Charles Dickens, a consummate raconteur and arguably the greatest English-speaking storyteller after Shakespeare, knew how to seize his readers' imaginations and draw them headlong into his narratives. At this season of the year, I – like so many of my fellow Anglophiles – think of him as inevitably as I do of family and friends gathered together to celebrate that first, glorious Christmas.
In fact, as many have pointed out over the years, Dickens practically invented the way we celebrate Christmas in modern times. He certainly contributed to a certain Christmas nostalgia – a longing to see goodwill expressed by everyone everywhere toward everyone else.
For many years, we invited friends to join our family for a Dickens-inspired four-course roast beef and Yorkshire pudding supper, followed by gleaming raspberry pears, Christmas pudding, and Christmas cake.
Every year, the first and last courses varied a little (sometimes oyster stew, sometimes wild mushroom bisque to begin), but the main course stayed the same.
When two of our daughters stopped eating red meat, I accommodated with an additional small bird – a smoked turkey or roasted Cornish game hen. Then we found that the guests enjoyed poultry with their prime rib, too, and the birds got bigger as the years passed and more people joined the repast on the night before Christmas Eve.
After dinner, we planned readings, drawing from the greatest Christmas literature we could find, and sometimes a guest or two would bring something they had written to share with us.
Frequently, one or another of us read something from Dickens to the company. One year, I gave our guests a capsule of his life story and then read from my favorite of all his Christmas tales – making sure to include the "terrible" secret about it – that he started out writing it for money. He was in financial trouble at the time.
But if "A Christmas Carol" began as a monetary enterprise, it soon became the maestro's darling. The story about an elderly miser who has made himself and everyone around him as miserable as he can, and who meets his destiny one Christmas Eve in a gracious haunting by four "spirits" (three of whom represent the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future) offered new scope for his imagination.
Dickens contrasts Scrooge's ghastly life with the joyful lives of others who may be poor, but who choose love over the avaricious acquisition of wealth.
Scrooge, too, might have been happy, might have been loved. But once he set up a golden idol in his heart (as his former fiancée, Belle, put it), there was no room for his ideals. One by one, they fell away and, with them, his prospects for a happy life.
There are many obdurate villains in Dickens's stories, but there are others – apparently lost souls – who wake to their own mistakes. This holiday tale is really about an individual's redemption – a most appropriate subject for the season.
Dickens had "A Christmas Carol" bound carefully and issued in a small printing of several thousand. It sold out almost at once. And it continues to stand the test of time, at least partly because Dickens had a way of inhabiting his characters (like the actor he was) that made them get up off the page and grab us.
It's been said that Dickens would wander the streets of London late at night, gesticulating wildly as he spoke the lines of his Christmas characters and worked out their idiosyncrasies. He loved these characters and believed in them; he loved Christmas and believed in it. That's why the story still rings true.
Innumerable stage and screen adaptations attest to the popularity of "A Christmas Carol" (among which I proclaim that the 1951 Alistair Sim version is the best, and is, indeed, the favorite of many film critics).
What makes the story so compelling for so many is Dickens's sense of the sacred, his passionate regard for the individual, and his altruistic idealism that balanced sentiment with profound revelations about the human condition and shed a bright light on some of the darkest evils of his day – all in the hope of healing. His sharp-as-blades satirical wit sliced through all the hypocrisy of his age (and ours) to mock the sins of avarice and disturb the complacency of the greedy. He set out not only "to comfort the afflicted," but to "afflict the comfortable."
And sometimes they listened! There are actual accounts of 19th-century factory owners and other businessmen who, after seeing "A Christmas Carol" performed, changed their policies toward the working poor, giving their employees time off on Christmas and better working conditions.
Perhaps they recognized themselves as the irascible Scrooge. But Dickens reached them because he didn't ask them to tear down what they'd built up. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary. He understood why social sins create misery and that compassion heals it. And because he was a great artist, he also inspired some young people to redirect their lives to the greater good.
I'm not alone in my affection for this great little book. And this year, I think I'll read it again to the family, if the littlest ones will allow. If not, I'll ask my husband to read it to me – on Christmas Eve-eve, of course.