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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dickens' Christmas Spirit

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Not having taken part in any of the true miseries known to man, I only know about them through words and images shared by others. The plight of the poor throughout history, and now on the very planet I inhabit, is beyond the comprehension of someone like me who lives in the best of comfort and health. As I prepared this post, I read about the Poor Laws in Britain’s history, fascinating and horrifying. (You can read a good wiki article about Britain’s Poor Laws here.) The New Poor Law of 1834, enacted a decade before Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, was a huge legislation to ensure that no one would receive relief from poverty outside the parish workhouses, which were intentionally kept miserable so that a person wouldn’t be tempted to rely on them out of indolence. Dickens himself had to work at a factory as a child, and the anguish he experienced remained with him his whole life, infusing it in his novels that are so poignantly sympathetic to the poor.

Earlier the same year that he published A Christmas Carol . . .

Dickens was keenly touched by the lot of poor children . . . In early 1843, he toured the Cornish tin mines where he saw children working in appalling conditions. The suffering he witnessed there was reinforced by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several London schools set up for the education of the capital's half-starved, illiterate street children. Inspired by the February 1843 parliamentary report exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon poor children called Second Report of the Children's Employment Commission, Dickens planned in May 1843 to publish an inexpensive political pamphlet tentatively titled, "An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child" but changed his mind, deferring the pamphlet's production until the end of the year. He wrote to Dr. Southwood Smith, one of four commissioners responsible for the Second Report, about his change in plans: "[Y]ou will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following out my first idea." The pamphlet would become A Christmas Carol. (Copied from this wiki article)

After re-watching the 1938 film "A Christmas Carol" with Reginald Owen on the weekend, I was reminded what the magic and mystery of Christmas is. We have the Christmas energy inside us all the time, all the love we have ever encountered with family, friends and even strangers. The joy of human connection, even in the most dire of circumstances, even when we are surrounded by greed. The possibility that with the right outlook, joy is always possible, and can always be spread to another. At Christmas, we pull out our lifetime of stored love when we re-open Christmas boxes. White lights remind us of stars that have shone on every man and woman in history – the same stars. Imagine. We are all one human organism. The magic we share is available outside of Christmas! For some, it seems especially hidden at Christmas. What a shame, if we forget it after Christmas, or miss it during Christmas when it is eclipsed by commercialism.

For me, old decorations and illustrations bring out a special nostalgic feeling that makes 
Christmas special. I am a big fan of Arthur Rackham (good bio here), the British illustrator who was hugely successful at the turn of the 20th century known for his "depictions of gnomes, goblins, witches, and fairies, as well as his anthropomorphized trees," so I am posting five of his illustrations for the 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol, along with a few quotes from Dickens’ classic novel. Can you imagine a world without this story? Apparently the greeting “Merry Christmas” was first used after this novel. 



Bob Cratchit went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, 
twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve.


Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his dressing-gown,
which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall

"If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"


"How now?" said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever
"What do you want with me?"

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."


The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in
restless haste and moaning as they went

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea -- on, on -- until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.


Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig

The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers' benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.


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"It's Christmas Day!" said Scrooge to himself. "I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can."


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"A merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit."
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51 comments:

Loring Wirbel said...

Tonight, I get to play a grumpy old toymaker who discovers joy, in a kids' musical. Should be fun, love the false-curmudgeon game, as you well know.

Heather Burns and Zalman Lachman have been writing a lot lately about how to get the joy engine to turn over, and I stand on the sidelines like a cheerleader, jumping and yelling, "Unconditional! It works!"

The toughest part is to retain joy during the death of a loved one, the near-suicidal moment, etc., and not use joy as a blanket, but as a conquering song. Seems like you're already there, Ruth, so your next mission is to teach all your readers how to go and do likewise.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Ruth said...

Dear Loring, I like that very much, you a grumpy old toymaker. Perfect! But you can't fool me, or anyone who knows you. You're full of love and light.

Thank you for saying I am already there, in the unconditional joy. But I know that I have not had to bear the griefs and miseries that others have. I hope that I will never have to, outside of the normal losses of life we all experience. But if I do, I pray that I will have the courage to keep choosing joy. I especially think of those who are very alone, and suffering. This just breaks my heart.

Thanks for being a joyful friend. Merry Christmas, Loring!

California Girl said...

We watch the Alastair Sim version every year. The boys love it. This was a tradition in my husband's family.

I think I've heard before this is the first time the phrase "Merry Christmas" was used. That boggles my mind. It's so iconic.

I've seen a few of Rackham's "Christmas Carol" drawings. I most associate him with "Wind in the Willows". Wonderful artist.

Ruth said...

California Girl, I've seen the Alastair Sim version more than any other. I think it might be a bit better than the Reginald Owen one.

