Victorian Christmas Customs

Those of us who think that "Christmas isn't what it used to be" couldn't be more wrong, for the way in which we celebrate our midwinter festival today is very similar to that of our middle-class, Victorian ancestors. There are many rituals associated with the Victorian Christmas that have survived the test of time: setting light to the pudding, kissing under the mistletoe and decorating the Christmas tree are just some of them.


"So the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness"

Dickens's Own Adaptation
Satirical Adaptations
On-Line Adaptations
List of adaptations of The Carol

Adaptations of A Christmas Carol fall into three rough categories. The first of these is a straight adaptation, or interpretation of the story for the sake of the story, with an attempt to keep as close to the Dickens text as is possible. The second is the use of the story as a medium through which to make an often unrelated point. A Christmas Carol has often been adapted in this manner to political commentary or satire. The third is an exploitation of the story's popularity or cultural importance as a sure way to make money.

Even faithful adaptations vary slightly because they contain the opinions and priorities of the writers. J. Edward Parrott explained the changes in his adaptation of A Christmas Carol by explaining that, because he recommended the play for young people, certain scenes were "too tragical in their intensity, and too harrowing in their unpalliating realism."

Cyclical political and moral attitudes also affect adaptations. In most of the adaptations that stray from Dickens's original text, many of the changes are representative of the era in which that adaptation was done. For example, before the stock market crash of 1929, an adaptation called An American Carol was a business-based celebration of capitalism. A forward-looking 1928 stage version of A Christmas Carol called Mr. Scrooge contained a "critique of capitalism" and portrayed a Cratchit with "the beginnings of a revolutionary consciousness." (In contrast, see this quote from the London Daily Worker.)

The older the story gets the looser the interpretations become. Many of late twentieth-century adaptations are based on either the events or the characters in A Christmas Carol, rather than on the story as a whole. For example, Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas echoes the hard-hearted miser who learns to love the Christmas season. The Frank Capra film, It's A Wonderful Life depicts the personal transformation following a man's observations of his life as if he were absent from it.

The adaptations mentioned so far all have a Christmas setting. There have also been similar adaptations for other holidays. The an episode in the situation-comedy Roseanne shows Roseanne losing her Halloween spirit, being visited by ghosts of Halloween past, present, and future, and then regaining her love of Halloween pranks. There has also been a version of the Grinch's story, adapted to Halloween.

Like folklore, perceptions of A Christmas Carol have changed as the story is passed down from one generation to another. Most people are familiar with Dickens's Carol have never read the original book. Though A Christmas Carol is a literary work written long after the time of oral storytelling had passed, its history is very much that of a folk tale. Anyone who studies the Carol soon sees that the story changes as its audience changes, and it will continue to change in Christmases yet to come.

Dickens's Own Adaptation

From 1857 until the end of his life, Charles Dickens performed public readings of his books. A Christmas Carol was his most popular and favorite reading. It was the first piece he performed, and the last before his death. Dickens adapted the Carol for performance, shortened it first to three hours, then eventually to an hour and a half. (This book reprints his script)

Dickens seldom referred to the prompt copy of A Christmas Carol that he carried onto the stage with him, and each reading was a little different, because he added to and changed the Carol when he read. "I got things out of the old Carol--effects I mean--so entirely new and strong that I quite amazed myself and wondered where I was going next," he wrote to a friend. The Manchester Examiner in 1867 said of his readings, "There is always a freshness about what Mr. Dickens does--one reading is never anything like a mechanical following of a previous reading, even of the same work." Another newspaper of the time wrote, "He gave to every character a different voice, a different style, a different face."

Dickens enjoyed performing because he loved his "public." Writing of his first audiences at a reading of the Carol, he said, "They lost nothing, misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried... and animated me to that extent that I felt we were all bodily going up into the clouds together."

In 1867 and 1868, Dickens performed in the United States. His readings were so popular that people camped overnight in the streets to buy tickets at box offices, or found tickets sold by scalpers. In Washington D.C., President Andrew Johnson had tickets for his family every night. The tour was incredibly lucrative. Dickens made $140,000 on the tour, an immense sum for the time. He refused to pay taxes on this income--in protest to a government which for decades had not taken up his cause of international copyright--and was physically protected by the New York City police from the federal tax collectors who came to arrest him the day he boarded ship to return to London.


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