This past weekend on Long Island the village of Port Jefferson hosted its very popular annual Dickens Festival. This has evolved into a big event, with dozens of historical and cultural programs and happenings loosely connected to the Dickensian version of Christmas. The sidewalks are made picturesque by actors in period costume: chimney sweeps, bobbies, ragged urchins, and Dickens characters. There’s the sound of bells and carols in the air, electric candles glowing in the windows, and if it wasn’t for the traffic driving on the wrong side of the road, and the lack of fog and poverty, it could almost be nineteenth century London.
Charles Dickens more or less invented our modern Christmas, with all its charms and excesses. When the Puritans were in power in England in the 1600s, Christmas festivities were banned, along with plum puddings. Even up to the 1840s, Christmas was not much more than an important date on the church calendar. Then along came Dickens and his book A Christmas Carol. He published it in a hurry in 1844 to cover the expenses of his wife’s pregnancy, and December was never the same again. In A Christmas Carol Dickens tells the heartwarming story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser who was scared straight by three ghosts and became a kind of Father Christmas figure himself, and of a poor family rising above their poverty and counting their blessings, even when they didn’t have any. It makes us feel good, as the author intended, and it became a mega best seller. On his American tour in 1867 Dickens read his sentimental story to enthusiastic audiences. Now Christmas on both sides of the Atlantic is forever associated with the protean figure of Ebenezer Scrooge.
It is impossible though intriguing to try to guess what Dickens, who like Mr. Pickwick was a keen observer of human nature, would make of the Port Jefferson Dickens Festival, and of the extraordinary popularity of A Christmas Carol a hundred and seventy-one years after it was published. He would be pleased and flattered I’m sure, but without a doubt very puzzled, and probably amused that his Victorian moral tale has survived so well into the extravagantly immoral twenty-first century.
But what exactly is the message of A Christmas Carol? Most young audiences I’m sure take it as just a jolly good ghost story. Some people see it as a family values story, focusing on the fortunes of the loveable Cratchits. Others see a parable of personal transformation, or even salvation, teaching that it’s never too late to change.
Whatever Dickens meant it to mean it’s a wonderful story. The better side of human nature prevails, which rarely happens, in fiction or in life. When generosity is required, it’s all too easy to turn our backs and cry “Bah, Humbug!” But Dickens showed us how generosity brings happiness to those who give, as well as to those who receive. Scrooge waited until Christmas morning to have his change of heart, but you don’t have to. Now would be a good time.
Copyright: David Bouchier