I'm very interested in how bits of literature, film, and art shape our concepts of Christmas (and other things too). All these images play a huge role in how I perceive Christmas.

Gwen Buchanan said...

Ruth I love the contrast between the last two paintings the light, color and expressiveness... the good and the bad the happy and the sad ... perfect illustrator for this novel.

The Solitary Walker said...

Wonderful post, Ruth. I adore Dickens, one of our greatest writers and social critics. His concern for and sympathy with the poor runs through so many of his novels, not least 'Hard Times', which is a terrific yet rather neglected book I always feel.

'A Christmas Carol' is immortal. What would Christmas be without it? And don't those Rackham illustrations fit so perfectly?

Babs-beetle said...

Charles Dickens has a real place in our hearts. We used to live close to where He lived - Rochester. We took part in the Dickens Festival every year, when people dressed up either as Dickens characters, or just in Dickensian style clothes. What wonderful weekends they were.

The Bug said...

I love that version of A Christmas Carol too - it's delicious. Dr. M and I have GOT to get out some of our Christmas movies & start watching them!

George said...

A lovely and interesting posting, Ruth, one that made me think that there are still a few scrooges with us even today. I'm thinking of those folks who held the extension of unemployment benefits hostage until Obama caved and another 700 billion was given to the wealthiest of Americans. Perhaps "A Christmas Carol" should be required reading for every American citizen each Christmas.

I love these old illustrations, and I was quite interested in your account of Dickens' experiences before penning the story. Thanks for this lovely holiday gift. This is what Christmas should do — remind us that our better angels can conquer our instinctive, selfish desires.

Jane Lancaster said...

I used to watch the Alistair Sims version every xmas eve as a girl at my friend Hazel Mills house. It was the thing that told me it's here! xmas has begun!

who said...

If I could muster half of the talent Rackham has I would be a masterated illustrator telling stories with pictures that never grew silence never had time to because the pictures would never stop talking and always be walking with words.

perfect post Ruth!

ds said...

My mother read A Christmas Carol aloud to my brother and me every year. I suppose it was her subtle way of reminding us to be mindful of others, but as children we just thought it a wonderful story, and an essential tradition (it has indeed continued into the next generation).

Your Rackham book is gorgeous; I love his lines. Lucky you to have such a treasure of memory and connection. And here's a strange thing: just yesterday I plucked Hard Times from the shelf, determined to have a go. It seems meant to be read.
Tiny Tim's blessing to "every one!" Especially you, my friend.
Alastair Sim is the ONLY Scrooge! ;)

Ruth said...

Gwen, I think you and I have talked about Rackham before, as your pen and ink work has reminded me of his. I was really fascinated reading the linked article about how he laid on his colors, yes, so effectively used just as you said.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Robert.

I have not read Hard Times. I see DS says she had just pulled it off the shelf to read. Maybe this is a good nudge to read it, in a new age of hard times, perhaps before War and Peace. "Oh ! . . .book diversion . . . !" :)

The thing about A Christmas Carol, like Frost's poem "Stopping by a Woods" is that they are so embedded in us and our culture, there is the risk that we lose their power and beauty in familiarity. How great that we can revisit them with fresh eyes and heart in our shared posts.

Ruth said...

Babs, now you have me wondering if this was you growing up, or as an adult. The Dickens Festival sounds fun! I'm a sucker for period costumes, and attached to a literary genius: perfection.

Ruth said...

Dana, you just reminded me. I've been lost in old Christmas movies, but I need to watch Chevy Chase's "Christmas Vacation"!

Ruth said...

Oh, George, I watched the PBS News Hour last night with Judy Woodruff interviewing Reps. Pomeroy and Brady and asking them to talk about the Estate Tax, and I thought I would blow a gasket. Rep. Brady was bound and determined to paint the wealthiest families in America as poor farmers struggling to make ends meet. It was nauseating!

:) Thanks, I needed to vent.

This beautiful story of redemption is just so hopeful, because the transformation is all in one person, from one extreme of cold greed and miserliness, to warm and joyful abundance. You are right to place these contrasts within our own selves too. We are capable of both directions, and every day we make choices.

Thank you for your comments, and suggestion that every American read this book at Christmas. It's too easy to think we've already gotten this message before. But too many don't get it!

Ruth said...

Jane, you and Hazel on the couch, faces lit by a Christmas tree, and Alistair Sims' extraordinary face dancing around the TV screen. Ahhh.

Ruth said...

Dusti, there is so much movement in them, isn't there?

Thank you, I so appreciate "perfect" and your always kind comments.

Ruth said...

DS, when I find out more things like this about your background, I say, Well of course, that's it then. I rejoice in that tradition you enjoyed, you, your brother and your mom reading.

