According to Douglas-Fairhurst, contemporary reviews of A Christmas Carol "were almost uniformly kind". The Illustrated London News described how the story's "impressive eloquence ... its unfeigned lightness of heart—its playful and sparkling humour ... its gentle spirit of humanity" all put the reader "in good humour with ourselves, with each other, with the season and with the author". The critic from The Athenaeum, the literary magazine, considered it a "tale to make the reader laugh and cry – to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable ... a dainty dish to set before a King." William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in Fraser's Magazine, described the book as "a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness. The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, 'God bless him!'"
The poet Thomas Hood, in his own journal, wrote that "If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease." The reviewer for Tait's Edinburgh Magazine—Theodore Martin, who was usually critical of Dickens's work—spoke well of A Christmas Carol, noting it was "a noble book, finely felt and calculated to work much social good". After Dickens's death, Margaret Oliphant deplored the turkey and plum pudding aspects of the book but admitted that in the days of its first publication it was regarded as "a new gospel" and noted that the book was unique in that it made people behave better. The religious press generally ignored the tale but, in January 1884, Christian Remembrancer thought the tale's old and hackneyed subject was treated in an original way and praised the author's sense of humour and pathos. The writer and social thinker John Ruskin told a friend that he thought Dickens had taken the religion from Christmas, and had imagined it as "mistletoe and pudding – neither resurrection from the dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds".
There were critics of the book. The New Monthly Magazine praised the story, but thought the book's physical excesses—the gilt edges and expensive binding—kept the price high, making it unavailable to the poor. The review recommended that the tale should be printed on cheap paper and priced accordingly. An unnamed writer for The Westminster Review mocked Dickens's grasp of economics, asking "Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them—for, unless there were turkeys and punch in surplus, someone must go without".
Following criticism of the US in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, American readers were less enthusiastic at first, but by the end of the American Civil War, copies of the book were in wide circulation. In 1863 The New York Times published an enthusiastic review, noting that the author brought the "old Christmas ... of bygone centuries and remote manor houses, into the living rooms of the poor of today".