There are plenty of folks out there crediting Charles Dickens with “inventing” Christmas. That’s a pretty drastic overstatement, but there’s a grain of truth to it. At least one author posits that, with the publication of “A Christmas Carol”, Dickens rescued his own career and shaped the celebration of Christmas as we know it today. For those who wish to pursue the matter, an intelligent refutation of that premise can be found here.
For the record, as much as a lot of people would prefer otherwise, Christmas is in fact the celebration of the birth of Christ. In our pluralistic society, people are free to ignore that fact, just as they ignore the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. You don’t have to celebrate it as such, but that’s the way it is.
The mode of that celebration, however, is quite a different matter. For example, the December date is well known to have been a later invention. Reindeer, Christmas trees, gift giving, and wassailing – not to mention Santa himself – are all among the pieces of extraneous baggage that have been heaped mercilessly on what is a simple observance of a historical and spiritual event of significance to a huge percentage of the world’s population.
Neither Dickens nor his masterpiece needs the superfluous acclaim. “A Christmas Carol” is as brilliant as it is timeless. It honors what people call the “spirit of Christmas” with only a slight nod to the religious aspect of the holiday. As such, it tends to be tolerable to all stripes. Yet the theme of repentance and transformation conforms perfectly with Christian orthodoxy. In the grand tradition of great art, it works equally well as edification and entertainment.
(One reason I prefer that version to any other is the supporting cast, which includes several performers from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Dickens’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”. In a previous post, I made no bones about my tremendous admiration for that production.)
Some of the scenes and lines of dialog in the book are as fresh and meaningful today as they’ve ever been. The poor still struggle, barely noticed, at the feet of the rich. Dickens’s bleak portrayal of that situation is neglected in many dramatic presentations of the story.
I reproduce the exchange between Scrooge and The Spirit of Christmas Present below. Now as it was then, the prose is rich and evocative, the message relevant and convicting.
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The bell struck twelve.
It makes me wonder what the bell strikes today.