Thank you, yes, the book is gorgeous, but I do not own it. I found these images online. As I said to Robert (The Solitary Walker), I might take his and your mention of Hard Times as a prompt to read it. You know me, have to be very discriminating about the novels I read. :)

Jeff D'Antonio said...

Wonderful post. I just stumbled upon your blog by accident - my daughter is playing the Ghost of Christmas Past on stage in a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol right now, so when I saw the title of your post I had to click through and read it.

Even after seeing the show a hundred times, I still get goosebumps when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and realizes that it's not too late to change. The magic of Christmas has the power to change even the hardest of hearts.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Jeff, and welcome to synch-ro-ni-zing. Best wishes to your daughter in her performance, that sounds great.

I am happy to meet you, it is clear from your profile and blog that you have the best kind of heart, and I look forward to following more of what you have to say. Your post about Katie today is stunning and heartwarming.

Oliag said...

Dear Ruth
After Louisa May Alcott, Dickens was my favorite author when I was a child...I read through every book he wrote and now own them. But a Christmas Carol is iconic isn't it? To me it is THE Christmas story...and Arthur Rackham?...a perfect match for Dickens.

For many years Mr O and I would go to our favorite theater for their fantastically creative annual presentation of A Christmas Carol...for some reason we haven't in the past few years but I think I will give them a call today to see if there are any available seats! See how you inspire me!

Ruth said...

Dear Oliag, oh Alcott is tremendous too. You read every Dickens? That is wonderful. I really should too. Maybe I'll read Hard Times first, and go from there.

That's cool, I hope you can get tickets to the show! I think it's easy to let go of this story because we've seen it so often. But whenever I watch again, the meaning is as fresh and deep as ever.

Thinking of you today. xoxo

Anna said...

Ruth, I watch A Christmas Carol every year, over and over again, and it just needs to be around Christmas.

Ruth, wishing you all the best during this holiday season, good health in 2011. Your posts are award winning blog posts.

Also thank you for your visits over my side.

Take care,
Anna :)

The Solitary Walker said...

I think now would be a perfect time to read 'Hard Times'!

partialview said...

What strikes me most about "A Christmas Carol" is the message that (possibly) every Scrooge is looking for a warm heart within himself/herself. And he/she can find it, really.

Your honesty about not being able to fathom the despair of a poor existence and yet making it the subject of such a poignant post shows that you actually do, Ruth!

And you are right, Christmas wouldn't have been the same without this story.

ps. "shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence" Ha Ha. How could he write so well?

Ruth said...

Dear Anna, it's good to see you. Thank you for such a kind comment, and thank you for your holiday greeting. I wish you and your beautiful family the very best 2011 -- Merry Christmas!

Ruth said...

Robert, I should have picked it up at the university library yesterday before leaving campus until Jan. 5 . . .

Well, it will be my first novel in the new year.

Ruth said...

Priya, that is such a beautiful thought! Every Scrooge is looking for a warm heart within himself/herself. And we/they can find it. Wonderful.

Oh I just love his language in those lines describing the shop scene. He just blows me away.

Thank you for your beautiful comments! I am thinking about an etheree . . .

Deslilas said...

Merry Xmas, Joyeux Noel, God Jul, Hyvää Joulua.
Tomorrow we'll drive towards Sweden where we'll spend Xmas with our Swedish grand children and their parents.

Ruth said...

Bonjour et merci, Daniel! A very merry Christmas to you and your family. Safe travels to Sweden, and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Susan said...

Mr. Rackham's illustrations really brought the story to life...they are so full of life. Mr. Sim's portrayal of Ebeneezer Scrooge set the bar pretty high...a couple of other actors have come close, but really can't touch him.

I'm feeling pretty Scrooge-y this year, maybe I should have a go at playing him! ;-)

Sometimes I feel as if our government is assisting the CEOs of this country in returning to the class system of Dickens' day. Starve them out!

Vagabonde said...

I really like these illustrations and the Dickens’ excerpts you quoted. Christmas was not such a big event when I was growing up in Paris so when I went to London for the first time at 13 years of age at Christmas time and saw all the festivities and good food I was totally dazzled by it all. I think this is why I fell in love with England, it was because of this first time at Christmas. When I went there last, just after my mother passed away in France, it was Christmas Eve, and to be there at that time gave me more comfort than being anywhere else.

Dutchbaby said...

I adore reading Dickens and appreciate learning of his life. I admire him even more now, knowing that his childhood experiences propelled him to write about them with great empathy for the underprivileged.

Rackham's illustrations are fantastic. The first image of Chratchit going down the slide sends me back to my childhood in Amsterdam. On icy days we kids rubbed down at least two slides in the school playground, one fast and one slow. The kids would line up, take a running start, and slide down the icy path. I was so proud the first time I was confident enough to go down the long fast path.

Marcie said...

