge has lost his childlike gentleness is shown by the change of his eyes: "There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall" (79). Scrooge's eyes are obscured because of his passion for money. "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"; this is just what we observe in Scrooge's behaviour in Stave one, where he is described as follows:
. . . he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait. . . .(46)
Scrooge, who has regained his "single" eyes, clearly sees his errors of the past, and imploringly says thus:
"Spirit show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?" "One shadow more!" exclaimed the Ghost. "No more!" cried Scrooge. "No more. I don't wish to see it. Show me no more!" (81)
In reply to his fiancee's words that he is changed, Scrooge retorts bitterly, "I was a boy." (80) He is quite right, for he has lost the virtues which he had as a child.


In Scrooge's visions of the future, Peter Cratchit reads the Bible aloud: "And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them" (20). But remembering his deceased brother, Tiny Tim, he cannot read any more. What Peter reads is a passage from Matthew, chapter 18; verses 1-7 of which follow:

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verity I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hunged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
There is no doubt that Dickens had these words of Christ in mind in writing about Tiny Tim. For example, when Tiny Tim and his father Bob Cratchit come back from church at Christmas, Bob says to his wife:
". . . He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see."10 (94)
Tiny Tim, who humbles himself and innocently believes in the name of Christ, is just like the child Christ showed in front of the disciples. There is another example. In Scrooge's future visions, Bob, who has come back from a churchyard, tells his family how green a place it was, but cannot hold back his tears and leaves the room by himself:
. . . and went up stairs, into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself; he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy. (122)
"Christmas" is the picture of the Nativity of Christ, so "the child" here is the baby image of Christ. Dickens uses a vague expression here by design to make readers notice that Tiny Tim is akin to Christ for Bob and his family. As the narrator suggests that his childish essence is from God (123), Tiny Tim is a little messenger from God, and the sacred memories of him unite the Cratchits and lead them to happiness as the Gospel of Christ unites people and leads them to happiness. Bob says to his family:
". . . when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it." "No, never, father!" they all cried again. "I am very happy," said little Bob, "I am very happy!" Mrs. Cratchit kissed him, his daughters kissed him, the two young Cratchits kissed him, and Peter and himself shook hands. (123)
In a word, the Cratchits receive God by receiving Tiny Tim. It is just as Christ says, " . . . whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me."

If Tiny Tim's image teaches Scrooge anything, what does it teach him? This point is also related to Matthew 18. The sequel to the passage which I quoted above is thus:

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seekth that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish. (12-4)
Christ says here that to feel affection towards little, weak, or poor ones is the most important thing. However, in Stave One, to the gentlemen by whom he is asked for a contribution to the poor Scrooge says, "If [the Poor] would rather die . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population" (51). 'Surplus population' is a term in Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1803).11 In those days it meant that people who don't work have no right to eat and live -- that they are a burden on society as is noted in Scrooge's words, "I can't afford to make idle people merry" (51). In this category is the child, such as Tiny Tim, who is physically handicapped and not able to work in the future. When taken by the Ghost of Christmas Present to visit the Cratchits and see their Christmas dinner, Scrooge becomes interested in Tiny Tim and in the end feels affection towards him. Seeing the manner of Tim's father Bob, who is letting Tim sit very close to his side as if he dreads that he might be taken from him, Scrooge asks the Spirit whether Tim will die or not; in reply it says:
"If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race . . . will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." (97)
Scrooge realizes that he has been entirely wrong and repents of his errors. " . . . it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish." It is this lesson of Christ that Tiny Tim's image teaches Scrooge.

The Carol has another connection with Christ's lesson in Matthew 18. As Christ says in the quotation above, "Woe unto the world because of offences!" It is difficult for children to keep their sacredness in this sinful world. There are children who are made to fall. Dickens depicts them as follows:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked; and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread. (108)
The two children, "Ignorance" and "Want" who appear at the end of the Stave Two are the symbols of children in miserable, wretched circumstances. They believe in God no more. Scrooge asks the Spirit whether they have any refuge or resource. In reply it echoes Scrooge's earlier words; "'Are there no prisons? . . . Are there no workhouses?'" (109). Christ says, " . . . woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" Consequently the adults like Scrooge, who have neglected these children, are to blame.12

The last Stave starts with "YES," which shows 'affirmation.' A miracle occurs and Tiny Tim survives:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. (134)
Scrooge, who observes the miracle, believes in God as firmly as people in the Bible do. After the quotation above, the narrator adds:
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. (l34)
As I have illustrated above, Matthew 18 is the key, important chapter to the study of the connection between the Carol and the Gospels. It evidently shows the existence of Christ's words behind the Carol.


