With the approach of Christmas, many look forward to hearing or seeing that perennial favourite, A Christmas Carol. Without disrespect to this tradition, perhaps it is time to take another look at Dickens and Christmas.
Though the Carol will always remain his most popular and loved tribute to the Christmas season, Dickens wrote many other works about the holiday.
With the commercialization of the season, and especially of the Carol, society seems to have missed the point: In all his Christmas novels and stories, Charles Dickens was attempting to show the significance of keeping Christ in Christmas.
It was Dickens, with the help of Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert, who made Christmas, which had become a controversial holiday, respectable again. Albert did his part by introducing the Christmas tree, with its bright decorations and lights, and Dickens, through his five Christmas novels and his annual Christmas stories, set the tone for the present-day season. With his iconic book, A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, he played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill and compassion.
Dickens wrote five Christmas novels: A Christmas Carol, 1843; The Chimes, 1844; The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845; The Battle of Life, 1846; and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, 1848. Then, he started to run his and his friends’ Christmas stories annually in his weekly magazines.
At various times, Dickens wrote about what Christmas meant to him. In the preface of the 1852 edition of the Christmas Books, he wrote that he had wanted to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts “never out of season in a Christian land.” Dickens often spoke of his “Carol philosophy,” which he thought of as conveying the “moral lessons” of the season rather than all the embellishments and frivolities. One editor of the Christmas stories writes that this “Carol philosophy was at the heart of all his work and formed the basis of the Christmas stories.”
The other important aspect of the season, clearly illustrated in the Christmas stories, is that it brought out thoughts of the past, especially those of idealistic childhood when one believed in magic. When he began to edit *Household Words*, Dickens wrote that one of his goals was to “cherish the light of Fancy which is inherent in the human breast, which can never be extinguished.” It is this belief that enabled Dickens in his various Christmas stories to focus on childhood memories, memories that often brought a mixture of joy and sorrow to the characters in the stories.
The same thoughts are presented in, “What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older.” Written when Dickens was grieving over the deaths of his infant daughter, Dora, and his father, this story emphasizes Christmas Day and dwells on the way the Christmas fire “bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and every one around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete.” In the story, it is stressed that Christmas is a time to forget petty grievances and to not find fault with others. Instead, he writes, “Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance! It is in the last virtues especially, that we are, or should be, strengthened by the unaccomplished visions of our youth.” He concludes: “Therefore, as we grow older, let us be thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands. Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth!”
One of Dickens’ most moving Christmas stories is “Nobody’s Story.” Again, it focuses on the plight of the poor and helpless during what should be a joyful season. The central character, the narrator, is simply called He, and his fireside, unlike that of Mr. Bigwig, the rich and prosperous protagonist of the story, is “a bare one, hemmed in by blackened streets.” At one point in the story, He appeals to the Bigwig family: “We are a labouring people, and I have a glimmering suspicion in me that labouring people were made by a higher intelligence than yours to be in need of mental refreshment and recreation. Come! Amuse me harmlessly, show me something, give me an escape!” “But here,” writes Dickens, “the Bigwig family fell into a state of uproar absolutely deafening.”
Dickens, as in the Carol, contrasts what happens and what is possible when the real meaning of the season, when one celebrates Christmas with the veneration due its sacred name and origin. To make his moral theme clear to the reader, Dickens concludes He’s story with two brief sentences:
“So Nobody lived and died in the old, old, old way, and this, in the main, is the whole of Nobody’s story. Had he no name, you ask? Perhaps it was Legion. It matters little what his name was. Let us call him Legion.”
In the last sentence of the story, Dickens returns to the image of the hearth, a symbol of warmth and hospitality: “O! Let us think of them this year at the Christmas fire, and not forget them when it is burnt out.”
While one cannot dispute that A Christmas Carol remains Dickens' most famous and most popular Christmas story, one that captures the quintessential Dickensian sentiment and pathos, the Carol philosophy; it is important that all of his works and especially the entire corpus of his Christmas novels and stories be kept in mind. They all convey the major themes of the power of love, especially family love, and the way that memories, especially painful ones, are able to bring about moral redemption. Dickens' own view of Scrooge's "redemption" is found at the end of the novel. Unlike the "unredeemed" Scrooge at the beginning of the story, the one who is described as a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner," the "redeemed" Scrooge is a changed person.
The redeemed Scrooge, it seems, is now fully aware of the true meaning of the Christmas season: remembering the birth of Christ and unselfishly helping others. All is possible at this magical time of the year.
Scrooge’s veneration of its name and origin is also present in all of Dickens’ Christmas stories, and they should be remembered as Scrooge reinforces that sentiment. "It was always said of him," Dickens tells us, "that he knew how to keep Christmas well. May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
DECENBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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