Dickens divided the book into five chapters, which he labelled "staves".
The story begins on a cold and bleak Christmas Eve in London, seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge, an old miser, hates Christmas and refuses an invitation to Christmas dinner from his nephew Fred. He turns away two men who seek a donation from him in order to provide food and heating for the poor, and only grudgingly allows his overworked, underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, Christmas Day off with pay to conform to the social custom.
At home that night, Scrooge is visited by Marley's ghost, who wanders the Earth, entwined by heavy chains and money boxes, forged during a lifetime of greed and selfishness. Marley tells Scrooge that he has one chance to avoid the same fate: he will be visited by three spirits and he must listen to them or be cursed to carry chains of his own, much longer than Marley's chains.
The first of the spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge to Christmas scenes of Scrooge's boyhood and youth, reminding him of a time when he was more innocent. The boyhood scenes portray Scrooge's lonely childhood, his relationship with his beloved sister Fan, and a Christmas party hosted by his first employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who treated Scrooge like a son. They also portray Scrooge's neglected fiancée Belle, who ends their relationship after she realises that Scrooge will never love her as much as he loves money. Finally, they visit a now-married Belle with her large, happy family on a recent Christmas Eve.
The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, takes Scrooge to a joy-filled market of people buying the makings of Christmas dinner and celebrations of Christmas in a miner's cottage and in a lighthouse. Scrooge and the ghost also visit Fred's Christmas party. A major part of this stave is taken up with Bob Cratchit's family feast and introduces his youngest son, Tiny Tim, a happy boy who is seriously ill. The spirit informs Scrooge that Tiny Tim will die soon unless the course of events changes. Before disappearing, the spirit shows Scrooge two hideous, emaciated children named Ignorance and Want. He tells Scrooge to beware the former above all and mocks Scrooge's concern for their welfare.
The third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shows Scrooge a Christmas Day in the future. The ghost shows him scenes involving the death of a disliked man. The man's funeral will only be attended by local businessmen if lunch is provided. His charwoman, his laundress, and the local undertaker steal some of his possessions and sell them to a fence. When Scrooge asks the ghost to show anyone who feels any emotion over the man's death, the ghost can only show him the pleasure of a poor couple in debt to the man, rejoicing that his death gives them more time to put their finances in order. After Scrooge asks to see some tenderness connected with any death, the ghost shows him Bob Cratchit and his family mourning the passing of Tiny Tim. The ghost then shows Scrooge the man's neglected grave, whose tombstone bears Scrooge's name. Sobbing, Scrooge pledges to the ghost that he will change his ways to avoid this outcome.
Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning a changed man. He spends the day with Fred's family and anonymously sends a large turkey to the Cratchit home for Christmas dinner. The following day, he gives Cratchit a pay increase and becomes like another father to Tiny Tim. From then on Scrooge began to treat everyone with kindness, generosity and compassion, embodying the spirit of Christmas.
The writer Charles Dickens was born to a respectable family which got into financial difficulties as a result of the profligate spending of John, Dickens's father. In 1824 John was committed to Marshalsea, a debtors' prison in Southwark, London. Dickens, aged 12, was forced to pawn his collection of books, leave school and go to work at a shoe-blacking factory, a dirty and rat-infested place. The change in Dickens's circumstances gave him what his biographer, Michael Slater, described as a "deep personal and social outrage", which heavily influenced his works.
At the end of December 1842 Dickens began publishing his novel Martin Chuzzlewit as a monthly serial; although the novel was his favourite work, sales had been disappointing and he faced financial difficulties. By this time he was a well-established author, having written six major works, as well as several short stories, novellas and other works.
Celebrating the Christmas season had been growing in popularity through the Victorian era. Although the Christmas tree had been introduced into Britain in the 18th century, its use was popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and their practice was copied in many homes across the country. In the early 19th century there had been a revival of interest in Christmas carols, following a decline in popularity over the previous hundred years. The publication of Davies Gilbert's 1823 work Some Ancient Christmas Carols, With the Tunes to Which They Were Formerly Sung in the West of England and William Sandys's 1833 collection Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern led to a growth in the form's popularity in Britain.
Dickens had an interest in Christmas, and his first story on the subject was "Christmas Festivities", published in Bell's Weekly Messenger in 1835; the story was then published as "A Christmas Dinner" in Sketches by Boz (1836). "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton", another Christmas story, appeared in the 1836 novel The Pickwick Papers, followed by a passage about Christmas in Master Humphrey's Clock.
