A Christmas Carol, the novella by Charles Dickens, was first published on December 19, 1843.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol largely to remind his family and his readers of the Christmas traditions which Dickens himself had experienced as a child. Dickens' father had been moderately prosperous, and Dickens' childhood had been one of upper-middle-class gentility until he was 12. Dickens' family celebrated Christmas in imitation of the upper classes. They adopted a number of Continental traditions (the Christmas tree, mistletoe and holly in the home, the Yule log, feasting, the giving of presents, playing games on Christmas Day, caroling, decorating the home, lighting candles, celebrating Advent, etc.), and Christmas became a time for close and loving family interaction. Dickens included many of the traditional Christmas celebrations his family had in the novella (particularly when depicting the holiday party held by Scrooge's nephew, Fred.)
But Dickens' father went to debtors' prison when Dickens was 12, forcing young Charles to begin working in a shoe-polish factory. Dickens was deeply scarred by the experience, even though he only worked there for a few months. His father inherited £450 from his dead grandmother, about eight years' worth of income for a skilled craftsman. It was a very large amount of money, and it allowed Dickens' father to be released from prison. Dickens was sent to a boarding school afterward for about two and a half years. The school was horrible, the teachers barely more literate than the children, the discipline cruel, and the food barely edible. This experience had a very negative impact on Dickens, and it, too, appears in the novella -- in particular the scenes where the Ghost of Christmas Past visits a depressed and lonely Young Ebenezer at boarding school.
Dickens published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836 when he was 24 years old. Over the next five years, he published four of his most popular novels: Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. After a long and exhausting six-month American tour (during which he read and acted out many of his most popular writings on stage to worshipful crowds), Dickens returned to England in the fall of 1843. He was desperately short of cash, and frustrated at the uncouth nature of America. So he wrote A Christmas Carol, a novellette that would not only make him a quick wheelbarrow full of cash but also give make him feel better about upholding old traditions.
A Christmas Carol contains elements of an idealized Christmas. But Dickens' observations of the lifestyles of both Ebenzeer Scrooge and Bob Crachit are fairly accurate.
But just what sort of businessman is Ebenezer Scrooge? We're told that many people owe him money, and that he has a "counting-house" at his office. A "counting-house" was a room where accounting was done: The entering of deposits, the writing of checks to pay expenditures, the entry and filing of receipts, the logging of loans made, the calculation of interest, the receipt of payments and recalculation of principal, etc. Scrooge also mentions that he often goes to the "'Change" (the Exchange) and sits there, conducting business. It's not clear, though, whether Scrooge means a stock exchange or a money exchange. We can conclude, however, that Scrooge is a professional money-lender, and that he lends money to both private people and businesses. When he lends money to businesses, he probably does so in the form of loans. But if he is part of the stock exchange, he is probably lending money to businessmen to buy stocks. If he means the money exchange, then he probably is a money-changer as well -- exchanging foreign currency into English money and back again. This, too, makes sense: We learn from the novella that as a youth, Scrooge apprenticed at Fezziwig's. What sort of business was Fezziwig's? We know Fezziwig owned a warehouse, and that this warehouse is where Scrooge worked. So it's possible that Scrooge is still engaged in the merchant trade, and probably foreign trade. However -- and this is important -- Scrooge's business cannot be very big, as he has only a single clerk.
Scrooge clearly lives a typical upper-middle-class life. Few members of the middle class owned property; most rented. Indeed, leases at the time were often for 99 years! Leases would be passed down from father to son to grandson, like title to property. It's clear that this is how Scrooge got his house. A Christmas Carol tells us that Scrooge inherited his house from Marley after Marley's death. Most likely, he inherited this 99-year lease. It's possible, though, that Scrooge owns the house outright. (But this seems likely, given how small his business is.)
