dickens and christmas -- 12/22/16

Today's encore selection -- from 'Father Christmas' by Kathryn Harrison. At the end of the 19th century, Charles Dickens's short novel A Christmas Carol had readership second only to the Bible's:

"If only Ebenezer Scrooge had not in the excitement of his transformation from miser to humanitarian diverged from the traditional Christmas goose to surprise Bob Cratchit with a turkey 'twice the size of Tiny Tim.' But -- alas -- he did, and as 'A Christmas Carol' approaches its 165th birthday, a Google search answers the plaint 'leftover turkey' with more than 300,000 promises of recipes to dispatch it. As for England's goose-raising industry, it tanked. ...

Artist's impression of Charles Dickens

at the blacking warehouse, 1904

"The public's extraordinary and lasting embrace of Dickens's short novel is but one evidence of the 19th century's changing attitude toward Christmas. In 1819, Washington Irving's immensely popular 'Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent' had 'glorified' the 'social rites' of the season. Clement Moore's 1823 poem 'The Night Before Christmas' introduced a fat and jolly St. Nick whose obvious attractions eclipsed what had been a 'foreboding figure of judgment' as likely to distribute canings as gifts. Queen Victoria and her Bavarian husband, Albert, 'great boosters of the season,' had installed a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle each year since 1840, encouraging a fad that spread overseas to America by 1848. ...

"What is true is that Christmas, more than any other holiday, offered a means for the adult Dickens to redeem the despair and terrors of his childhood. In 1824, after a series of financial embarrassments drove his family to exchange what he remembered as a pleasant country existence for a 'mean, small tenement' in London, the 12-year-old Dickens, his schooling interrupted -- ended, for all he knew -- was sent to work 10-hour days at a shoe blacking factory in a quixotic attempt to remedy his family's insolvency. Not even a week later, his father was incarcerated in the infamous Marshalsea prison for a failure to pay a small debt of £40 to a baker. At this, Dickens's 'grief and humiliation' overwhelmed him so thoroughly that it retained the power to overshadow his adult accomplishments, calling him to 'wander desolately back' to the scene of his mortification. And because Dickens's tribulations were not particular to him but emblematic of the Industrial Revolution -- armies of neglected, unschooled children forced into labor -- the concerns that inform his fiction were shared by millions of potential readers. ...

"Replacing the slippery Holy Ghost with anthropomorphized spirits, the infant Christ with a crippled child whose salvation waits on man's -- not God's -- generosity, Dickens laid claim to a religious festival, handing it over to the gathering forces of secular humanism. If a single night's crash course in man's power to redress his mistakes and redeem his future without appealing to an invisible and silent deity could rehabilitate even so apparently lost a cause as Ebenezer Scrooge, imagine what it might do for the rest of us!"


Kathryn Harrison


'Father Christmas'


The New York Times Sunday Book Review


December 5, 2008


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