Thursday, December 19, 2013

How a Ghost Story Saved Christmas

Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present  in an illustration for the first edition of A Christmas Carol.  This figure is sometimes misidentified with Father Christmas, an English version of St. Nicholas, or, worse, Santa Claus.  He is a thinly disguised pagan figure, one of "nearly 2000 brothers" who were born and died with each Christmas season.

To borrow a phrase from one of the author’s other books, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  I’m talking about the 1840’s in the early years of what is now recalled, usually through rose colored glasses, as the Victorian Era.  Britain mastered the world unchallenged since the final defeat of Napoleon more than 20 years before.  It presided over a world girdling Empire whose riches and treasures were pouring into the country.  It was ground zero of the industrial revolution, production of every sort of goods was on the upswing, and innovation was making consumer goods cheaper. 
The already very wealthy got wealthier.  So did a limited number of clever commoners.  A middle class, serving the needs of government and corporations, was growing. 
But in the countryside tenant farmers were being evicted to make way for sheep to feed the humming textile mills.  Skilled weavers and other tradesmen found themselves replaced by whirring machines and plunged into poverty.  The displaced made their way with little hope to the teaming cities where they were crammed into unspeakable slums.  There was little chance for work for many of them and they could be—and were—disposed of immediately if they complained about 12 hour days or starvation wages.  Many turned desperately to begging, petty crime, and of course prostitution and vice of every sort.  In London tens of thousands of children lived by their wits on the street.
All of these poor folks were considered dangerous, useless burdens who deserved their fate because of a lack of moral fiber, natural indolence and sloth.  If the Crown had given up on public hangings of 12 year old pickpockets, it was only because there was a whole continent—Australia—to populate with transported prisoners.  Otherwise the jails, workhouses, and cemeteries were filled.
Characteristic of prevailing attitudes was what would happen in Ireland just a handful of years later.  When the potato crop that fed the peasantry failed, British authorities steadfastly refused relief while hundreds of thousands died because charity would “undermine the moral fiber of recipients and sap them of the will to work.”  Sound sort of familiar?
Anyway, this is the England that a successful 31 year old writer named Charles Dickens found himself in.  Once a child of the comfortably middle class when his father failed and was jailed for debt young Charles had been forced to leave his beloved studies and go to work in a shoe blacking factory at age 14.  The experience scarred him deeply and affected his whole world view. 
After achieving fame and some level of modest comfort for his serialized novels, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, Dickens decided to employ his fame to decry the condition and treatment of the poor, with which he was all too familiar.  After a tour of the Cornish mines which employed child laborers in dangerous conditions, and visiting a London Ragged School for street urchins, He planned to pen a pamphlet to be called An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.  But finding an audience at a speech in Manchester covering the gist of his planned opus was bored and unresponsive, Dickens abruptly changed his plans.  He would recast the appeal as a fictional story.
Thus A Christmas Carol was born.  The author hastily scribbled the manuscript in just six weeks, barely finishing in early December 1843 in time to rush the manuscript to publication.
In setting his fictional appeal at Christmas, Dickens was being doubly counter-cultural.  It seems that the holiday, once the happiest of seasons, had fallen into disrepute and was in actual danger of being officially abolished from the calendar—for the second time. 
Christmastide had once been a popular event, the official occasion of Christ’s supposed birthday folded into ancient traditions from both Druidic and Roman times marked with singing, dancing, general merry making, drinking and a sort of social-turn-the-tables in which masters and servants switched places for at least a day.  Oliver Cromwell and the scandalized Puritans put an end to that.  They outlawed the holiday and imposed draconian punishment on those discovered trying to celebrate, even in the privacy of their own homes.
Although the Restoration had put the religious celebration back on the calendar, its association with Popery—it was after all Christ’s Mass—discouraged celebration by “loyal” Anglicans and most Protestant Dissenters.  Over the years many customs vanished or were marginalized—the hanging of greens, country dancing, and caroling.  In fact the words for many traditional carols were lost until a fad for folklore began resurrecting them in the early 19th Century.  Christmas Day was generally considered a work day.  Factories and shops were mostly open, as were government offices and courts. 
After seeing some backsliding on Christmas celebrations—Queen Victoria’s new husband Albert, a Christmas loving German princeling, had erected a Christmas Tree at the Palace and the fashionable were taking up the custom—conservative Protestant  leaders energized by new round popular evangelism  and hostility to Catholics—were once again agitating for the holiday to be officially abolished.
