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December 20, 2007

The Founder of the Feast: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Posted by Lincoln Allison

A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
first published 1843

pp. 19-85 of Christmas Books
Pp. 383. Collins, 1979

Available as a Penguin Classics, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (Penguin, 2003), £7.99

You have seen the Muppets' version. And that of the Local Amateur Dramatic Society. Plus a hundred others - and a thousand derivatives. Now return to the original, the story of a mean, curmudgeonly man who is shown in visions on Christmas Eve the consequences of his meanness and curmudgeonliness including his own unmourned body and unlamented grave and, as a consequence, becomes a nice man. It is a story so deeply rooted in fable and parable, so transcendent in its consequences, that it feels as if it hardly needed making up.

One consequence of this is that the original has very few surprises, the principal one being that Ebenezer Scrooge's childhood as he visits it with the Spirit of Christmas Past is a more complicated story than most of the adaptations allow.

Dickens did not single-handedly invent Victorian sentimentality, but he was surely the leader of the pack - and the precursor to Walt Disney. Take, for example, the introduction of Tiny Tim, the crippled youngest son of Scrooge's 15-shillings-a-week clerk, Bob Cratchit.

There is no need for Tiny Tim: the plot has a perfect logic without him. When we see the Christmas that Would Be we look upon his tiny grave and see the face of his weeping father. Then, when redemption comes we are told that he did NOT die (Dickens' capitals) and that Scrooge became a second father to the lad. In terms of sentimentality this is right over the top, well beyond the Full Shilling and at least the Baker's Dozen. Yet when the little mite pipes up with, "God bless us, every one" can I harden my heart? Can I implore the author to kill him off in a coaching accident? Can I say, "Bah! Humbug! Boil the little bugger with onions!" No, I cannot; my lower lip wobbles with everyone else's.

Dickens was a huge success because he was a writer completely in tune with the needs of his times. In early Victorian England everyone who attempted social commentary recorded a sense of loss of some kind. Something was slipping away into the dirty fog. Merrie England? Aristocratic values? A sense of community? We are becoming merely instrumental, commercial, stunted, "alienated". Are there university courses where you read Dickens alongside Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England and the chapter on "The Factory System" in John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy? There ought to be.

Nor is there material compensation for this spiritual loss: this is the Hungry Forties and about to become the starving forties in Ireland. It is a time for extremism: revolution and religious fundamentalism are prowling the streets.

The parliaments of the 1830s had completed the destruction of much of English folk life. The 44 traditional holidays were now four "bank" holidays. The twelve days of Christmas were now down to one and Bob Cratchit has to turn up for work on December 26th (though there is some notion that this is harsh). There is some doubt, given the attitudes of employers and evangelical Christians, that Christmas will survive the new way of life - and, of course, the Christmas holiday - as opposed to Hogmanay - did not survive in Scotland.

So Dickens can be said to have helped save Christmas, to have modernised it and concentrated it into the festival of gifts, family and "goodwill" we know now whereby we turn our stressed, ambitious, commercial selves into something nicer for the (short) duration. No wonder it's stressful, but if Scrooge can do it . . . The whole package is essentially an English combination, but it found an even more grateful home in the United States.

It is the typical Victorian trick of turning an ancient and anarchic institution into something organised, virtuous and therefore modern. The public schools did it with games, Dickens et al. did it with Christmas. All the ancient antecedents, including a variety of Northern European winter festivals and the Roman Saturnalia, were considerably naughtier and had explicitly sexual dimensions. These survived only as the kiss under the mistletoe. Though I suppose one has to concede that the twentieth century office party has been something of a cultural revival.

Our Christmas is a wonderfully messy palimpsest of cultural traditions. Nobody seriously claims that it has much to do with Christ: the churches ignored it for centuries and many sects were opposed to it. Arguably, in England, the abolition of Christmas under the Cromwellian Republic was one of the best things that happened to it in terms of propaganda. As a vaguely ancient and previously pagan feast looking for recognition by orthodox religion it did fare a great deal better than the Harvest Feast which, made respectable as a "Festival", was only accepted by the Anglican Church in the early 20th century and by Rome in the 1980s.