What a beautiful..inspiring..and oh-so-very-nostalgic post about Christmas's past and present..and what makes them truly special! Thank-you!!!

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth, This is a remarkable post. I really enjoyed reading about dickens, and the illustrations with quotes were great.
Christmas for my father was pure joy. He really didn't give out gifts he just enjoyed the day as a holiday filled with joy and the simple pleasures of being surrounded by family and eating good food. Actually, as i remember it was one of the only days my father expressed emotion, and especially such a strong one, Joy!

This year i am starting a new tradition. I will host a Christmas Eve party for people in my life who are without family or who have lost someone dear. My girlfriends husband(my friend too) and his son and wife will join us. There will also be others who are single and without families. I am looking forward to it, with great anticipation. Merry Christmas my friend. Thank you for this post xoxo Cathy

rauf said...

Oliver Twist was my all time favourite Ruth, not a pleasant read.
i think half of England was in prison those days.(the other half was fathered by King Henry the 8th ) As people were thrown into jail for failing to repay even small debts, but the good thing was they had debtor's prisons, not thrown with common criminals like in France. The condition in France was even worse. i think Charles Dickens' father was thrown into one such prison once. Now i am wondering if i was influenced by the misery pain and humour of Dickens. The atmosphere painted by Thomas Hardy is none better. Child labour was a common sight. Any country where you see child labour is a cursed country Ruth, like India. Things got better in England where as India remained where it was, though there is a little charm in it. The rich got a little wiser in the west as they realised that they can make more money keeping the poor happy by giving them buying power.

People live in dreams of a better life hoping that they shall inherit the earth like promised. That day will never come Ruth.

rauf said...

SUSAN, You are thinking on the right track. CEO's have no country, no love no patriotism. Any patriotic CEO would see that his projects are helping the people of his country.

Its not easy to starve people out Susan. There is love compassion and kindness and people would sacrifice and help each other and defeat these rich guys.
but unfortunately the Americans are not waking up to see the present evil designs of the corporates.

Ruth said...

Dear Susie, a brilliant idea, to play Scrooge and get the Scrooge out! But you can't be Scrooge if you're not greedy. We'll leave that to corporate business that runs us. What will we do about it? Keep saying, "Please sir, may I have more?"

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, that's so beautiful.

Now even non-Christian countries decorate and celebrate at this time of year. In Turkey it was New Year's they celebrated when we were there, but they had "New Year's trees." We were happy for it especially our first Christmas, just after we arrived. It helped us feel at home.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, I loved the scene in "A Christmas Carol" just watched when Cratchit and his fiancée slide on the ice in front of the church. She doesn't want to at first because it appears too childish. I still love sliding on black ice on sidewalks, but only when it's intentional!

Your precious memories from Amsterdam make me think of Hans Brinker . . .

Ruth said...

Thank you, Marcie, I'm so glad this inspired you.

Ruth said...

Cathy, I am very touched by both your father's simple celebration of Christmas with joy, and by your new tradition hosting those who would otherwise be alone. I believe you will be blessed beyond measure giving this way.

Thank you for your inspiring comment. xoxo

Shari Sunday said...

Sorry for my late comment. I love this story. I believe it was truly inspired. It defines Christmas for me. A Christmas Carol was included in a book of classic stories in my family's bookcase. I read it over and over. I don't know if anyone in my family even knew. We never read it aloud or anything. Everyone has a lesson from Christmas past, present and future. I enjoyed the illustrations. Love and Merry Christmas to you and your family, Ruth.

Ruth said...

rauf, reading what you wrote I can't help but compare the children who suffered through history like this, and the children in India and other countries where there is abuse, with the children in my country on the other end of the spectrum who are privileged beyond reason. I think both are warped, and that children need to experience life more directly than they do here in the US (many of them), but with less responsibility and of course abuse than happens in some places.

Ruth said...

Dear Shari, no need to apologize, it's great to see you. It's wonderful to hear you say how much this story is in your heart from your childhood. Merry Christmas to you, your husband, Jonah, Jill, Mia and your whole family!

Jane Lancaster said...

Here you go Ruth, "The greatest story of all time is A Christmas Carol. And there is only one way to make that better, and that is The Muppet Christmas Carol." — Ricky Gervais

Ginnie said...

Dear me...another DVD I need to add to our library, Ruth. When was the last time I saw it?? We should see it every year! Thanks for the reminder....

Jeanie said...

What a wonderful and rich post. I do love the Rackhamillustrations. and "A Christmas Carol" -- ceratinly a favorite and a tradition.

I sometimes wonder why it seems so difficult for the world to keep Christmas in its heart throughout the year. As you say, there is no reason why we shouldn't. And oh, what a glorious place it would be if we did.

Montag said...

Thank you for this post. Thank you all the days of the year.