What was Scrooge's home like? We learn from the novella that it was set at the end of a cul-de-sac, the furthest house back from the main street. It was large, many-storied, and gloomy on the outside, while the inside was drafty, dark, cold, and empty. But if Scrooge was a typical upper-middle-class Englishman, we can surmise much more about the kind of home he lived in. For example, it is probably a detached home. A wealthier individual's home would be detached, which meant that there was grassy space between it and the houses on either side. There most likely would have been a small yard in back, where flowers or vegetables were grown, or small animals (like rabbits or chickens) kept.
Scrooge's home also most likely had four floors. In England, "ground" floor was the story at street level and the "first" floor the first story above "ground." (I'll use that terminology here. Most Americans would consider Scrooge's "ground" floor the first floor, and Scrooge's "first" floor to be the second floor.") Scrooge's home most probably had an English basement (a floor half-below street level). The basement would have contained a kitchen, pantry, and dishwashing/laundry room. Most upper-middle-class people had live-in servants, and they slept in a room in the basement. The "ground" floor was accessed by a short series of steps which led up to a main door. Inside, an entrance hall with chairs received guests. To the left of the entrance hall was a dining room; to the right, a library. On the "first" floor was a drawing room -- a massive room where entertaining occured. It occupied the entire floor, with few interior walls to break it up. Removable partitions or very heavy curtains would have been used if the drawing room was to be broken up into smaller spaces. These partitions were either put up by hand, or were an accordion-like structure (like you see today) which pulled out from its resting place against the outside wall. Scrooge's "second" floor probably contained several bedrooms. Most homes had four, but there might have been as many as seven. At the very top of the house was usually an attic or garret for storage. In most such homes, a servants' staircase ran from the top to the bottom of the house in the back, while the family used the main staircase. A dumbwaiter usually ran from the kitchen in the basement to the "ground" floor (e.g., to the dining room) and "second" floor (generally to the master bedroom). The entire property would have been surrounded by a six-foot-high wrought-iron fence. The main gate was locked, so that burglars, the poor, or strangers could not gain entry. The front gate would be unlocked only during the day (when tradesmen or deliveries were expected), and in the evening only when guests were anticipated.
Homes like these usually had several staff. A female cook would prepare meals, and a female housekeeper would maintain the home. Scrooge might have had a houseboy (a young boy who would help him dress and do some of the hard labor), but not a butler. If Scrooge had a wife, there would have been a maid-of-all-work as well. With children, an upstairs maid might have been added; with lots of children, there might even have been a parlour-maid.
A Christmas Carol tells us that Scrooge is not using most of his home. He has none of the normal staff an upper-middle-class person would have, and probably has a part-time housekeeper and cook come in. Nearly all the rooms in his home have been rented out as business space. The ground (basement) floor is a wine cellar, Scrooge says. The first floor (with its unused dining room and library) and the second floor (with the large drawing room) were also leased for office space, Scrooge tells the reader. He would have had to climb through a darkened, empty, unlit house holding a candle to reach his bedroom on the third floor. All the bedrooms but his own would have been closed off as well. We know that there are at least three bedrooms on the "second" floor, because in addition to Scrooge's bedroom there is a dressing room. It's possible that Scrooge has sub-divided the master bedroom to create the dressing room, but give his miserliness it is more likely that he merely is using the bedroom next to his (to which there is a communicating door) for the dressing room.
