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America's Dickensian Christmas Carol: Why a Tale About London Has Overtaken the U.S. Holiday Season

Americans flock to see this classic British Christmas tale…even when it’s performed in Klingon. logo
Franca Vercilloni in Patrick Barlow's adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
(© Joan Marcus)

No matter where you go home to for the holidays, it's almost certain that there will be a theater, museum, or folksy amusement park nearby putting on a heartwarming production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Theatrical adaptations of this 1843 novel are so common this time of year that TheaterMania's roundup of holiday theater across the country includes not one, but five versions. You can find hip-hop productions and hilarious productions, and even productions in Klingon.

There are other sugar-plum sweet Christmas stories, of course: White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, and It's a Wonderful Life, to name just a few. But nothing comes close to rivaling the popularity of that ageless Halloween Christmas fable about a nasty old man who's visited in the night by the spirit of his old coworker and then made to witness the horrors of his life by a series of increasingly frightening ghosts. It made us wonder, why is this our most beloved yuletide tale?

According to Patrick Barlow, adapter of Broadway's The 39 Steps as well as a new five-actor version of A Christmas Carol, this is a purely American obsession. Despite the story being written by one of England's most beloved authors and taking place in London, barely a Brit could tell you the story. "Nobody's seen it in England. They all go, ‘What's that?'" said the writer, "You might get it done two or three times in the Christmas season in different provincial theaters. And it's not done in London or the West End or anything."

So what makes this story such a big deal across these far-flung United States? For one, even though the story is over a century old, there are elements of A Christmas Carol that ring true even for Americans of a 21st-century mentality. "The story of this very greedy man lending money to exorbitant [amounts] has a bit of a connection to now, to what's going on with banking…it's not just a period piece," Barlow explained.

Elliott Forrest, WQXR host and director of the radio station's yearly radio-drama version of A Christmas Carol, hazards another guess: the American Dream: "Part of it may be the American idea that you can change, that you can grow, that you can be better. I hope that's an ideal that other people feel in other countries. But I do tend to think that this idea that you can come to America, you can come to New York, and be anything that you want to be [is common] here… but maybe that's why Americans tend to gravitate to it."

Even so, there have been myriad of film adaptations that are also available across the Atlantic, from The Muppets to the 2009 animated film to 1973's BBC presentation of famed mime Marcel Marceau's pantomimed version. And London's Charles Dickens Museum offers Christmas Dickensian walking tours throughout December. But the Americans seem especially aware of the tale's particular genius.

"I think next to some Shakespeare stories, and maybe more than some, it's a classic…," Forrest explained, "It's a story of redemption and getting a second chance, and I think the story just moves people every single year. The other thing that I've noticed is that like a good Shakespeare play, it's different every single time we do it."

A Christmas Carol is nostalgic family fun that evokes both Victorian romance and Protestant values. Sure, it's also a terrifying ghost story. But if you find yourself thinking (as Rizzo the Rat does in The Muppet Christmas Carol), "Boy, that's scary stuff! Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?" Take Gonzo's advice, "Nah, it's all right. This is culture!"