by Jamie Lutton
- For The Capitol Hill Times -
When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1842, the holiday was nearly dead in modern England. Christmas was celebrated by the rural and poor, but frowned upon by employers. It took an American, Washington Irving, to praise Christmas to the highest, mourning the loss of the great traditions in this new modern age.
Dickens admired Irving. In earlier writings, such as “Sketches by Boz,” Dickens made much of the “strain of goodwill and cheerfulness,” that this holiday did more to spread good will among neighbors than any preaching or homilies.
Dickens came to write “Carol” while at a low ebb. His pervious book had not been popular and he was struggling. He was working on nonfiction pamphlets about the horrendous working conditions of children in Manchester. But the visions of Ignorance and Want that he saw on the faces of the starved, overworked and ragged children inspired him, and he worked backwards from the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge those children to compose the whole tale.
He “laughed and wept and laughed again” as he walked 15 to 20 miles a day in the streets of London, composing the story in his head, then locking himself away from friends and his family for weeks.
It was an immediate hit. Instantly plagiarized onstage and sold in bootleg editions, the story made Dickens little money in its fancy first printing. But it made him famous. When he died decades later a little girl was heard to say, “Mr. Dickens is dead? Is Father Christmas dead as well?”
Christmas is more elaborate today than it was even 75 years ago. We have all noticed mention of the holiday creep up on TV and in stores as early as Nov. 1. Its commercial appeal is a chance for retailers to persuade us to buy presents for each other, cook elaborate meals, travel, etc. So the soul of Christmas is often forgotten in the haste of spending money. There are social pressures to conform to, even if gift giving has become an onerous duty.
Mr. Scrooge is Dickens’ caricature of a good businessman, with a cold and indifferent heart, and little contact with the world in which he lives. He turns his face away from ordinary charity and warmth, preferring to think instead about money.
Dickens invented the Christmas tale with “A Carol,” and it has been played on by many subsequent authors, but what makes it the best of all the Christmas tales is its thesis: Stop and think about your life. Live in a thoughtful fashion, filled with compassion. Have hope and love your fellow man. Christmas Day is just the focus of this spirit.
Some historians believe that this story, and this story alone, is responsible for our continued observance of Christmas. It revived very old customs that had been on the verge of dying out. But there is an urgent subtext that drives this tale, and it is in the mouth of Scrooge when he says to a group of businessmen who came to him for a donation to the poor, “If they had rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
This was a popular contention spurred by the influence of Thomas Malthus, a pernicious science essayist of the late 18th century, who argued that poor people were a social burden to all and should die. This is partly why so many Irish died in the Irish Potato Famine a few years after “A Carole” was written. The English government, which had controlled and occupied Ireland for centuries, took the position that these poor and starving people were surplus and a burden. Millions of Irish died by inches of starvation, even as their country was exporting food. The English government stopped charitable organizations from helping the Irish.
This story was Charles Dickens’ rebuke of this kind of thinking. He shows the reader the Cratchet family, with many children and one, Tiny Tim, dying by inches because he did not get enough food or medical attention. Even now, some of the more heartless among us would sneer at such a family, blaming the parents for having too many children.
Charles Dickens had been poor himself. At age 12, his father left him at a factory to work, as he had no money to feed him. This was a terrible experience, working 14 hours a day, six days a week, among other children in horrible, hopeless conditions. He also saw two of his siblings die young from malnourishment. Dickens never forgot these experiences.
When The Spirit of Christmas Present says to Scrooge that who knows who is truly surplus, Dickens was speaking to the reader – the middle class reader – about the real spirit of Christmas.
We often forget what Christmas is about. The gifts we give each other were intended to stand in for gifts given Jesus in the New Testament. Even a confirmed agnostic like myself can see the value in that old story.
Let us be compassionate to each other, see past the blinding and thick commercial haze that covers this holiday, celebrate our affection for each other and open our hearts to all. As Dickens wrote, “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
Wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.
Jamie Lutton is the owner of Twice Sold Tales. Read more of her writing at booksellersvsbestsellers.com.