Scrooge's bedroom, like those of most English urban homes at the time, would be heated by a small coal-burning fireplace. Most upper-middle-class people lit this fire just prior to going to bed, and woke up to a bitterly cold room. Scrooge, however, seldom lit his fireplace (we're told) with more than a lump or two of coal. He probably used it only for meals (see below), and refused to allow it to be stoked with enough coal to actually heat his room. Bedrooms in upper-middle-class homes at the time were sparse: There was usually a four-poster bed with heavy bed curtains to hold in heat from the sleeping bodies. Beds for the wealthy were were placed on a wooden stand which raised the bed about a foot off the floor. On this platform would be a horsehair mattress (the less-well-off middle-class made do with straw), and a feather mattress on top of that. Layers and layers of sheets and heavy blankets would keep a person warm during the night. Numerous pillows propped a person up in bed as well as provided additional heat-retaining devices for the head and shoulders. Most people generally wore a heavy nightdress and cap to keep warm. (Scrooge wears just such clothing to bed.) To one side of the bedroom would be a wardrobe in which a person's clothes were hung (there were no such things as closets). A rug would lie on the floor, and there'd be a a dressing table with mirror and a washstand. The dressing table would contain, at most, a tray, ring-stand, combs or brushes, and perhaps some pots or vials containing facial and hand creams. This was a table; there were no drawers. A bowl and a pitcher of water would sit atop the washstand, and beneath it (usually behind a cupboard door) would be the chamber pot. There was no indoor plumbing; you pissed or shit in the pot (which would be emptied the next day into the sewers).
Bob Crachit's home is likewise typical -- at least for a lower-middle-class family. Most lower-middle-class houses were "back-to-backs," which meant that the back wall was shared with the back wall of the house behind. The side walls, too, were shared, so that only the front of the house had windows. Glass was expensive, so most windows were generally greased clear paper (which let a sort of yellowish light through). There was usually one large room downstairs and one large or two large rooms upstairs. A fireplace for cooking would occupy the rear of the main downstairs room, with pots, pans, dishes and cutlery stored on the mantel above the fireplace. In the center of the room would be a wooden table (able to seat six, usually) and some chairs. Off to one side would be a large trunk (usually wood, but sometimes made of tin) in which the family's clothes would be kept. Pegs and hooks lined the walls at shoulder height for the storing of clothes and other items. Perhaps some benches or stools would also sit against the wall. Most bachelor men purchased a wooden cupboard or sideboard before becoming married. The longer a person remained without children, the more furniture they purchased. But Crachit, having so many children, probably doesn't have more than the sideboard. In the poorer familes, everyone slept in the same room. The parents had one bed, and all the children slept in a massive second bed. The chimney provided heat in the bedroom at night, at least for a short while. Trundle beds (a low bed stored under the main bed) might be pulled out at night for the smaller children to sleep on.
The Crachits probably were slightly better off than most families -- at least before the kids came along -- for we're told they had a home with four rooms. We know one of these rooms was at the back of the house, behind the fireplace. This is the room where the family did washing. This room had an upright rectangular brick oven, in the top of which was set a large copper or tin bowl with a lid. Underneath was space for a fire to be lit. This is where the family did their washing. The washing would be boiled (literally) in the bowl, then the dirt beaten out of it. (Soap was not known yet.) Laundry was hung indoors to dry (since outdoor air was so filthy). During the summer, this wasn't so bad. But in the winter, it made the home damp and uncomfortable. Limited kinds of cooking could be done here as well. A Christmas Carol say this is where the Crachit's Christmas pudding was cooked, and that when it was taken out of the bowl the whole house smelled of food and washing. Bleah! Now, by 1840, even many lower-middle-class families lived in homes with a kitchen rather than a washroom in the rear. It would have a coal-fired fireplace (not a stove), and be the warmest room in the house. But the Crachits don't live in that kind of home, which indicates that their poverty has left them in an older home without a kitchen.
The Crachits probably did not eat at home most days. Large families were expected to eat in pubs or obtain food from vendors on the street rather than cook meals at home. This was because the Crachit home had no storage area for vegetables, and certainly no cold-storage area for keeping dairy products or meat.
Keeping families together was a problem for the emerging English middle-class. Nearly all the children were expected to sleep in the same bed, in part because of space limitations and in part because more bodies meant that they wouldn't freeze to death at night. But consider the most likely outcome when you mixed boys and girls in their teens in the same bed at night. That's right: Two-headed grandchildren with purple tongues and crooked legs! To reduce the likelihood of incest, older teen girls often did not sleep at home once they reached the age of 13 or 14. Families with only girls for children would sometimes take them in (usually for a small fee) or the teenage girl would stay at a local all-girl rooming house.
