Historical Context in A Christmas Carol
Victorian Christmas Traditions: Many of the popular practices surrounding modern Christmas celebrations were conceptualized or popularized in the English Victorian era. Queen Victoria, who had married German Prince Albert, adopted several of her husband’s customs, most notably the decorated Christmas tree. Roast turkeys were popularized as a Christmas meal, especially among the upper class. Carols, though not invented by the Victorians, were made a holiday staple by them. Due to the era’s prosperity, it was more accepted—and eventually expected—that workers would take days off for Christmas celebrations. Furthermore, advances in manufacturing allowed for store-bought gifts to be purchased by a wider range of socioeconomic statuses. Though A Christmas Carol is not the origin of these customs, it is credited with helping disseminate them throughout Britain and much of the English-speaking world.
Historical Context Examples in A Christmas Carol:
"Their faithful Friend and Servant, ..." See in text (Preface)
Dickens calls himself a “Friend and Servant” here because the claims made by the report, combined with first-hand accounts, so disturbed Dickens that he would deliver a “sledge-hammer blow . . . on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” The best way he could do this was through writing. He already enjoyed wide fame, and he used his notoriety to promote his social consciousness.
"I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book..." See in text (Preface)
Charles Dickens loved Christmas and had very fond memories of the holiday with his family. In 1843, a father of several children himself, Dickens read a report on child labor abuses in England. The report prompted Dickens to visit the Field Lane Ragged School (ragged schools were schools that provided free education, and in some cases food, shelter, and clothing to poor children) but was horrified by the conditions. This ultimately encouraged Dickens to write a politically productive novel that would “raise” awareness.
"Poor Law..." See in text (Stave One)
This refers to the system of social welfare for poor people in Victorian England. As of 1815, the Poor Law dictated that each parish must help their poor in the form of additional money. However, with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the law changed to dictate that each poor person must exchange hours of manual labour at a workhouse for food and clothing. It was a law designed to limit help for the poor to only exceptional circumstances. Many people saw the law change as unfair, as it seemed to punish the poor, sick, and elderly, and only make conditions worse for those in need.
" Bedlam..." See in text (Stave One)
The noun “Bedlam” is a colloquial word meaning a scene of chaos and uproar. It originates from a shortening of the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, an asylum for the mentally ill in England.
"decrease the surplus population..." See in text (Stave One)
As Victorian England was in an economic crisis, there was a movement that advocated for population reduction. Thomas Malthus, a British economist, was widely credited as one of the founders of this ideology. His publications theorized that a population “surplus” would mean a food supply deficit and that solving this problem meant strictly limiting reproduction. Malthus later supported the institution of workhouses since separating families was thought to decrease reproduction and increase industrial productivity. It is unclear if Scrooge has read Malthus or not, but he seems to have been influenced by this popular belief that population control should start with the poor.
"Treadmill..." See in text (Stave One)
The “treadmill” or “treadwheel” was a device introduced to British prison systems in 1818 by Sir William Cubitt, an engineer. As punishment, prisoners would be forced to climb wooden steps on rotation in order to generate power. The treadmill was commonly used for power to grind grains, but sometimes was simply used for punishment. Treadwheels could also be found in union workhouses, wherein the poor resident workers were “employed” to generate power for ten hours a day with a short break. The use of treadwheels for punishment and forced labor was eventually banned in Britain by 1898
" Union workhouses..." See in text (Stave One)
One of the main political issues that Dickens was concerned with was the astounding level of poverty in 19th-century England, especially in London. Often the poor, sick, mentally ill, or orphaned would end up in a “union workhouse.” These workhouses were established by the British Government’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 in order to offer food and shelter to the poor in exchange for work. The workhouses were notoriously overcrowded, unclean, and many people nearly starved. The work itself was grueling and designed to keep workers busy at all times. Children were not exempt from working and were often denied visiting rights to their parents who were forced to stay in separate barracks.
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course..." See in text (Stave One)
Dickens does two things in this passage. First, he further characterizes Scrooge as an unsympathetic miser. Second, he has Scrooge represent the ignorant and uncharitable attitude of the wealthy and aristocratic classes of the time, whom Dickens himself despised. Since value was often equated with financial status, Scrooge, and others like him, failed to see value in those who needed financial assistance.
"a mere United States' security..." See in text (Stave Two)
Likely a reference to the United States’ financial struggles in the 1830s–40s, this phrase means “unreliable.” During this period, the US underwent a financial crisis and recession called the Panic of 1837, which resulted in widespread poverty and loss of capital. Furthermore, the Second Bank of the United States, primarily funded by European creditors and meant to be a hub for American fiscal transactions, was attacked by president Andrew Jackson after his inauguration in 1829. Due to his and his Democratic party’s efforts, the bank was liquidated in 1841, just a few years before A Christmas Carol was published.
"“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said...." See in text (Stave Four)
Though readers are not directly told what sort of clothes Mrs. Cratchit is sewing, it can be inferred by her and Scrooge’s sorrowful reactions that they are mourning clothes. Victorian mourning customs dictated that families of the deceased wore solemn black outfits for a specified period of time as an outward reflection of internal grief. Readers can guess that the black color of the clothing is quite distressing to Mrs. Cratchit due to the death it represents.
"skater..." See in text (Stave Four)
The noun “skater” in Dickens’s time refers to ice skating, a leisurely Christmas activity beginning to increase in popularity around this time.
"charwoman..." See in text (Stave Four)
“Charwoman” refers to a woman hired by a household typically to clean, do chores, etc. During the Victorian era, it was very popular to hire domestic servants, and the number of domestic servants a household had was a marker of socio-economic status. However, since cleaning was a much more time-consuming and grueling task than it is today, most households, even those that were middle-class, at least hired a charwoman.
"half a crown..." See in text (Stave Five)
"Half a crown," or a "half crown," was equivalent to two shillings and sixpence (six pennies in the United States.) This would be considered quite a generous sum for a quick errand during Dickens's time, and considering that Scrooge could easily fetch the turkey himself, it highlights his change in character. Scrooge is essentially giving this child a Christmas gift.
"Walk-ER..." See in text (Stave Five)
“Walk-er,” also known as “hookey walker,” was a term that was commonly used to express incredulity. The speaker would often use the word in much the same way that “nonsense” or “humbug” might have been used.