What ‘A Christmas Carol’ Teaches Us About Happiness

Two copies of A Christmas Carol, both illustrated, and four different film adaptations, one animated and one featuring Muppets, sit in my parents’ living room. My father, the patron of this Christmas collection, always told his children A Christmas Carol wasn’t just a holiday narrative, it was a human one. A tale of redemption and joy, it was the best of the Christmas stories.

Besides the story of Scrooge, which accelerated charitable donations after its publication and helped establish Christmas as Great Britain’s primary winter holiday, Dickens wrote a handful of other yuletide tales. But he was not just a writer of Christmas fan fiction. Dickens saw the Christmas season as an opportunity to celebrate, and his portrayal of happiness at year’s end made A Christmas Carol one of the most enduring and best-selling books in history.

George Orwell, in a 1943 essay published one hundred years after A Christmas Carol, explains how the name “Charles Dickens” became synonymous with Christmas.

Orwell wrote:

The thought of Christmas raises almost automatically the thought of Charles Dickens, and for two very good reasons. To begin with, Dickens is one of the few English writers who have actually written about Christmas…. Secondly, Dickens is remarkable, indeed almost unique, among modern writers in being able to give a convincing picture of happiness.

The Man Who Invented Christmas, a new movie about Dickens’ struggle to push past writer’s block to invent A Christmas Carol, offers such a picture. Based on historian Les Standiford’s book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Rescued his Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, the story shows why Dickens was such a lover of Christmas and how happiness is not some holiday treat, but a choice.

In the opening scenes, Dickens (played, charmingly, by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast) suggests writing a Christmas story to his bewildered publishers in a desperate effort to earn more money for his family by year’s end. Before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, Boxing Day surpassed Christmas in popularity across the pond. And Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had just begun to popularize the tannenbaum, or Christmas tree.

Despite its limited influence compared to today, Dickens decides to write a novella about Christmas that will celebrate the one time of the year when people recognize each other as fellow travelers to the grave and show one another mercy.

As he writes, however, he faces unhappiness of his own. Dickens’ fears about his finances and defensiveness over his book’s characters lead him to quarrel with his best friend, his wife, and, especially, his father.

When Dickens was twelve years old, his father was arrested for failing to pay his debts. To provide for himself, young Charles spent the next year working at a shoe-polish factory. The movie targets this moment in the writer’s past, dwelling on the shame he felt during that year and the bitterness he still feels toward his father.

As he struggles to host his endlessly spendthrift father with kindness, Dickens begins writing his classic Christmas tale, creating characters like Bob Cratchit, who reject bitterness about the past and instead embrace the present’s small joys.

Cratchit may not have many reasons to celebrate, but he and his family find a happiness at Christmas that feels authentic, not despite but because of all the excuses they have to choose gloom.

Scrooge’s overnight transformation and the Cratchit family’s unflappable optimism could seem too good to be true. But the illogic of joy is what makes it real, according to Orwell:

However thick Dickens may lay on the paint, however disgusting the ‘pathos’ of Tiny Tim may be, the Cratchit family do give the impression of enjoying themselves…. The Cratchits are able to enjoy their Christmas precisely because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.

By the end of the movie, Dickens’ father hasn’t repented of his profligate ways. But in spite of his shortcomings, he does love his son. And although he doesn’t change, Dickens himself does. After finishing A Christmas Carol, Dickens accepts his father’s affection for him, imperfect as it is. After all, it’s Christmastime, a season in which each of us can recognize and embrace our incomplete happiness.

Image: Parallel Films

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