Interestingly, Bob Crachit is lower-middle-class, but he shouldn't be poor. He has a decent job with a relatively well-off employer. So it's not his low income that leaves him poor but rather the large family he has. Crachit also isn't like your typical English father, either, in that he hasn't put his children to work. In most middle-class families, children older than 10 or 11 years of age were expected to work to support the family. Crachit's oldest daughter, Mary, works days as a milliner's apprentice and earns her keep at night by working as a maid-of-all-work for a wealthy family -- sleeping at her employer's house so that she doesn't have to share a bed with her older brother, Peter. Even though Peter is 13, he doesn't yet have a job. That's very odd. Nor does Belinda, the Crachit's second-oldest daughter (who is 11 or 12 years old). The size of the Crachit family means that Bob should have hired a scullery maid to help his wife out part-time, but the family's poverty means they cannot afford it.
What about the other aspects of daily living? Scrooge's house would have had a pump in the basement scullery, or (if no pump was available) a waterman would come by every day with his horse-drawn water-wagon and fill a cistern in the rear of the house. The Crachits would get their water for cooking, drinking, and washing from a public pump or fountain, and carry it to a water barrel in the house. Most people, rich or poor, wore the same clothes four or five times before washing them. Scrooge probably owned six or seven suits of clothing and two or three sets of bed linens. His laundry only had to be done once a month. But Bob Crachit probably owned one suit, maybe two, like the rest of his family. The Crachits would do laundry weekly: The entire family would chip in to boil water, cook the clothes, beat the dirt out, wring the clothes dry as much as possible, and then hang the clothing up to dry. Scrooge probably used beeswax candles to light his home at night. The Crachits had no indoor lighting, and would have gone to bed when it was dark. Both Scrooge and Crachit probaly bathed once a week. Upper-middle-class families used a a tin or brass bathtub in the scullery, but since Scrooge has rented this area of his home to a wine merchant he probably bathes at the public baths. As the adult male in his home, Bob Crachit probably also bathed at a public bath. But Crachit's family would bathe in a tin tub in the washing toom, with the mother bathing first and then the children (oldest first). By the time the family got to the smallest kids, the water would be absolutely filthy. (No wonder Tiny Tim was sick!)
What about food? Neither Scrooge nor Crachit would have had refrigeration. There was no such thing as an "ice box" as existed in the United States. Perishables would be purchased on a daily basis and cooked immediately. (Some upper-middle-class people might have had a marble shelf in the basement pantry which would help help keep meats cool and edible for a day or two. But Scrooge has closed his pantry and rented out the basement, so he doens't have this.) Ebeneezer Scrooge would have had access to most of the better-quality foods that wealthier individuals also enjoyed. But Bob Crachit's diet was heavy on bread. Up to half his daily calories came from bread, and bread was the "staple of life" for his class of person. Whether a family was wealthy or poor, food was usually sold from a cart by a "costermonger" who traveled through each neighborhood on a daily basis. In wealthy or upper-middle-class families, the servant or wife might also visit a store in the morning, place an order, and the food would be delivered later that day.
What did they eat? Breakfast for the wealthy was usually eggs and bacon, with bread. For the poor, it was usually bread and butter (usually with meat drippings allowed to soak into the bread for flavor, protein, and fat), or a sweet roll. Lunch for both the wealthy and the lower-middle-class was usually the same thing: Perhaps roast potatoes, maybe pea soup, sometimes a sandwich or a meat pie (dough with bits of bacon cooked into it), maybe bread and butter. Both the wealthy and lower-middle-class would finish lunch with a fruit tart. The wealthy might also eat smoked fish or cheese with lunch. A standard evening meal for the upper-middle-class generally meant a main meat dish (fish, lamb, or less commonly beef), vegetables (salad, roast vegetables, or vegetable soup), potatoes, and a "pudding." (Puddings were a sweet dish of flour, eggs, milk, fat, spices, and fruit rolled into a ball and then boiled in cloth.) The upper-middle-class might also have some other sweet dessert like cake. While the upper-middle-class and wealthy might eat meat every day or every other day, the lower-middle-classes usually ate meat only on Sunday. Most Sundays, this meant sausages or stew-meat cooked over an open coal fire. On holidays, larger cuts of meat would be eaten. But since most poor homes didn't have kitchens and most middle-class kitchens didn't have ovens big enough to handle large cuts of meat like goose, turkey, or roasts, these large cuts had to be taken to the neighborhood baker's and cooked in his ovens.
