This column ran Dec. 24, 2016.
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” ~ Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
These words from Ebenezer Scrooge ring from the classic British Christmas tale, which calls us to get into the holiday spirit, to give and share and to experience the joys of the season.
As he is confronted by one of three ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet-to-come, Scrooge is at once both fearful and unbelieving at the specter that has invaded his closed mind, his closed heart, his closed life.
They are dark words, of an unbelieving pinchpenny who has no Christmas spirit, who has only his money, his work and his loveless life to keep him company.
Nobody can tell a tale like Charles Dickens, who wrote gripping prose but all the while was casting doubt upon society — the English elite and their disdain for those of lesser means. He was lecturing them through writing, and continues to lecture us even today, as we sometimes pass off his message as something for another day, another time, another world.
“Are there no poor houses? Are there no orphanages? Why should I help when there is someone ELSE whose job it is to help?” spews the character of Scrooge.
Dickens was a master at setting and character, building a sense of either fondness or loathing in characters like the Artful Dodger or Uriah Heap — and all manner of characters in between.
Scrooge, however, was his character masterwork.
Dickens’ own upbringing greatly influenced his writings, which included classics like “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Great Expectations,” “David Copperfield” and “Oliver Twist.”
Dickens was born in winter 1812 on the southern coast of England, the second of eight children.
His father was a naval clerk who dreamed of striking it rich, his mother an aspiring teacher. Despite their best efforts, they remained poor.
As Dickens early-day upbringing continued, the family financial situation grew dire, and his father was sent to prison for debt in 1824, when Charles was 12. Dickens was forced to leave school and work at a run-down, rodent-infested boot-blacking factory, earning six shillings (about $1.26) a week labeling pots of blacking, used to clean fireplaces.
Cast among the other poor forced into child labor, Dickens felt abandoned and betrayed by his parents and other adults.
After his father received an inheritance and paid off his debts, Dickens returned to his schooling, only to be forced to work as an office boy to contribute to the family income.
The work eventually helped launch his writing career, and he began as a freelance reporter at London’s law courts, and soon was reporting for two major London newspapers.
His writing career took off when “A Christmas Carol” was published 173 years ago, becoming an instant bestseller, and was followed by scores of stage and screen productions.
I remember in high school, when my English teacher had my class perform “A Christmas Carol” to introduce us to the world of great literature. I was not much of an actor, fortunately cast as a minor character in a scene with Tiny Tim.
And of course, there was my all-time favorite screen portrayal of Scrooge by the Scottish actor, Alastair Sim.
Victorians of the age called “A Christmas Carol” their new gospel, the portrayal or reading of Dickens’ classic a sacred ritual at Christmastime for many a Briton.
However, looking beyond the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from skinflint to a merry Christmas reveler, Dickens had a far darker message in his writing.
The tale is a product of that particular moment in history, with Dickens commenting through his plot and characters very much in a political and societal sense.
The great author initially planned merely to write a pamphlet, which he was to call “An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” He quickly cast that idea aside, and wrote of the issues of the day, offering his arguments with Scrooge as the antagonist, and sickly Tiny Tim as a character to be pitied.
Dickens opted to write his classic in a way that didn’t harangue people of means, but instead advanced his arguments through prose, which all could enjoy, yet at the same time feel empathy for the poor.
Dickens battled a popular theory of the day that helping poor people only made things worse — that they were poor because they were lazy and immoral, and helping only encouraged malingering.
It is a theory that still clings in the minds of many in America today.
At this Christmas season 2016, as Dickens told us, maybe it’s time to end that sense of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Visit his column blog at www.tinyurl.com/Column-Blog