We've already talked about the supernatural liminality of Christmas Eve in this series, but when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, English literature had arguably left its Gothic period behind and was in an era of socially conscious novels... of the type written by a Mr. Charles Dickens. Why this dip into the supernatural for a tale of simple Christmas cheer and generosity?
Critics believe that Dickens's story was meant to unite the disparate threads of Christmas superstition and legend as embodied in the many Anglo-Saxon traditions we've looked at in this series, with a then-modern concern for the social plight of the poor. Perhaps Victorian England, like old Scrooge, would be shocked into action by the ghosts of Christmas.
Why ghosts? Spiritualism was just at the time (the 1840s) on the rise, especially in America, and Dickens had traveled there immediately prior to writing A Christmas Carol. Some have said his visit to a prison outside Pittsburgh may have also influenced his writing of the story.
When you look at the Ghosts of Christmas, you see some clear archetypes, some with Christmas antecedents, and some decidedly without. The Ghost of Christmas Past, for instance, is a shining light, a kind of androgynous and polymorphous will o' the wisp, but the description in Dickens evokes the girls wearing crowns of candles in the procession of the Feast of St. Lucia:
It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is probably the most famous folkloric archetype of them all: a jolly jovial giant, replete with cornucopia, he represents liberality and largesse, and comes from a tradition all the way from Jupiter himself (the horn of plenty was said to have fed him in his orphaned infancy), to St. Christopher, the giant who bore the Christ-child on his back. Of course, following the Ghost of Christmas Present's wake are the children Ignorance and Want, neither of them serene figures like the Christ-child but excellent metaphors for a lack of Christian charity.
And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, well. What more can be said of this Reaper figure other than the fact that by the end of the story, we have sort of gone through the purifying stages of alchemy in a strange order: from the white of Past, the green and red of present, to the black of future. Of course Scrooge comes out of this back to the Christmas at present, where he emulates the joviality and generosity of his rosy-red-cheeked and green-garlanded Christmas Present visitor... so perhaps the order isn't twisted after all?