Scrooge, being a bachelor and miser, took his meals the way Bob Crachit and his family did: They went to a food vendor on the street, or to a pub or meal-house and ate their meals there. Had Scrooge been a normal person, he would have had his food delivered, stored, cooked, and served at home. Interestingly, Crachit's wife probably only cooked on weekends.
A Christmas Carol tells us that the Crachit family cooked their goose at the baker's. But they cooked their pudding at home. At one point, the Ghost of Christmas Present strongly criticizes English society for trying to enact "Sunday closing" laws. These laws would have meant that bakeries would have to close on Sunday. The effect would have been to deprive the poor of the ability to cook large cuts of meat on Sunday, for which the spirit is justifiably angry.
Tea was the most common drink for all classes, because it was cheaper than coffee and healthier than unboiled water.
There's an interesting sidelight to A Christmas Carol as well which tells you a lot about Ebenezer Scrooge. In the mid-1700s (about 100 years before the time in which the novella is set), most people would have had a heavy breakfast of meat/eggs (or bread, if you were poor) in the early morning, followed by a heavy "dinner" at 4 PM, and a very light "supper" (more a snack, really) at 10 PM just before bed. But by the time of A Christmas Carol, the "dinner" hour was occuring at around 8 PM. "Supper" no longer existed. A new meal had emerged -- "luncheon" -- to be eaten around 11 AM or Noon. For the upper-middle-class and wealthy, there was even a new meal: "Tea," a snack of tea and sweet desserts held around 4 PM. It's clear from the novella, however, that Scrogge still followed the old routine of breakfast, dinner, and supper. This is why Scrooge has a light meal of gruel just before bed.
But what to wear? Scrooge was expected to work in a black coat, shirt (collars and cuffs were detachable), waistcoat, and black trousers. Checks and stripes were considered "unserious" and the mark of a con-man. Crachit was expected to wear the same clothes, although he could get by without the waistcoat. Hair was worn long (cut at the collar), and beards and mustaches were uncommon until about 1850. A Christmas Carol tells us that Bob Crachit had purchased a new collar, and given his old collar to his son, Peter (who saw this as a rite of passage into manhood).
Other facts in the novella are also telling. Let's take money: Back then, a pound sterling was worth 20 shillings, and 1 shilling was worth 12 pence. There were four crowns to a pound, and one crown was worth 5 shillings. Half a crown, then, was worth 2.5 shillings. At the time, a skilled craftsman (one of the higher-paid workers in England) could expect to earn about 4.6 shillings per day, or 27.6 shillings a week. (Work weeks were six days long until the 1930s.) Bob Crachit earns 15 shillings (three crowns) a week, which goes to show how poorly he is paid.
And what about the end of the story? Scrooge tells a boy that he'll give him half a crown if the boy runs to the butcher shop down the street and brings back the butcher and the prize turkey in the window. Scrooge is essentially offering to give the boy one-sixth of a week's wages! That's like offering him $115 in today's money.
Perhaps the greatest enigma of the novella is not Scrooge or Cratchit but Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Right at the beginning of the novella, we learn that Scrooge considers Fred (who is given no last name in the book) to be poor. But, interestingly, Fred doesn't seem poor in the least! He has his own home (much like Scrooge), he has a wife, and he has a fairly nice set of clothes. In fact, Fred seems not to have a job at all, for he can visit Scrooge's place of business during the day and not have to worry about whether he'll lose his job.
