A favorite of holidays past, present and yet to come

By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Book Editor
Published December 17, 2007

Charles Dickens was the great novelist of the Victorian age, author of such major works as David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.

But his best-known and best-loved work is a brief novel he dashed off in six weeks.

A Christmas Carol is an unlikely story: Stingy, misanthropic businessman Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and becomes the nicest guy in the world. But it struck a chord with readers that still reverberates, with versions of A Christmas Carol in every imaginable medium as popular now as a century and a half ago.


When A Christmas Carol was published, was it a bestseller?

Dickens, already the successful author of Oliver Twist and several other novels, published A Christmas Carol on Dec. 19, 1843. It was an instant hit, selling out its first edition of 6,000 copies in a week. Handsomely bound and illustrated by political cartoonist John Leech, it was priced at 5 shillings one-third of Bob Cratchit's weekly salary.

Was Scrooge's opinion that Christmas was humbug unusual in his day?

Not at all. In earlier centuries, the Protestant Reformation's Calvinist arm had actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas for a time. In Dickens' day, the Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell's regime, which denounced Christmas celebrations for their pagan origins and identification with Catholicism, still lingered in Britain. The Industrial Revolution also played a part - like Cratchit, the vast majority of 19th century workers did not get time off for holidays.

Cultural observers credit the enormous popularity of A Christmas Carol with helping to bring about the flowering of elaborate Victorian Christmas celebrations, which in turn led to many of our holiday traditions.


Why was Tiny Tim sick?

Dickens never said, but theories have included spinal tuberculosis or osteochondrosis, a type of bone disease. In 1992, the American Journal of Diseases of Children published an article by Dr. Donald Lewis, who wrote that Tiny Tim probably suffered from a kidney disease called distal renal tubular acidosis (type I). Its symptoms could be treated successfully in Dickens' time, but the Cratchits were too poor to afford that. In 21st century dollars, Bob Cratchit's salary would be about $100 a week (and Scrooge didn't provide health insurance).

When was A Christmas Carol first performed?

Dickens himself, an accomplished actor, performed the book during his wildly popular public reading tours, beginning in 1853. The tours drew thousands of fans throughout Europe and America and often earned more money for the author than book sales did.

How many versions of A Christmas Carol are there?

No one seems to know for sure. The book was first pirated and printed in an unauthorized version a year after it was published. (Dickens sued and won.) Since then, the story has been the source of hundreds of movies, radio performances, television shows, cartoons, comic books, operas, ballets and plays. The first film version was made in 1908 by Thomas Edison.

The actors most acclaimed for their performances as Scrooge are probably Alastair Sim in 1951 and George C. Scott in 1984. Others who have taken on the role of the quintessential grump include Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer, Bill Murray, Vanessa Williams, Scrooge McDuck, Fred Flintstone and Mr. Magoo. In preproduction for 2009 release: a version directed by Robert Zemeckis that stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge - and as all three ghosts.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.