The Christianity in Carol is merely tangential, consisting of a few references to churches and Christian people. If Scrooge is converted to Christianity it is of a very modern form, consisting essentially of niceness and barely distinguishable from humanism.

One thing which does come out of the text which is absent from all the adaptations I know is an opposition to evangelical religion, particularly in its Sabbatarian implications. Take this conversation between Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Present who is really Father Christmas, though dressed (of course) in green (pp. 52-3):

"You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all," said Scrooge. "Wouldn't you?"

"I?" cried the Spirit.

"You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day?" said Scrooge. "And it amounts to the same thing."

"I seek!" exclaimed the Spirit.

"Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family," said Scrooge.

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name who are as strange to us and to our kith and kin as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."

If the historical context of Scrooge seems all too neatly obvious, it must also be remarked that the ethical philosophy is uncomplicated. Scrooge's conversion involves neither religion nor altruism in its pure Kantian form. The ethics is commonsense Utilitarianism, a question of not cutting off your nose to spite your face, as Scrooge's nephew points out (p. 61):
"I have no patience with him," observed Scrooge's niece. Scrooge's niece's sisters, and all the other ladies, expressed the same opinion.

"Oh, I have!" said Scrooge's nephew. "I am sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won't come and dine with us. What's the consequence? He don't lose much of a dinner."

"Indeed, I think he loses a very good dinner," interrupted Scrooge's niece. Everybody else said the same . . .

And if that weren't clear enough, consider what happens when Scrooge reforms (p. 83):
He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could give him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk - that anything - could give him so much happiness.
So forget all that guff you read in the books of literary criticism and social history about Dickens' novels "attacking" Utilitarianism. They may have attacked narrow-mindedness or dismal economics or manic instrumentality - all of which have been confused with Utilitarianism - but old Uncle Ebenezer's message is about happiness. And it says that happiness can't be achieved by solipsism, that other people are fun and that you should love and laugh and live for the moment. Which is nice.

Strangely, I think that we have lessons to learn from both Unreformed and Reformed Scrooge in our own times. People who do not have children because of the cost or those who crowd the airports so as to avoid their families at the culturally appropriate time to meet their families should consult the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. (Apparently more than one third of women born in 1969 and now approaching forty are still childless.)

But those who are getting themselves into debt through conspicuous consumption and preoccupations with status and fashion might learn from the original Scrooge who had some virtues, after all. He didn't indulge in the fatuous pretence of "caring" for everybody; he was self-sufficient and independent of mind and he wasn't easily taken in by sentimentality. So - grandly paradoxical, then, that his story should be one of the most sentimental things on the planet.

Before Scrooge reforms, the Cratchit family ironically toast him as "The Father of the Feast" (p. 61). This seems almost supernaturally prescient of Dickens. Jesus Christ - a bit. Father Christmas - yes. But the greatest individual embodiment of the modern Christmas is Reformed Scrooge.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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Lincoln Allison's point that the ones with a miserable future are Britain's 1 in 3 permenantly childless women about to hit 40 is telling. For most of them it is a lifestyle choice not a natural misfortune and one that is now proving disasterous for them and for Britain. These women will on average outlive their male partners by eight years and live out a long and miserable childless old age with immigrant carers providing tax-payer financed support but neither the affection the company nor the loyalty that only children can provide.They will come bitterly to regret that wicked youthful abortion undergone in order to carry on with a mediocre career and to enjoy trivial and self-indulgent frivolities. Their selfishness will have caught up with them.
I blame university education , for the birth rate is lowesr among female graduates.Christmas to come is the lonelyness of a forgotten MS Scrooge who put the greed of fulfillment, a greed as destructive as that of Scrooge, before both instinct and duty.
It is about religion. You will not find childlessness among pious Catholic and Muslim women who have chosen the better path and the happier one. The wages of feminism is isolation

Posted by: James at December 22, 2007 11:54 PM
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Un artículo más profunda y perspicaz. Particularly I am struck by the contrast between the Christian and “Santa Claus” takes on Christmas. I will let G.K.Chesterton say the rest:

It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say "enlightened" they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything -- they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything -- they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.

Orthodoxy, Chapter IX

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at January 3, 2008 02:12 PM
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