Port Jefferson on Long Island is proud of its annual Dickens Festival. The sidewalks are full of costumed characters: chimney sweeps, bobbies, ragged urchins, characters with names like Thomas Beg Alot, and Lord Dudley Butterworth, and of course Ebenezer Scrooge. There’s a Dickensian stage set, the sound of bells and carols are in the air, candles glow in the windows, and there are even some real (slightly mangy) reindeer that can be petted and photographed. If it wasn’t for the traffic driving on the wrong side of the road, and the Long Island accents, this might be nineteenth-century London.
Charles Dickens more or less invented the modern Christmas, with all its charms and excesses. When the Puritans were in power, back in the 1600s, Christmas festivities were banned, along with plum puddings. Even up to the 1840s, Christmas was not much more than a date on the church calendar.
Then along came Dickens and his book A Christmas Carol, and December was never the same again. He published the book as a potboiler in 1844 to recover his finances after the failure of Martin Chuzzelewit. As everyone knows, A Christmas Carol became a mega bestseller. Dickens even made an American tour, reading his sentimental story to rapt audiences.
Now Christmas on both sides of the Atlantic is forever associated with the protean figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser who was scared straight and became a kind of Father Christmas figure himself. But what exactly is the message of A Christmas Carol?
Some people see it as a family story, focusing on the fortunes of the loveable Cratchits. Others read it as a parable of personal transformation, or even salvation, teaching that it’s never too late to change. Others interpret A Christmas Carol as a metaphor of the good and evil in human nature, in which goodness and charity win out in the end. The commercial interpretation of Scrooge’s change of heart is that saving is bad and spending is good – so get intro the spirit of the season and start punishing those credit cards. And I suspect that most young audiences regard it as just a jolly good ghost story.
I really enjoy the Dickensian Christmas as a nostalgic fantasy. But the real Christmas of 1844 wouldn’t be half as much fun as a Dickens Festival on Long Island. It would be hard work. We’d have to make our own puddings, decorations, gifts and Christmas cards out of basic ingredients. We would be living in the brutal laissez faire economy that Dickens hated so much: millions in poverty and unemployed, terrifying crime levels, child labor, no social safety net (unless you count the workhouse), and don’t even think about health care.
I think that what Dickens tries to say in A Christmas Carol is exactly what he appears to say: that an obsession with money is literally soul destroying. He dramatized a common Victorian belief that equated poverty with virtue and wealth with corruption. This subversive idea was plagiarized straight from The Bible, a book with which Dickens was intimately acquainted.
In A Christmas Carol Dickens tells the heartwarming story of a miser transformed by the Christmas spirit, and of a poor family rising above their poverty and counting their blessings, even when they didn’t have any. It makes us feel good, as the author intended. Ten years later Dickens wrote Hard Times, a much darker picture of predatory capitalism without any hint of redemption. Let’s hope he got it right the first time.