Dickens himself was an apostate Anglican with no interest in the religious observation of the Nativity, which had caused the final alienation of his tenuous ties to his family.  He was at this point in his life associating and worshiping with Unitarians, the most radical of all of the Dissenting sects who rejected both the divinity of Christ and miracles like those in the Christmas story as distractions from “pure” Christianity.
He was however, influenced by the stirring of nostalgia for old time Christmas celebrations which seemed to him to be both more egalitarian and warmer in human sympathy.  Christmas had played a key part in his first success, The Pickwick Papers in which Mr. Wardle relates the tale of Gabriel Grub, a lonely and mean-spirited sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion after being visited by goblins who show him the past and future—obviously a seed for his new story.
Without the trapping of religious conversion on which to hang is tale of personal and social redemption, Dickens fell back on elements of spiritualism, which was widely popular, especially in the middle classes at the time and even imbued with some pseudo scientific justification.  Not that Dickens personally believed in communication with the dead, but in the spirit of old time fairy tales, the kind with pointed morals, he was quite willing to employ them as literary devises.
Thus was born a Christmas ghost story, as frightening in some parts as any fashionable gothic novel.  But the terror came less from the spirits—despite Jacob Marley’s groans and chains and the fearsome, black, and silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—the familiar specter of Death as depicted since the time of the great Plague—than from the poverty of the Cratchits and their bleak prospects, the alienation of family and love, and the hardening of a miserly heart.
Redemption is accomplished when Scrooge is re-united with his own humanity.
With, you should pardon the expression, great expectations, Dickens arranged to have an edition printed at his own expense taking as payment from the publisher, Chapman & Hall a percentage of sales rather than the customary lump sum.  He commissioned original engravings for a fine edition, including some tinted in color, to be bound in leather and gilt edged.  He quarreled with the publisher and the book had to be re-made with new end-papers and cover to meet Dickens’s exacting specifications, delaying publication to within days of the holiday.  All of this cut deeply into the profits the author hoped to earn to support his young wife.
But the book was finally published on December 19, 1843 and was an immediate popular and critical success.  The first edition sold out almost immediately and seven more were printed the same year.  Pirates soon had cheap paper editions out, which the ever vigilant Dickens fought with law suit after law suit.  He authorized a stage version which premiered in February 1844.  Six other unauthorized productions were soon playing simultaneously in London.
America, except for a handful of fans, was at first cool to the book, largely because the young nation felt insulted by Dickens’s account of his first tour there a year before.  Christmas, especially in New England, was still suspect in much of the country.  But over the next decades that would change.  One after another Christmas traditions were introduced and spread.  By the time Dickens returned for a post Civil War tour, both he and the book were beloved.
The little book was always Dickens personal favorite.  He staged his first public reading with it in 1858.  Such readings were a principle income for him for the next decades.  His last reading, in ill health on March 15.1870 in London, was a final sharing of A Christmas Carol.  He died in the manor home in Kent which his literary work had earned him, on June 8, 1870 at the age of only 58.
A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print.  It is perennially popular on both sides of the Atlantic and was perhaps the main engine of Christmas becoming a popular, sentimental, and family holiday all over the English speaking world.
In addition to countless stage productions there have been at least 28 film versions for either theatrical or television release, the first in 1901.  Alistair Sym in the title role of Scrooge in 1951 is thought by many to be the definitive version.  Other notable versions include those with Reginald Owen in 1938, Albert Finney in a 1970 musical, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart in two notable TV versions, and the horrible Disney disaster with Jim Carey in 2003.
There have been multiple musical versions, three operas, notable radio broadcasts—especially one with Lionel Barrymore—and several animated versions.  In addition there have been parodies, and just about every TV sitcom that lasts a few seasons eventually does an episode in which a principle character is visited by Christmas ghost.
Yes, A Christmas Carol, that odd seasonal tale devoid of both traditional religion on one hand and Santa Claus, magical animals, or elves on the other, maintains a grip on our imagination after all these years.  Maybe because it speaks to the real spirit of the holiday better than any other tale.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Patrick. What a wonderful article about Dickens' book A Christmas Carol. It's one of my favourite stories. (My favourite screen version was the black and white film with Alistair Sim.) I agree with you that the story speaks to the real spirit of this holiday season. If only it were the case in real life that a visit by the three ghosts would get miserly, mean-hearted souls to rethink and amend their ways. Mind you, I guess if that were the case, the three ghosts would be very busy visiting a lot of politicians and decision makers over this season.