- ‘Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them‘ is a quotation from A Christmas Carol (Stave 1).
- A Christmas Carol is a novella, or short story, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the Christmas of 1843. The allegorical tale tells the story of the transformation of the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge through the visits of the spirit of his former business partner and three ghosts over the course of a Christmas Eve night. It remains a much-loved traditional Christmas tale.
This quotation comes at the beginning of Stave 1 of A Christmas Carol. The author, Charles Dickens, has already introduced the reader to the character Ebenezer Scrooge and his deceased former business partner, Jacob Marley. He is now telling us the story is set on a cold and foggy Christmas Eve, where Scrooge is working late at his counting house (along with his clerk, Bob Cratchit).
In Victorian times, a counting house was similar to what we term an accountants office in the present day, handling financial transactions as part of a business or for external clients. Scrooge’s counting house business is called Scrooge and Marley. He has retained the Marley name even though his partner died on the same day seven years previously.
Dickens uses the words ‘Once upon a time‘ in this quotation to introduce the setting of Scrooge in his counting-house on a cold Christmas Eve. Once upon a time is traditionally used to start a fairy tale, a short story often read aloud to entertain families or small groups of people in a time long before the electronic entertainment we enjoy today. A Christmas Carol was written as a short novella, a shorter form of a novel, and like fairy tales designed to be easily read aloud in a short space of time, making it an ideal entertainment at Christmas time. Fairy Tales traditionally have happy endings so by starting the novel this way, Dickens is suggesting to the reader that the story is likely to have a happy ending.
Taken from the following passage of Stave 1 (Marley’s Ghost) of A Christmas Carol:
Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.
The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.
Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most famous characters created by Charles Dickens and arguably one of the most famous in English literature. The protagonist of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is a cold-hearted and mean-spirited accountant. His business partner, the equally mean Jacob Marley, died seven years previous and he lives alone, having never married. Through a visit one Christmas Eve by the ghost of Marley and three subsequent spirits, Scrooge is awakened to his meanness and the impact it has on others.
- The term Scrooge has entered the English Language to represent a mean person, known as a literary neologism. Neologisms are relatively recent terms, words, or phrases in the process of entering common use. Other examples of Dickens’s neologisms include butterfingers (to mean a clumsy person) and doormat (a metaphor for taking advantage of a person).
- In a poll to find the most popular Charles Dickens character, Ebenezer Scrooge was revealed to be the best-loved, beating other well-known characters from the writer including Pip (Great Expectations), Oliver (Oliver Twist), and Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). The survey, by Penguin Books, was commissioned in 2012 to mark 200th anniversary of the author’s birth.
- In screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by actors that include Alastair Sim (1951 film), Albert Finney (1970 musical film), Michael Hordern (1977 TV Movie), George C. Scott (1984 TV Movie), Michael Caine (1992 musical fantasy film), Patrick Stewart (1999 TV Movie) and Guy Pearce (2019 TV Mini-Series). Michael Hordern had previously appeared alongside Alastair Sim in the 1951 film (titled Scrooge), this time playing the character of Jacob Marley.
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