The writer Charles Dickens was born to a respectable family which got into financial difficulties as a result of the spendthrift nature of John, Dickens's father. In 1824 John was committed to Marshalsea, a debtors' prison in Southwark, London. Dickens, aged 12, was forced to pawn his collection of books, leave school and go to work at a shoe-blacking factory, a dirty and rat-infested place. The change in Dickens's circumstances gave him what his biographer, Michael Slater, described as a "deep personal and social outrage", which heavily influenced his works.
At the end of December 1842 Dickens began publishing his novel Martin Chuzzlewit as a monthly serial;[n 1] although the novel was his favourite work, sales had been disappointing and he faced financial difficulties. By this time he was a well-established author, having written six major works,[n 2] as well as several short stories, novellas and other works.
Celebrating the Christmas season had been growing in popularity through the Victorian era. Although the Christmas tree had been introduced in Britain during the 18th century, its use was popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and their practice was copied in many homes across the country. In the early 19th century there had been a revival of interest in Christmas carols, following a decline in popularity over the previous hundred years. The publication of Davies Gilbert's 1823 work Some Ancient Christmas Carols, With the Tunes to Which They Were Formerly Sung in the West of England and William Sandys's 1833 collection Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern led to a growth in the form's popularity in Britain.
Dickens had an interest in Christmas, and his first story on the subject was "Christmas Festivities", published in Bell's Weekly Messenger in 1835; the story was then published as "A Christmas Dinner" in Sketches by Boz (1836). "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton", another Christmas story, appeared in the 1836 novel The Pickwick Papers,[n 3] followed by a passage about Christmas in Dickens's editorial Master Humphrey's Clock.
Dickens was not the first author to celebrate the Christmas season in literature. Among earlier authors who influenced Dickens was Washington Irving, whose 1819–20 work The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. included four essays on old English Christmas traditions that he experienced while staying at Aston Hall near Birmingham. The tales and essays attracted Dickens, and the two authors shared the belief that the staging of a nostalgic English Christmas might help restore the social harmony that had been lost in the modern world.
Several works may have had an influence on the writing of A Christmas Carol, including two Douglas Jerrold essays: one from an 1841 issue of Punch, "How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas" and one from 1843, "The Beauties of the Police". More broadly, Dickens was influenced by fairy tales and nursery stories, which he closely associated with Christmas, because he saw them as stories of conversion and transformation.
Dickens was touched by the lot of poor children in the middle decades of the 19th century. In early 1843 he toured the Cornish tin mines, where he was angered after seeing children working in appalling conditions. The suffering he witnessed there was reinforced by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged school, one of several London schools set up for the education of the capital's half-starved, illiterate street children.
In February 1843 the Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission was published. It was a parliamentary report exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon working class children. Horrified by what he read, Dickens planned to publish an inexpensive political pamphlet tentatively titled, An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child, but changed his mind, deferring the pamphlet's production until the end of the year. In March he wrote to Dr. Southwood Smith, one of the four commissioners responsible for the Second Report, about his change in plans: "you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force—I could exert by following out my first idea".
In a fundraising speech on 5 October 1843 at the Manchester Athenaeum, Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, and realised in the days following that the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays.
By mid-1843 Dickens began to suffer from financial problems. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit were slowing, and his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with the couple's fifth child. Matters worsened when Chapman & Hall, Martin Chuzzlewit's publishers, began to talk about reducing his monthly income by £50 if sales dropped further. He began to write A Christmas Carol in October 1843. Michael Slater, Dickens's biographer, describes the book as being "written at white heat"; it was completed in six weeks, with the final pages written in early December. He built much of the work in his head while taking night-time walks of 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 km) around London. Slater says that A Christmas Carol was
intended to open its readers' hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor.
George Cruikshank, the illustrator who had previously worked with Dickens on Sketches by Boz (1836) and Oliver Twist (1838), introduced him to the caricaturist John Leech. By 24 October Dickens invited Leech to work on A Christmas Carol, and four hand-coloured etchings and four black-and-white wood engravings by the artist accompanied the text.