1843: "A Christmas Carol" Is Published

By | December 15, 2021

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A Scene from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1843. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens published his classic holiday story A Christmas Carol, but had he stuck with his original idea, our yuletide celebrations might be very different. In the spring of that year, Dickens read a government report on child labor and was horrified by what he learned about the conditions of little girls sewing dresses in factories. As a former child laborer himself, the issue was near and dear to his heart, so he decided to write an informative pamphlet on the matter.

By October, however, he'd decided a fictional tale was a better avenue to take. Dickens was something of a workhorse, and these were the days when the publishing machine was much leaner and didn't require months-long social media campaigns, so his manuscript was ready for print a scant two months later, but he hit a roadblock in the form of his publishers. Dickens was determined to publish the story as a stand-alone book, but due to lackluster sales of previous efforts, the publishers wanted to run it as part of a collection or a magazine story. They ended up arriving at an odd arrangement: Dickens agreed to fund the publication of his story and reap the profits, while the publishers earned the printing costs as well as a set figure per copy sold. The story, of course, was a runaway hit, selling out by Christmas Eve, but its printing costs were so high that Dickens didn't actually see much profit.

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First edition frontispiece and title page, 1843. (Heritage Auctions/Wikimedia Commons)

If Dickens hoped to awake the public to the plight of the poor, he certainly succeeded. A Christmas Carol was considered radical back in 1843, revolutionizing the way people thought about how employers should treat their employees. Britain's uptick in charitable giving the year after its publication has been attributed to the story, and it inspired the 1% all over the Western world to give back to their employees and those in need for years to come. It also popularized several Christmas traditions that are still observed to this day, from wishing others a "Merry Christmas" to urban celebrations of what was once considered a pastoral holiday.

Today, A Christmas Carol is just as beloved as when it was first published. It's been translated into many different languages, never gone out of print, and become a favorite for Christmastime stage shows and movie nights. Its numerous film adaptations have featured everything from Muppets to kings of comedy to a famous descendant of John Elwes, who inspired Dickens to create the character of Ebeneezer Scrooge. You might know him best as the Dread Pirate Roberts.