Is Fred independently wealthy?? It's an interesting question. Perhaps the root of Scrooge's anger at the world is that his father bequeathed the family fortune to Ebenezer's sister, Fran. We know that Scrooge's father was relatively wealthy, for he had a country home and a house in London, and he could afford to send his son to a boarding school. Yet we also know that, by the time Ebenezer is in his late teens, his father is dead and the family is penniless. Perhaps Fran inherited everything, and the terms of the will required her to provide nothing to her younger brother.
Such an inheritance might have left Fred in a sort of "genteel poverty." He would not necessarily have to work, due to the income he received from the inheritance. He might even have inherited the lease on his home, so that he himself would not have had to buy the property (just make the rental payment).
We also know that Fred is wealthy enough to entertain. One of the key developments in Christmas celebrations around 1800 was the transition of Christmas from a public holiday into a private one. From about the early 1400s until 1800, Christmas was never spent in the home. Rather, everyone spent Christmas in public. Remember, back then, there was no "middle class." Most people in Europe were very poor. Christmas was a time for the wealthy to distribute food, drink, and fuel to the masses in a public square or at the church. Most people would gather in a public square or on the commons (the state-owned meadow on the city limits, where the poor could graze their livestock) and pool their resources to celebrate the holiday. Christmas rarely incorporated pious religious services; rather, Christmas was a time for hard drinking, hard partying, and hard fornication. But Christmas also served a social function by bringing people together as a community and making everyone feel like they belonged. It was only with the rise of the English middle class around 1800 that this changed. The middle class began trying to reinforce their position in society by denigrating "the poor," and community socializing quickly came to a screeching halt within a half a century. Christmas turned inward, becoming more of a private (family) affair than a public celebration of togetherness.
So what about Fred? Fred has invited a few (very few) friends to his home for eating, drinking, songs, and games. This indicates that Fred has enough money to pay for such a party, and gives the lie to Scrooge's claim that Fred is dirt-poor. What Dickens is doing is drawing on the older tradition of public celebration, but mixing it with the emerging tradition of a private (rather than public) holiday. This part of the novel isn't very historically accurate, but it serves Dickens' goals well.
One last thing should be mentioned about A Christmas Carol: Have you noticed that there are no presents given in the novella? Gift-giving was not a common practice at Christmas until the 1840s. Prior to the 1800s, people did not give gifts at Christmas. Instead, they donated food and drink to the poor. It was not seen as a "gift" but rather as a requirement of being wealthy. It was a classic redistribution of wealth. (How socialist! That darn Jesus...always beating up on the rich.) As the late 1700s approached and people had more wealth, it became more common for a person to make a small item at home and give it as a token to a family which they visited during the Christmas celebrations. Such items were usually small objet d'arts or handicrafts, small gifts of food or liquor, an item for common use (like a cup or bowl), or perhaps a religous item (like an icon). Only around 1840 -- juuuuuust before Dickens wrote his story -- did store-bought Christmas presents become common. Indeed, it would be another quarter-century before the commercialization of Christmas really set in. By 1870, the middle class had grown so large that the giving of gifts at Christmas was now becoming popular. These gifts often took the form of toys for children, and luxury items for adults (perfume, clothing, art, musical instruments, etc.). Because the giving of gifts was not yet a well-established tradition in Dickens' time, he does not include it in A Christmas Carol. Rather, Scrooge instantly thinks of giving food to the Crachit family. It's not because the Crachits have no food (they have it). It's not because the Crachits need more food (although they could do with that). It's because Scrooge is thinking of the older tradition of giving food and drink to another family on Christmas. We interpret this much differently, given our modern perspective -- but that's not how Dickens intended for it to be seen.
So not only is A Christmas Carol a great story. It's telling us a lot about what it was like to live in 1843, and what it was like to be poor. It's telling us a lot about the changing traditions of Christmas at the time, too.