Dickens was not the very first author to celebrate the Christmas season in literature. Among earlier authors who influenced Dickens was Washington Irving, whose 1819–20 work The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. included four essays on old English Christmas traditions that he experienced while staying at Aston Hall near Birmingham. The tales and essays attracted Dickens, and the two authors shared the belief that the staging of a nostalgic English Christmas might restore the social harmony that had been lost in the modern world.
Several works may have had an influence on the writing of A Christmas Carol, including two Douglas Jerrold essays: one from an 1841 issue of Punch, "How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas" and one from 1843, "The Beauties of the Police". More broadly, Dickens was influenced by fairy tales and nursery stories, which he closely associated with Christmas, because he saw them as stories of conversion and transformation.
Dickens was keenly touched by the lot of poor children in the middle decades of the 19th century. In early 1843, he toured the Cornish tin mines, where he was angered after seeing children working in appalling conditions. The suffering he witnessed there was reinforced by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged school, one of several London schools set up for the education of the capital's half-starved, illiterate street children.
In February 1843 the Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission was published. It was a parliamentary report exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon working class children. Horrified by what he read, Dickens planned to publish an inexpensive political pamphlet tentatively titled, An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child, but changed his mind, deferring the pamphlet's production until the end of the year. In March he wrote to Dr. Southwood Smith, one of the four commissioners responsible for the Second Report, about his change in plans: "you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force—I could exert by following out my first idea".
In a fundraising speech on 5 October 1843 at the Manchester Athenaeum, Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, and realised in the days following that the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays.
By mid-1843 Dickens began to suffer from financial problems. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit were slowing, and his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with the couple's fifth child. Matters worsened when Chapman & Hall, Martin Chuzzlewit's publishers, began to talk about reducing his monthly income by £50 if sales dropped further.He began to write A Christmas Carol in October 1843. Michael Slater, Dickens's biographer, describes the book as being "written at white heat"; it was completed in six weeks, with the final pages written in early December. He built much of the work in his head while taking night-time walks of 15 to 20 miles around London. Slater says that A Christmas Carol was
intended to open its readers' hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor.
George Cruikshank, the illustrator who had previously worked with Dickens on Sketches by Boz (1836) and Oliver Twist (1838), introduced him to the caricaturist John Leech. By 24 October Dickens invited Leech to work on A Christmas Carol, and four hand-coloured etchings and four black-and-white wood engravings by the artist accompanied the text.
The central character of A Christmas Carol is Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly London-based moneylender, described in the story as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" Kelly writes that Scrooge may have been influenced by Dickens's conflicting feelings for his father, who he both loved and demonised. This psychological conflict may be responsible for the two radically different Scrooges in the tale—one a cold, stingy and greedy semi-recluse, the other a benevolent, sociable man. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the professor of English literature, considers that in the opening part of the book covering young Scrooge's lonely and unhappy childhood, and his aspiration for money to avoid poverty "is something of a self-parody of Dickens's fears about himself"; the post-transformation parts of the book are how Dickens optimistically sees himself.
Scrooge could also be based on two misers: the eccentric John Elwes, MP, or Jemmy Wood, the owner of the Gloucester Old Bank who was also known as "The Gloucester Miser". Scrooge's views on the poor are a reflection of those of the demographer and political economist Thomas Malthus, while the miser's questions "Are there no prisons? ... And the Union workhouses? ... The treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" are a reflection of a sarcastic question raised by the Chartist philosopher Thomas Carlyle, "Are there not treadmills, gibbets; even hospitals, poor-rates, New Poor-Law?"
There are literary antecedents for Scrooge in Dickens's own works. Peter Ackroyd, Dickens's biographer, sees similarities between Scrooge and the elder Martin Chuzzlewit character, although the miser is "a more fantastic image" than the Chuzzlewit patriarch; Ackroyd observes that Chuzzlewit's transformation to a charitable figure is a parallel to that of the miser. Douglas-Fairhurst sees that the minor character Gabriel Grub from The Pickwick Papers was also worked into Scrooge. Scrooge's name came from a tombstone Dickens had seen on a visit to Edinburgh. The grave was for Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, whose job was given as a meal man—a corn merchant; Dickens misread the inscription as "mean man".
When Dicken's was young he lived near a tradesman's premises with the sign "Goodge and Marney", which may have provided the name for Scrooge's former business partner. For the chains Marley, Dickens had remembered a visit he had made to the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in March 1842, where he saw—and was affected by—seeing fettered prisoners. For the character Tiny Tim, Dickens used his nephew Henry, a disabled boy who was five at the time A Christmas Carol was written. The two figures of Want and Ignorance, sheltering in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present were inspired by the children Dickens had seen on his visit to a ragged School in the East End of London.
