12/17/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

A Christmas Carol Turns 170 Today

Dickens' classic Christmas tale A Christmas Carol was published on this day 170 years ago. Since then, there have been countless stage, screen, and radio adaptations of the classic story. The first film adaptation was a short silent movie version in 1901, titled Scrooge; or, Marley's Ghost. There have been opera and ballet versions, an all-black musical called Comin' Uptown (1979), and even a 1973 mime adaptation for the BBC starring Marcel Marceau. The Muppets, Mickey Mouse, and Mr. Magoo have all featured in adaptations of the book.

It wasn't the first Christmas story Dickens wrote. It wasn't even the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He'd already written 'The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,' featuring miserly Gabriel Grub, an inset tale in Dickens's first ever published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). The tale shares many of the narrative features which would turn up a few years later in A Christmas Carol: the misanthropic villain, the Christmas Eve setting, the presence of the supernatural (goblins/ghosts), the use of visions which the main character is forced to witness, the focus on poverty and family, and, most importantly, the reforming of the villain into a better person at the close of the story.

The family in A Christmas Carolwhose plight helps to bring about Scrooge's change of heart is the Cratchits, the father of whom works for Scrooge. Tiny Tim was not the original name for the little boy in Dickens' novella: originally he was going to be called 'Little Fred,' possibly after one of Dickens' brothers, two of whom were called Frederick and Alfred. Dickens altered the name just before the book went to press.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks during October and November 1843, and it appeared just in time for Christmas, on December 17. The book's effect was immediate. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian (whom Dickens greatly admired), went straight out and bought himself a turkey after reading A Christmas Carol. The book has been credited with popularizing the phrase 'Merry Christmas,' a greeting which, prior to Dickens' story, was not widely used. The term 'Scrooge' has entered the language -- and the Oxford English Dictionary -- as shorthand for a tight-fisted and miserable person (although whenever we refer to a Christmas-hater as 'a Scrooge' we overlook the fact that Dickens' character comes to embrace the holiday as a time of goodwill and good cheer at the end of the narrative). 'Bah! Humbug!' has become a universally recognized catchphrase, although Scrooge only uses it twice in the book. A species of snail, Ba humbugi, has even been named in honour of the character.

Dickens's rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, called the book 'a national benefit,' while fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant said that although it was 'the apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding,' it 'moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel.' The book was more or less single-handedly responsible for the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, which remains with us to this day.

Dickens began his series of exhausting public readings from his work -- the readings which would eventually contribute to his early death at just 58 -- with performances of A Christmas Carol in the early 1850s. On days when he gave public readings, Dickens' diet was eccentric, to say the least: he had two tablespoons of rum flavored with fresh cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before the start of his performance, would drink a raw egg beaten into a tumbler of sherry (which, if unappetizing, is at least rather Christmassy).

Of course, the success of the novel didn't singlehandedly create, or popularize, the modern idea of Christmas. Dickens himself acknowledged the influence of Washington Irving on his Christmas work, as I've discussed in a blog post I wrote for my site Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness. But Dickens' book was part of a wider culture which helped to form the modern conception of the Christmas holiday. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert played their part, with Albert in particular importing numerous elements from Germany. The first Christmas cards were also sent in the same year as Dickens' story was published (indeed, robins feature so often on Christmas cards in a nod to the red uniforms worn by postal workers, who at the time were nicknamed 'robins'). But A Christmas Carol has a special place in the literary history of Christmas, and is worth celebrating whether as a 'gospel,' a 'carol,' or simply a very good tale -- and, of course, is always worth rereading.

If this blog post has whetted your appetite for more festive Dickens, I would recommend this 1835 'sketch' -- published when Dickens was in his early twenties -- describing the perfect Christmas dinner.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on the site Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness.