Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What the Dickens?


The modern idea of how to observe the Christmas season has its roots in the mind of one man:

Sketch of Charles Dickens
made in 1842
on an American tour
(That's his sister, Fanny, on the lower left)
Charles Dickens.

But I bet the story’s not quite as cut-and-dried as you think.

So I’m going to give you a little capsule literary history and in the telling try to uncover a useful Yuletide Takeaway or two that you can re-gift in the best spirit of the season.

For starters, at the core, we’re talking USA-style Christmas with the most plentiful points of reference to Great Britain, OK? So first –

A Ghost of Christmas Past: Long past.

Recall those  Thanksgiving Puritan pilgrims we celebrated last month? For a bunch or reasons they and their kin were not much for observing Christmas.

In fact they were quite “Bah! Humbug!” about the celebrate-Christmas concept. And that was the beginning of the end of the pre-Puritan kind of Yuletide days of elaborate feasting and pageantry and royal splendor that we might imagine.

Old big-scale pomp-filled religious traditions gradually faded into history and Christmas became a quiet celebration in individual homes.

Fast forward and by the Age of Dickens the Industrial Revolution contributed further erosion of plum pudding, mince pie, evergreens, mistletoe and such.

“Work!” was the motto of the time. Christmas was essentially another work day. The poor were too oppressed to celebrate. And those who were well off did not want to “waste” the time and money. (Sense the beginnings of a story here?)

However –

The socially conscious Charles Dickens believed that Christmas could be otherwise enlightening. He felt that the spirit of the season did something positive for him personally and so he set about using his power with the written word to do the same for the rest of the world.

His first attempt, in 1835, in Bell’s Life magazine in London, was called “A Christmas Dinner.” This short sketch described the conviviality of a family forgiving and forgetting the past as it gathers around the Christmas table.

Dickens’ next story on the subject will sound even more familiar:

Cliff-Note synopsis: Unpleasant, cranky guy is annoyed by other people’s cheerfulness on Christmas Eve … is taken by supernatural beings to view scenes of family happiness and good … this convinces him to reform when he awakens the next day.

It’s called (get ready to be surprised)–

The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton. It’s an incidental part of the more notable whole of The Pickwick Papers.

Seven more years pass. Dickens has many successes but, by 1843, he had somewhat fallen out of public favor as a writer. Not as good with money as he was with words, his financial situation had become troublesome for him. His social consciousness had him in an ongoing turmoil about the plight of the poor. He spent much time and effort making speeches appealing for aid to the working class. Then --

In October 1843, while he walked the streets, an idea came to him. He modeled it on “The Goblins …” and embellished it with details from his own life.

1843 First Edition
Title page
Illustrations by John Leech
By the second week of November, he completed his story – A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas – and took it to his publisher.

Because he wanted it to be top quality, he worked on the design of the book, the paper and binding himself. He selected the illustrator. He arranged having the illustrations hand-tinted – all the while striving to keep the price as low as possible so it could be affordable for the audience he intended to influence.  

A few days before Christmas the new little book appeared.

Financially it was not a success. Although it sold well, he made very little from its initial sale because he succeeded too well in delivering quality at a bargain price. (True first editions are currently valued in the $10,000+ range.) Cheaply made pirate editions sold on both sides of the Atlantic also kept him from earning his due. Even when he sued one unethical publisher and won his case, Dickens suffered because the publisher’s bankruptcy left him with no settlement and yet he had court costs to pay.

It took Charles Dickens some time to realize just how completely he had succeeded although he had not made much money.

He wrote other Christmas books, one each year. In 1844 he wrote The Chimes and observed, “I believe I have written a tremendous book, and knocked the Carol out of the field.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Next to the Nativity itself, A Christmas Carol remains the best-known and best-loved (it’s never been out of print) Christmas story of all in all manner of retelling – movies, stage plays, opera, musicals, cartoons, skits and spoofs, and modernized and futurized versions.

  • “Scrooge” has entered the vernacular as a synonym for “miser.”
  • The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future have haunted us all, regardless of religious affiliation.
  • The spirit of the season has bloomed again as a time to think of one’s fellow man.
Yuletide Takeaway: As in most of his writing about the season, Dickens is not particularly concerned with the religious nature of the holiday but with –

The cheerfulness and good feeling between people. A Christmas Carol is the ultimate embodiment of what Dickens himself called –

The ‘Carol’ Philosophy: Christmastime was “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they were really fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Dickens gets the last word. Here it is, from the penultimate paragraph of the book:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

No humbug. Intending to do it all and more ... be better than my word ... and have laugher in my heart.

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631

P.S. “... and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

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