Thursday, December 24, 2009 12/24/09 - a christmas carol

In today's encore excerpt - at the end
of the 19th century, Charles Dickens' short
novel, A Christmas Carol, had
readership second only to the Bible's:

"If only Ebenezer Scrooge had not, in the
excitement of his transformation from miser
to humanitarian, diverged from the
traditional Christmas goose to surprise Bob
Cratchit with a turkey 'twice the size of
Tiny Tim.' But alas - he did, and as A
Christmas Carol approaches its 165th
birthday, a Google search answers the plaint
'leftover turkey' with more than 300,000
promises of recipes to dispatch it. As for
England's goose-raising industry, it tanked.

"The public's extraordinary and lasting
embrace of Dickens's short novel is but one
evidence of the 19th century's changing
attitude toward Christmas. In 1819,
Washington Irving's immensely popular 'Sketch
Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent' had
'glorified' the 'social rites' of the season.
Clement Moore's 1823 poem 'The Night Before
Christmas' introduced a fat and jolly St.
Nick whose obvious attractions eclipsed what
had been a 'foreboding figure of judgment' as
likely to distribute canings as gifts. Queen
Victoria and her Bavarian husband, Albert,
'great boosters of the season,' had installed
a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle each year
since 1840, encouraging a fad that spread
overseas to America by 1848. ...

"What is true is that Christmas, more than
any other holiday, offered a means for the
adult Dickens to redeem the despair and
terrors of his childhood. In 1824, after a
series of financial embarrassments drove his
family to exchange what he remembered as a
pleasant country existence for a 'mean, small
tenement' in London, the 12-year-old Dickens,
his schooling interrupted - ended, for all he
knew - was sent to work 10-hour days at a
shoe blacking factory in a quixotic attempt
to remedy his family's insolvency. Not even a
week later, his father was incarcerated in
the infamous Marshalsea prison for a failure
to pay a small debt to a baker. At this,
Dickens's 'grief and humiliation' overwhelmed
him so thoroughly that it retained the power
to overshadow his adult accomplishments,
calling him to 'wander desolately back' to
the scene of his mortification. And because
Dickens's tribulations were not particular to
him but emblematic of the Industrial
Revolution - armies of neglected, unschooled
children forced into labor - the concerns
that inform his fiction were shared by
millions of potential readers. ...

"Replacing the slippery Holy Ghost with
anthropomorphized spirits, the infant Christ
with a crippled child whose salvation waits
on man's - not God's - generosity, Dickens
laid claim to a religious festival, handing
it over to the gathering forces of secular
humanism. If a single night's crash course in
man's power to redress his mistakes and
redeem his future without appealing to an
invisible and silent deity could rehabilitate
even so apparently lost a cause as Ebenezer
Scrooge, imagine what it might do for the
rest of us!"

Kathryn Harrison, "Father Christmas," The
New York Times Review of Books, December
7, 2008, p. 14.


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