In days of special effects and extravagantly produced movies, which seem so real, you don’t have to use your mind, you only have to watch. So, you might think that going to a reading of a Christmas Carol, would be boring. You would be wrong. Those who attended Charles Dickens’ reading of his book, A Christmas Carol, at St. John’s last Sunday, were quite mesmerized, for as Mr. Dickens’ was reading our minds were racing, building the changing scenes with textures, colours and the realities of a bleak Victorian era.
In England, Mr. Dickens’ would often rent large halls so that the multitude of illiterate people in that country could hear the stories that everyone was talking about; for Mr. Dickens’ books were not just entertainment, they were also about making everyone aware of the social injustices of those Victorian time. Injustices he had lived through himself.
But why did he write this book about Christmas? By 1843, Charles Dickens’ had already produced, extremely successful The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and the Old Curiosity Shop. In October of 1843 the idea for A Christmas Carol, and when the inspiration came, it came fast, and Dickens’ became obsessed with his Christmas story, completing it in six weeks.
Today’s overwhelming commercialism and suppressed religious Christmas traditions are the opposite of the Puritan suppressions which took place after Oliver Cromwell’s success in England’s civil war. Even though the monarchy was later restored, those puritan ideals still lingered.
Dickens’ had long been frustrated with the declining seasonal traditions and Yuletide celebrations and was also appalled by the number of poor and deprived. The Industrial Revolution had changed society. Machines had taken over jobs and instead of hiring men to run these new machines they hired children for a pittance and forced them to work in factories and mines, most often in horrific conditions.
He had been exposing these conditions in his previous books, trying to find a way to make the upper classes change their attitude towards to poor and downtrodden lower classes.
Ebenezer Scrooge cared only for money, and treated family and employees with contempt. When asked to help the poor and destitute; he inquired to the state of prisons and workhouses where people in debt and with no funds were forced to go. When told the poor would rather die than go to those institutions, Scrooge responded: “If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Characters in his previous books, noted that attitudes changed at Christmas time: Who can be insensible to the outpouring of good feeling and the honest interchange of affectionate attachment, which abound at this season of the year... Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through (as it ought) and that the prejudices and passions which deform our better nature were never called into action among those to whom they should ever be strangers." From "A Christmas Dinner" in "Sketches by Boz."
Dickens knew how to catch not only the Victorian, but at modern day heart strings. How many children are ignored or pushed away in a family? Who wouldn’t want to work for Fezzywigs? The mistakes Scrooge made as a young man continue in every new generation; how many today still choose the golden idol?
Whose hearts are not tugged when the large yet loving, Cratchit family joyfully consumes a very meager meal? Whose eyes are not blurry with tears when you learn Tiny Tim will not live. Who does not rejoice when Scrooge understands the caring and love shown at Christmas must be kept all year round.
Is there anyone who cannot see some of Scrooge in themselves? Do we not all wonder if we are doing enough in this world to help others? Dickens’ penalty for selfishness and greed was enough to make most readers reflect and hopefully, like Scrooge change.
Society did work on the deplorable conditions, child laws were put into effect. The number of work days and hours were lowered. Better government and charitable institutions were formed to help the poor and destitute. Statutory holidays were made to afford time for religious holidays or reflections.
But now society is returning to the ways they fought to change. Thirteen year olds now go to work, although at least only part time. Businesses work on Sundays and holidays and once again push their employees beyond their limits both physically and stressfully.
Although Stephen Bourne played an excellent Mr. Dickens, perhaps the real Mr. Dickens needs to return and write a play which will address these reversals which are creeping, no galloping into today’s society. What happened? What changed?
One thing that Charles Dickens did not have to write about in 1843, was the reason we are supposed celebrate 'Christ'mas. Society then had not yet tried to eject religion from the celebration or everyday life. Is that the key? Perhaps we need to once again comparing A Christmas Carol not just on a personal level but to today’s society.