Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Charles Dickens in his studio.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that my favorite Christmas story is A Christmas Carol, a novella by the immortal nineteenth-century British novelist, Charles Dickens. As just about anyone in the English-speaking world will know—after successive generations have created multiple movie and cartoon versions of the work—it’s the story of a miser, whom Dickens ingeniously named Ebenezer Scrooge (a surname the pronunciation of which puckers the face into a grimace of negativity), who spends a very special Christmas Eve wrestling with his inner demons and awakes on Christmas Day a brand new and infinitely better man. He is forcibly aided in that task by four ghosts, who come to him in four separate visitations: that of his former partner and fellow miser, Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge to save his mortal soul and not do what he, Marley, did with his life (unless he wants to be saddled with the same fate, to be lost in limbo); the ghost of Christmas past, who reminds him of his youth and the generosity and love he was shown by others; the ghost of Christmas present, who takes him on a mortifying tour of his current misdeeds and their consequences; and the ghost of Christmas yet to come, who makes him face his vile, pathetic legacy if he fails to change his ways.
First Edition - A Christmas Carol
By way of background, Dickens wrote this novella when he was thirty-one and did so in just six weeks with the publisher breathing down his neck. I tend to think of Dickens as being among the first “bloggers”, since, by this time, he was already quite well-known for the works he put out weekly in serialized form through periodicals, the most famous of these being the hilarious and eminently human Pickwick Papers—a work that made him a renowned writer by the time he was twenty-four. This was an innovative form of publishing that he would practice throughout his life.
But A Christmas Carol was a new departure, since it was the first work of his that was published in book form, and it met with immediate commercial success (for the publisher) coming out on December 19, and with the entire first press run having sold out by Christmas Eve. By Christmas the following year, the book was in its thirteenth printing. Some of these printings were clandestine and the author ended up being cut out of the commercial chain. Dickens sued, but the publisher went bankrupt and the writer ended up with only meager profits from the publication of what was surely one of his most popular works. He eventually recovered some of these losses, however, by making histrionic readings of the novella the centerpiece of well over a hundred of his highly popular and lucrative speaking tours. Unlike many writers who are infinitely better on paper than in person, Dickens was a powerful public speaker and an outstanding actor, which rendered the events of these tours exceedingly well-attended and often, especially in the author’s later life, well paid.   
Still today, A Christmas Carol must surely hold some records for popularity of a literary work. Since its first printing in 1843, it has never been out of print and has seen multiple adaptations for stage, screen, musicals, animation, etc.
The mean-spirited characters, like Scrooge, whom Dickens wrote about are often put down by critics to the melodrama and black and white characterizations that were so often a part of literature in the Victorian Era. But Dickens’s characters were not, in fact, black and white and even the worst of them often demonstrated glimmers of humanity or fleetingly redeeming qualities, despite their general and inevitable cruelty and avarice. Scrooge, however, crosses over entirely to portray a principle in which Dickens apparently believed strongly: the redeemability of the human spirit.
One of John Leech's color illustrations 

from the first edition, when Marley's
ghost comes to call.
The fact that Scrooge has to be “scared straight” and be threatened with the most abysmal of fates to come around to “the spirit of Christmas”—which, in the end, clearly makes his redemption yet another egotistical gesture—seems immaterial to the author. He resorts to spirits from the great beyond in order to recover Scrooge’s soul for the common good by hook or by crook, and does so without apology, since it was very likely what he would have wanted to have the power to do—active social reformer that he was—in real life, where he had observed such widespread inhumanity.
And, melodrama or no, Dickens came by his vision of public authority and private “charity” honestly. Born into a respectable if not exactly wealthy family, Dickens would witness how his father, John Dickens, frittered the family’s finances away and fell into abject debt and destitution. By the time young Charles was twelve, his father had been sentenced to debtors’ prison. The Dickens family lost everything to their creditors and Charles was forced to leave school, sell his books and take a job in a boot blacking factory, a typically filthy, unhealthy industrial operation of those times, in which child labor (which was practically child slavery) was the norm. The experience was to leave Dickens with what one biographer referred to as a “deep personal social outrage,” while providing the world with what was to be some of the greatest literature ever known. His treatment at the hands of some of the many child exploiters of those times gave Dickens a unique insight into social injustice and provided him with much of the grist for his writer’s mill.
An illustration by Fred Bernard of Dickens as 

a boy working in the boot blacking factory, 
from the 1892 edition of John Foster's 
"Life of Charles Dickens".
Oddly enough, A Christmas Carol is a highly secular tale. It doesn’t harken back to the story of the Nativity or preach from a biblical pulpit. But it surely encompasses every main principle of true Christianity—universal love, generosity, selfless charity, forgiveness, understanding, redemption, etc., etc.—in a way that envelops the reader’s heart and, hopefully, shames us for our own miserly ways and lack of social conscience.
This is why I come back to Dickens and A Christmas Carol every year at this time, because it has never quit being a universal story. Indeed, now more than ever in contemporary history, we are facing a world at least as cruel as the one Dickens portrays, and seem to have learned nothing in the last century and a half. Millions still live in slavery, employee exploitation is rampant, once strong organized labor is on its knees (thanks to government-corporate collusion), and every effort is being made to sweep the poor under the rug, rob them of their benefits and leave them for dead. Never has there been greater accumulation of wealth at the top, while tens of millions of refugees have nowhere to go, people go hungry and live on the street in some of the most “advanced” economies on earth, the planet is being poisoned at an alarming rate, and people are today more hatefully divided along political, religious and social lines than at any other time in recent memory, and to an extent that belies unquestionable advancements made in the twentieth-century post-World War II era.
Oddly enough, fundamental Christianity is enjoying a rebirth. But what exactly does that mean? Simple lip service to some religious dogma? Has it been redefined to ignore the basic teachings of its founder and namesake? And what does the greeting “Merry Christmas” really signify, unless it’s accompanied by a Dickensian transformation like the one that Ebenezer Scrooge underwent?
Fundamentalist Christians consistently advocate “getting Christ back into Christmas.” But what does that signify? Whether you are a “believer” or not, the original teachings of Christianity—and of the other monotheist religions as well—provide a perfect guideline for secular life.
Every single doctrine of the major religions—Judaism, its offspring Christianity and Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on—contains some form of the one basic rule on which all the rest of their doctrines hinge: The Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that’s the not-so-hidden message as well of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge could only see the error of his ways when he was shown the mirror image of his soul, and saw the face of cruelty, selfishness, disdain and indifference reflected back at him.
In the spirit of Christmas, it’s an exercise we would all do well to emulate, whether or not we have spirits from beyond to help us in our task, and something we should demand, as well, of the leaders we choose to follow in all walks of life.
I sincerely wish you all a Merry Christmas and a year of love, peace and healing ahead. 


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