The transformation of Scrooge is central to the story. Kelly writes that the transformation is reflected in the description of Scrooge, who begins as a two-dimensional character, but who then grows into one who "possess[es] an emotional depth [and] a regret for lost opportunities". Some writers, including Grace Moore, the Dickens scholar, consider that there is Christian theme running through A Christmas Carol, and that the novella should be seen as an allegory of the Christian concept of redemption. Dickens's biographer, Claire Tomalin sees the conversion of Scrooge as carrying the Christian message that "even the worst of sinners may repent and become a good man". Dickens's attitudes towards organised religion were complex, although he based his beliefs and principles within the New Testament. Dickens's statement that Marley "had no bowels" is a reference to the "bowels of compassion" mentioned in I John, the reason for his eternal damnation.
Other writers, including Kelly, see that Dickens put forward a "secular vision of this sacred holiday". They argue that A Christmas Carol shows what Dickens referred to in a letter to Foster as his "Carol philosophy, cheerful views, sharp anatomisation of humbug, jolly good temper ... and a vein of glowing, hearty, generous, mirthful, beaming reference in everything to Home and Fireside". From a secular viewpoint, the cultural historian Penne Restad suggests that Scrooge's redemption underscores "the conservative, individualistic and patriarchal aspects" of Dickens's "Carol philosophy" of charity and altruism.
Dickens's wrote A Christmas Carol because of how British social policy treated children at the time, and wished to use the novella as a means to put forward his arguments against it. The story shows Scrooge as a paradigm for self-interest, and the possible repercussions of ignoring the poor, especially children in poverty—personified by the allegorical figures of Want and Ignorance. The two figures were created to engender sympathy with readers—as was Tiny Tim. Douglas-Fairhurst observes that the use of such figures allowed Dickens to present his message of the need for charity, without alienating his largely middle-class readership.
As the result of the disagreements with Chapman and Hall over the commercial failures of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens arranged to pay for the publishing himself, in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Production of A Christmas Carol was not without problems. The first printing contained drab olive endpapers that Dickens felt were unacceptable, and the publisher Chapman and Hall quickly replaced them with yellow endpapers, but, once replaced, those clashed with the title page, which was then redone. The final product was bound in red cloth with gilt-edged pages, completed only two days before the publication date of 19 December 1843. Following publication, Dickens arranged for the manuscript to be bound in red Morocco leather and presented as a gift to his solicitor, Thomas Mitton.
Priced at five shillings (equal to £22 in 2017 pounds), the first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. Chapman and Hall issued second and third editions before the new year, and the book continued to sell well into 1844. By the end of 1844 eleven more editions had been released. Since its initial publication the book has been issued in numerous hardback and paperback editions, translated into several languages and has never been out of print. It was Dickens's most popular book in the US, and sold over two million copies in the hundred years following its first publication there.
The high production costs upon which Dickens insisted led to reduced profits, and the first edition brought him only £230 (equal to £20,000 in 2017 pounds) rather than the £1,000 (equal to £89,000 in 2017 pounds) he expected. A year later, the profits were only £744, and Dickens was deeply disappointed.
Douglas-Fairhurst writes that the reviews of A Christmas Carol "were almost uniformly kind". The reviewer from The Illustrated London News described how the story's "impressive eloquence ... its unfeigned lightness of heart—its playful and sparkling humour ... its gentle spirit of humanity" all put the reader "in good humour with ourselves, with each other, with the season and with the author". The critic from The Athenaeum, the literary magazine, considered it a "tale to make the reader laugh and cry – to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable ... a dainty dish to set before a King." William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in Fraser's Magazine, described the book as "a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness. The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, 'God bless him!'"
The poet Thomas Hood, in his own journal, wrote that "If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease." The reviewer for Tait's Edinburgh Magazine—Theodore Martin, who was usually critical of Dickens's work—spoke well of A Christmas Carol, noting it was "a noble book, finely felt and calculated to work much social good". After Dickens' death, Margaret Oliphant deplored the turkey and plum pudding aspects of the book but admitted that in the days of its first publication it was regarded as "a new gospel" and noted that the book was unique in that it actually made people behave better. The religious press generally ignored the tale but, in January 1884, Christian Remembrancer thought the tale's old and hackneyed subject was treated in an original way and praised the author's sense of humour and pathos.
