Why Dickens owns the Christmas culture as we know it
By KATE TAYLOR
Saturday, December 9, 2017 Print Edition, Page R1
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. -- On a Saturday afternoon several weeks before Christmas, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is just waiting for snow. Every lamppost has been wrapped in pine boughs; every gingerbread gable is garlanded with twinkling lights; every storefront is stuffed with potential presents. All that is missing is that dusting of icing sugar.
At Royal George Theatre, the Shaw Festival's diminutive main-street venue, little girls in party dresses and boys with wellslicked hair are shrugging off their coats and stepping into the cozy auditorium in eager anticipation of a holiday treat: a performance of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The Shaw's production, a shoebox version enacted by a small cast and big puppets, is making its debut this year, created for the festival by its new British artistic director, Tim Carroll.
Yet, the new show already has a ritualistic feel, as though attending it was an activity more sacred than eating candy canes and wrapping presents in coloured paper. The children are participating in a well-loved Christmas tradition, attending a perennially popular entertainment based on a book that is one of the world's all-time bestsellers, right up there with the Bible. For many, A Christmas Carol has become the Christmas story.
Often, they hear it in a theatre: The Wikipedia entry for A Christmas Carol, a novella that Dickens self-published just in time for Christmas in 1843, has listed more than 50 different stage adaptations of the original text before an editor's note sternly warns of excessive examples. In Canada, there are regularly revived productions everywhere from the Belfry Theatre in Victoria to Halifax's Eastern Front.
Now, a new biographical film about Dickens argues that A Christmas Carol doesn't merely enliven Christmas, it defines it: Based on the 2008 book by the U.S. writer Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas credits Dickens with codifying our contemporary celebration of turkey and gift-giving. As generous doses of A Christmas Carol are stirred liberally into the holiday memories of yet another generation, you have to wonder: What's the secret sauce?
"Minor holiday," harrumphs Dickens's publisher in the new movie, as he refuses to bite on the offer of a seasonal story that his most famous author is proposing to write in a mere six weeks.
It's an overstatement - as is the movie's catchy title - but what Standiford argues in The Man Who Invented Christmas is that the 30,000-word story with its visions of jollity and charity was perfectly timed to further encourage the Victorian revival of a holiday that had been squelched by the Puritans.
"Around Shakespeare's time, Christmas was like Twelfth Night, it was the land of topsyturvy, the Lord of Misrule; it was basically pagan, holly and ivy left over from the Druids," says Toronto actor and screenwriter Susan Coyne, who wrote the film's script. "The Puritans really frowned on that and it went underground; it was still celebrated in little villages in semi-pagan ways, but it didn't really have much traction."
In creating Scrooge's memories of the joyful Fezziwigs celebrating Christmas with dancing, mince pies, hot punch and plenty of beer, Dickens was drawing on his own childhood memories of country Christmases before his father had moved the family to London in search of opportunity. Meanwhile, the images of urban poverty in A Christmas Carol were partly inspired by the writer's own bitter experiences in the grimy capital where his bankrupt father was thrown into the Marshalsea debtors' prison and the 12-year-old boy was sent to work in a blacking factory.
Nostalgia, it turns out, was baked into A Christmas Carol from the start.
The olden-day celebration, discouraged by the Puritans in both Britain and the United States, where Thanksgiving was set up as a rival, had often been a night of drunken debauch, but by 1843 the growing middle class and the Victorian stress on domesticity provided fertile social ground for a family-centred holiday of more temperate cheer. Of course, A Christmas Carol didn't invent our modern holiday - Clement Moore's poem The Night Before Christmas had already personified Saint Nicholas as a jolly man dressed in red a full two decades earlier - but it certainly played perfectly to the sensibilities of its age and made some of its own additions to the holiday.
Prior to Dickens, Britons ate goose for Christmas dinner: His story can definitely be credited with making the turkey the more popular choice after Scrooge buys the biggest one for Tiny Tim and his family. Still, Coyne figures it is the message of charity, tying the season to social justice, that is actually the book's real legacy.
