A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
I can’t leave the 200th anniversary year of Charles Dickens’ birth without a mention of his best-loved story, A Christmas Carol. Besides, it’s short, barely novella length. Skim a copy, in print or electronic version, to cheer you while waiting through the interminable lines of the season.
You may pause to assign Dickens some of the blame for the frenzy of feasting, gift giving and year-end charitable appeals that still mark the twenty-first century celebrations. He did it with all the verve of his own invoked ghosts, the ghost of a child taken out of school to work while his father languished in debtor’s prison.
The memories were so painful, Dickens forbade his biographer to publish accounts until after his death.
“In going to (the factory) of a morning, I could not resist the stale pastry put out at half-price on trays at the confectioners’ doors. . . and I often spent in that, the money I should have kept for my dinner. Then I went without my dinner, or bought a roll, or a slice of pudding.”
How could he not write in A Christmas Carol about shops with “sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious”? Write like a hungry boy with his nose pressed against the window?
Dickens’ experience as his family’s finances deteriorated, his long walks to the factory through London’s poorest neighborhoods, the never-ending hopes of his father, John Dickens, to be saved by inheritances from better-off family members (such as the one Ebenezer Scrooge’s poor relatives yearned for) would color his writing for the rest of his life.
The story of mouthwatering abundance and cheer exists side by side with an eerie ghost story -- opening, in fact, with the image of death. “Marley was dead: to begin with,” leaving his business partner Ebenezer Scrooge his share in their business. Neither the death nor the inheritance can touch Scrooge’s cramped heart until his visitation by Marley’s ghost one Christmas Eve. The ghost prophesies the appearance of three more spirits -- the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come -- to show Scrooge the error of his miserly ways.
Will he repent in time to save the life of Tiny Tim, the disabled son of his impoverished clerk, Bob Crachit? In time to save his own life?
Even knowing he will, we still feel Scrooge’s joy when he wakes on Christmas Day, in time to send the poultry shop’s prize turkey to Cratchit’s family for dinner.
The story written, yes, to make money for Dickens’ growing family, touches strangely little on the religious aspects of Christmas. But in its emphasis on generosity, especially to the unfortunate, Dickens’ contemporary novelist Margaret Oliphant recalled, “it moved us all those days ago as if it had been a new gospel.”
For more about Dickens and A Christmas Carol, take a look at Simon Callow’s Dickens’ Christmas: A Victorian Celebration and Michael Allen’s Charles Dickens’ Childhood. The tale itself is available, of course, at Amazon and other venues.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a December of spirited adventures with one beginning on New Year’s Day, Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede.)