There were critics of the book. The The New Monthly Magazine's reviewer, while praising the story, thought the book's physical excesses—the gilt edges and expensive binding—kept the price high, which made it unavailable to the poor. The reviewer recommended the tale be printed on cheap paper and priced accordingly. The unnamed reviewer from The Westminster Review mocked Dickens's grasp of economics, asking "Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them—for, unless there were turkeys and punch in surplus, someone must go without".
Following criticism of the US in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, American readers were less enthusiastic at first, but by the end of the American Civil War, copies of the book were in wide circulation. In 1863 The New York Times published an enthusiastic review, noting that the author brought the "old Christmas ... of bygone centuries and remote manor houses, into the living rooms of the poor of today".
In January 1844 Parley's Illuminated Library published an unauthorised version of the story in a condensed form which they sold for twopence. Dickens wrote to his solicitor
I have not the least doubt that if these Vagabonds can be stopped they must. ... Let us be the sledge-hammer in this, or I shall be beset by hundreds of the same crew when I come out with a long story.
Two days after the release of the Parley version, Dickens sued on the cases of copyright infringement and won. The publishers declared themselves bankrupt and Dickens was left to pay £700 in costs. The small profits Dickens earned from A Christmas Carol further strained his relationship with his publishers, and he broke with them in favour of Bradbury and Evans, who had been printing his works to that point.
Dickens returned to the tale time several times during his life to amend the phrasing and punctuation. He capitalised on the success of the book by publishing other Christmas stories The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848); these were secular conversion tales which reflected the societal changes of the previous year, and which social problems still needed to be dealt with. While the public eagerly bought the later books, the reviewers were highly critical of the stories.
By 1849 Dickens was engaged with David Copperfield and had neither the time nor the inclination to produce another Christmas book. He decided the best way to reach his audience with his "Carol philosophy" was by public readings. During Christmas 1852 Dickens gave a reading in Birmingham Town Hall to the Industrial and Literary Institute; the performance was a great success. Thereafter, he read the tale in an abbreviated version 127 times, until 1870 (the year of his death), when it provided the material for his farewell performance.
In the years following the book's publication, responses to the tale were published by W. M. Swepstone (Christmas Shadows, 1850), Horatio Alger (Job Warner's Christmas, 1863), Louisa May Alcott (A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True, 1882), and others who followed Scrooge's life as a reformed man – or some who thought Dickens had got it wrong and needed to be corrected.
The novella was adapted for the stage almost immediately. Three productions opened on 5 February 1844, with one by Edward Stirling sanctioned by Dickens and running for more than 40 nights. By the close of February 1844 eight rival A Christmas Carol theatrical productions were playing in London. The story has been adapted for film and television more than any of Dickens's other works. In 1901 it was produced as Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost, a silent black-and-white British film; it was one of the first known adaptations of a Dickens work on film, although is now largely lost. The story was adapted in 1923 for BBC radio. The story has been adapted to other media, including opera, ballet, a Broadway musical, animation, and a BBC mime production starring Marcel Marceau.
Although the phrase "Merry Christmas" had been around for several years – the earliest known written use was in a letter in 1534 – Dickens's use of the term in A Christmas Carol popularised the term among the Victorian public. The exclamation "Bah! Humbug!" entered popular use in the English language as a retort to anything sentimental or over festive; the name "Scrooge" became used as a designation for a miser, and was included into the Oxford English Dictionary as such in 1982.
The modern observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday. The Oxford Movement of the 1830s and 1840s had produced a resurgence of the traditional rituals and religious observances associated with Christmastide and, with A Christmas Carol, Dickens captured the zeitgeist of the age, while he reflected and reinforced his vision of Christmas. He advocated a humanitarian focus of the holiday, which influenced several aspects of Christmas that are still celebrated in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit. The historian Ronald Hutton writes that Dickens "linked worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation".
Ruth Glancy, the professor of English literature, states that the largest impact of A Christmas Carol was the influence felt by individual readers. In the spring of 1844 The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a rise of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens's novella; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson, after reading Dickens's Christmas books, vowed to give generously to those in need; and Thomas Carlyle expressed a generous hospitality by hosting two Christmas dinners after reading the book. In 1867 one American businessman was so moved after attending a reading, that he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey, while in the early years of the 20th century the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London's crippled children signed "With Tiny Tim's Love". The author G. K. Chesterton wrote
The beauty and blessing of the story ... lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him. ... Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us.