In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote a novella called A Christmas Carol, a story still told today. The story followed a miser (a nasty man who does not want to share his wealth) on Christmas Eve, as he is visited by three spirits that teach him about kindness and caring. Its positive message, of a bad person becoming generous, has had a big impact on Western culture around the Christmas season – including interesting contributions to the English language.
The Impact of A Christmas Carol
Today, the Western world associates Christmas with a time of generosity and giving, and the release of A Christmas Carol really promoted this idea. Historians have linked the context of Christmas as a time of social reconciliation to a Victorian revival of the holiday, which was at least in part made popular by Charles Dickens’ story. There are numerous accounts, from its publication through today, of people becoming especially generous as a direct result of reading the story.
Its story of redemption and kindness has been adapted into every medium – TV, film, radio, animations, musicals, opera, ballet, comics…there are hundreds of different versions, and parodies of A Christmas Carol.
Why was it so popular? Because it was moral but also merry – given the rise of Puritanism, it brought back a more relaxed and jovial “spirit” to Christmas, a spirit that is still talked about today. And it is talked about in language that the novella itself helped popularise.
The Language of A Christmas Carol
As well as three phrases in use in English today, A Christmas Carol popularised a trope of storytelling – the idea of an unhappy man changing his ways after witnessing his past, present and future (something grammar students can no doubt relate to). With it came to concepts of The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (but let’s call him future…). Literally Christmas Spirits.
The main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, has become a noun in English – a scrooge is someone who is either ungenerous or generally miserable.
Scrooge’s phrase, “Bah! Humbug!”, for showing general irritation or dissatisfaction, was also popularised by the story. However, it is now rather old-fashioned and is used more for theatrical flair!
Most interesting, though, is how A Christmas Carol brought us the phrase “Merry Christmas!”, in the popular and positive sense it is used today. The expression Merry Christmas had been around long before the story, but only in the Victorian era was the word merry being used as jolly or outgoing (previously meaning the more reserved ‘pleasant’). Thanks to the popularity of Dickens’ story, where the phrase is prominently featured, this more outgoing modern use has spread across the world.