Scrooge's nephew talks of the spirit of Christmas. He says to Scrooge:

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, . . . Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on their journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" (49)
We can read here Dickens' view of Christmas. First, Christmas is at once a "charitable" and a "pleasant" time. The sense of clarity alone is difficult to maintain, whereas the pleasantness alone tends to degenerate into formalism. It is one of the distinguishing features of Dickens' view of Christmas that he connects them. Second, Christmas is a time when as a turning point men and women think of the poor and weak as their "fellow-passengers" to heaven. This attitude is founded on Christ's lesson. Dickens maintains its importance as well in Life of Our Lord (1933) written in 1846 for his own children:
Never be proud or unkind, my dears, to any poor man, woman, or child. If they are bad, think that they would have been better, if they had kind friends, and good homes, and had been better taught. So, always try to make them better by kind persuading words; and always try to teach them and relieve them if you can. And when people speak ill of the Poor and Miserable, think how Jesus Christ went among them and taught them, and thought them worthy of his care. And always pity them yourselves, and think as well of them as you can.13
In the preface to the first cheap edition of Christmas Books (1852) Dickens told his readers that his "chief purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land" (XXIX). For Dickens, Christmas was a time for the reconfirmation of Christ's lesson as well as a pleasant festivity. The first of the Christmas books has the meaning of such a time.


My quotations are from Penguin Classics edition of Christmas Books, Volume One, published in 1971 with Introduction and Notes by Michael Slater. The text is that of the first edition. My Biblical quotations are from The Authorized Version.

  1. Philip Collins, "'Carol Philosophy, Cheerful Views"', Etudes Anglaises, 23 (1970), 161-2.
  2. To W.C. MACREADY, January 3, 1844, The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Kathleen Tillotson (Pilgrim Edition, Oxford, 1977), IV, 12.
  3. They are The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, The Haunted Man; five Christmas books were collected as The Christmas Books, a volume in the 'Cheap Edition' (1852).
  4. Dennis Walder, Dickens and Religion (George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 122.
  5. The 'grip' which the past has is so strong; the figure of the Ghost of Christmas Past is, as Slater suggests, allegorical: "The arms were very long and muscular; the bands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength" (68).
  6. Deborah A. Thomas, 'Storybooks in a Workaday World', Dickens and the Short Story (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 39.
  7. David Copperfield, The Oxford Illustrated Dickens (1948), 13.
  8. Slater notes that a sketch entitled 'A Christmas Dinner' in Sketches by Boz "shows children and adults mingling on equal terms in their enjoyment of games and feasting," and in 'the good-humoured Christmas chapter' of Pickwick Papers, Mr. Pickwick and his friends "throw themselves into a round of games and feastings and story-tellings with all energy and innocent joy of childhood.' Introduction to the Penguin edition, VIII-X.
  9. Walder 122.
  10. See John 5:1-10, Mark 8: 22-6, and Matthew 15: 29-31.
  11. In the notes to the Carol Slater comments: "Malthus made it clear whom he regarded as 'surplus' when he wrote (p. 531): A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents, on whom be has a just demand, and if society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact, has no business to be where he is. . . ." (257)
  12. According to Kathleen Tillotson, Dickens was eager to publish "a very cheap pamphlet called An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man's Child" on reading the Second Report of the Commissioners with horrific details of child labour in factories (March 9, 1843); but, instead, he wrote the Carol. 'A Background for A Christmas Carol, Dickensian, 89 (1993), 166.
  13. Charles Dickens, The Life of Our Lord (Associated Newspaper LTD, 1934), 28.

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