"It's a cliché in the movies, that we are trying to find the real meaning of Christmas," she said.
"You wouldn't have said that before A Christmas Carol. I think that is the main contribution, that Christmas should have this meaning, taking stock of your life and thinking about your responsibility to the poor." As a postscript, the film attributes great increases in charitable giving to the publication of A Christmas Carol, although, as Standiford points out, the evidence for that impact is much debated. (Some social critics argue that such feel-good entertainments merely make audiences feel charitable, thus alleviating their need to actually do anything.)
Whatever the impact, the message is certainly clear: The well-endowed are to share plenty with those less fortunate, as the reformed Scrooge finally does. Joseph Ziegler, the Toronto actor who has appeared as the famous miser in the popular Soulpepper production about 200 times, argues that the most important characters in A Christmas Carol are two who speak no lines: the figures of Want and Ignorance huddled at the feet of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Those images of poverty, aimed straight at the heart of Britain's new industrial classes, whether impoverished or enriched, spoke of Dickens's lifelong concern with inequality and injustice expressed both in his own charitable work and in his writing. He had already decried a heartless society in Oliver Twist; these were themes he would return to in Hard Times and Great Expectations. Although A Christmas Carol has been much praised by critics over the years, scholars hardly consider the novella to be the author's major work.
Nor have they always paid that much attention to the story of how he wrote the little book to revive his career after a couple of flops - perhaps because Dickens made little money off the scheme at the time, having insisted on expensive illustrations and binding. In Charles Dickens: A Life, his most recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, devotes only two of her 500 pages to the work.
And yet, despite its relatively minor literary significance, through numerous stage and screen adaptations A Christmas Carol has become Dickens's bestknown work, and the figures of Scrooge and Tiny Tim outstrip even Oliver and Fagin as literary celebrities.
On stage, it is Tiny Tim, with his crutch and his cough, who moves both audiences and Scrooge. He can be interpreted as a Christ-like figure: The child makes the comparison himself when, as his father Bob Cratchit recounts, he observes that he wants people to notice him in church because "it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see."
And, of course, it is Tiny Tim who invokes the deity, providing the final line for every stage adaptation: "God bless us, every one!"
Importantly, however, those are among the very few overt Christian references in A Christmas Carol: The holiday it conjures up is a secular festival of family and community rather than a religious feast marking Christ's birth.
"Easter is really the central Christian celebration," Coyne observes. "But Christmas belongs to everybody."
That spiritual-yet-secular aspect of A Christmas Carol may help explain its enduring appeal in a contemporary world where Christmas is largely a cultural rather than a religious holiday.
For Bharat Nalluri, the British director of the film, Dickens is literally the man who invented Christmas because Nalluri grew up in a family of Indian immigrants in the north of England who did not celebrate the holiday. He found the festivities puzzling until he discovered A Christmas Carol at the age of 11.
Certainly, A Christmas Carol is a text that sits well in a multicultural and ecumenical society: At the Shaw Festival, it feels decidedly odd to encourage Canadian audiences to end the show singing O Come, All Ye Faithful, calling upon each other to adore "Christ the Lord." For all its moralizing, A Christmas Carol is not a church service.
Instead, it is the occasion to establish a humanist Christmas tradition. In Toronto, a quarter of the audience at Soulpepper's production is made up of repeat patrons. For a non-profit theatre always trying to balance its budget, that perennial popularity is irresistible: Soulpepper has revived its version 11 times and estimates that 8 per cent to 9 per cent of its annual box-office revenue comes from that show alone.
At the Shaw Festival, meanwhile, many of the performances of that company's new production are already sold out.
In an age of dwindling church attendance, seeing a stage production of A Christmas Carol offers an alternative ritual that somehow dignifies a season of overeating and overshopping with a story of cheer and charity that can be told and retold. Cry humbug at your peril.