The Biggest Humbug

Mickey Mouse. Patrick Stewart. Bill Murray. George C. Scott. The Muppets.

And those are just the versions I’ve seen.

It’s rare to find a tale with as many interpretations and variations as A Christmas Carol. Movies. Cartoons. TV specials. Musicals. Charles Dickens’s beloved holiday classic has been transformed into them all. It’s become so much a part of our culture that even the name of Dickens’s iconic character–Scrooge–has found its way into our everyday lexicon, becoming a slang term for a stingy or uncheerful person.

So it may be surprising to learn that this–the most famous of holidays stories–was not born out of an overflowing of Christmas spirit from Dickens’s heart. The story, published 175 years ago this month, was actually written as a form of protest against the brutality of conditions experienced by Britain’s working poor and child labor force.

A culture shift came to Britain in the early 1800s. The advance of medicine led to longer lives and a population explosion which many rural agricultural areas could not sustain. This led to an influx of people into cities and, with it, a manufacturing boom bolstered by the availability of labor. Profits skyrocketed. But the workers remained poor.

Conditions were dismal and pay was low. Most jobs required long shifts of monotonous work–hammering the same nail over and over, or gluing the same piece time and time again, much like today’s modern day assembly lines, but without the benefit of technology. Accidents were common. Benefits were unheard of. Any offense–even one as simple as requesting time off for illness–could lead to job loss, as any number of desperate, hungry workers would happily sweep in to take your place.

Workers were viewed, not as human beings, but as commodities, their value only as high as the profits they could produce.

One of those commodities was a young Charles Dickens.

In 1822, the Dickens family moved from the countryside to Camden Town, a poor, working-class neighborhood in London. The family’s financial situation was dire and, by 1824, Dickens’s father was in prison due to his inability to pay the family’s outstanding debts. In an effort to help his family, young Charles dropped out of school and went to work in boot blackening factory along the River Thames. The factory was run-down and crawling with rodents, and the boy earned six shillings a week labeling pots of “blacking,” a substance used to clean fireplaces. Although he eventually returned to school and, later, found work in an office (and, eventually, as a journalist and writer), the experiences in that factory, as well as the hardships he encountered during this time of poverty, haunted him for the rest of his life.

In the spring of 1843, Dickens read an article by a journalist friend of his about the state of child labor in the United Kingdom, a compilation of interviews of children as young as eight years old who worked twelve hour shifts in coal mines and dress factories, often for pennies on the dollar. The descriptions sickened Dickens, by this point already a notable and accomplished author, who conceived a pamphlet to be entitled “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” which he would write and distribute as a form of protest. However, he soon decided a story would make his message more powerful.

Written in just two months and released in December of 1943, Dickens’s words were revolutionary. Through the relationship of Scrooge and Cratchit, Dickens put forth the radical idea that employers were responsible for the well-being of their employees–not because they were their workers but because they were human beings. Being poor or wealthy was not a testament to a person’s moral character, as so many during the time believed, but rather it was how you treated your fellow man, regardless of his or her fortune, that determined your worth.

As it was, the real victory of A Christmas Carol was not that Scrooge gave Cratchit a Christmas turkey. Nor was it that he gave him the day off. It was that he saw his employee for the first time as a man–a man with a wife and children, a man with a home, a man with a life outside the confines of his employment. Bob Cratchit was a human being–just like Ebeneezer Scrooge. Different, yes. But also just the same.

Even though working conditions have improved in most parts of the world, even now, 175 years later, humanity still suffers. Still struggles. So many people are still left behind or forgotten. Perhaps this is why A Christmas Carol has endured, and why its message of hope is still cherished.  Because every December, whether on page or screen or stage, Tiny Tim’s words still resonate, stirring something inside us which cries out for the Cratchit AND Scrooge in us all:

“God bless us, every one!”

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