IT sounds like the ultimate festive binary choice (employing a currently over-used word) – bad Scrooge, the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” or reformed Scrooge, who joins in with Tiny Tim and his heart-felt wish, “God bless us every one!” And of course we know what the right answer is, don’t we?
But in Dickens’ world – despite his Christmas Carol being sentimentalised almost to destruction by repetition and Disneyfied adaptations – you can’t have one without the other.
When the grumpy old miser, called from the customary Stygian gloom of his counting-house – “darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it” – is asked by the Collector to contribute a few coins for the poor, his response famously is not only to refuse but to rain down cruel wishes on the innocent shaker of the charity tin: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
But reflect a moment on the Collector’s own words: “At this festive time of year it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute.” So, it is not really about doing anything for the homeless and the hungry – it is about making ourselves feel a bit better. Think about it. Charles Dickens knew hypocrisy when he saw it – all around him.
Although A Christmas Carol is by far the best known and most quoted of Dickens’ Christmas stories, there are many references in his other books to the festive season – and to the sharing of love, food, good company and warmth before the melancholy of the turning of the year … “The old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away” (The Pickwick Papers).
In his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens talks about the days before Christmas and describes the “lavish profusion” in the shops, “particularly in the articles of currants, raisins, spices, candied peel and moist sugar.” Nowadays the windows are probably full of this year’s must-have treats – LEGO’s Harry Potter Quidditch set or Hogwarts Great Hall, Spiderman Mega Laser, latest edition of Fortnite (or the Monopoly Fortnite board game), Stella McCartney Yoga Mat, Armani pyjamas or FitBit Smart watch – but the principle is the same, indulgence in expensive things that are beyond the reach of most ordinary people.
Some things don’t change – churches packed with people enjoying carols even if they never set foot inside the building for the rest of the year, families and friends getting together and … “there is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories” (Dickens, A Christmas Tree).
Stories most of all – they may not be read by the most theatrical member of the gathering, to a circle of fire-lit expectant faces, but story-telling, with a few tears and lots of laughs, will be shared by millions. As Dickens says, “while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.”
We were in Southampton recently for the world premiere of a marvellous musical version of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy (see the Review elsewhere on this website), a story that seems to exemplify the same message that we need love more than money. The best stories tell truths.
Outside in the windswept square, there was a van with tables, speakers broadcasting pop music and volunteers serving food to homeless and hungry people. It was cold and wet. There was nothing festive about the scene, beyond the bright lights of the Civic Centre, with the theatre, gallery and restaurants. But what they were dispensing was a message of care that was as warm and necessary as the soup.
Across the country, and not only at Christmas, volunteers turn out night after night, often in far less salubrious places than the pedestrianised Civic Centre, to serve food and offer help, warmth, a kind word and a listening ear. There are many ways that we can all help – buying the Big Issue, donating clothes or cash to the Salvation Army, supporting your local Food Bank, volunteering time, offering more than the Collector’s “slight provision” …
And so, to return, as we all will, this and every Christmas, to Charles Dickens, the man whom many believe invented Christmas: “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men … if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”
We wish all our readers a good Christmas, some hope for a better New Year – and, as the comedian Dave Allen used to say, “may your God go with you.”
Fanny and Gay