Charles Dickens is credited with saving Christmas from, if not oblivion, then severe neglect and obsurity. He didn’t do it single handedly, however. Queen Victoria’s own husband, Prince Albert, brought the German custom of decorating Christmas trees to England, for example. The magic wand Dickens waved to resurrect Christmas was “A Christmas Carol” the story of miser Scrooge and his redemption, published in 1843. The Christmas portrayed in the story is the one we now think of as standard but Christmas as a holiday was in decline in Great Briain and America when Dickens wrote. However, great changes had been occuring in England in the previous decades possible which helped make this reversal possible.
England had undergone an agricultural revolution from the late 17th century through the 18th century. For the first time, food production grew faster than the population over the century to 1770, and remained among the highest in the world. This increase in the food supply contributed to rapid growth of population and created a movement of displaced farm workers to urban areas in search of employment, adding to the workforce on which industrialization depended. This change in the economic landscape is considered a major impetus to the Industrial Revolution, which in turn gave rise to a true middle class and in many cases a chance for members of the working class to make decent incomes.
My favorite version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ beside the original book is the 1951 film. For one thing, while Scrooge is such a great character a great number of actors have wanted to play him, Alastair Sym will always be my idea of Scrooge. For another, most holiday entertanment is quite escapist. People want and need celebrations and holidays to be cheerful, but many offerings are simply insipid. This version of the film has plenty of light moments and a happy ending, but it also doesn’t cut corners or dumb down the narrative.
The original black and white print always seems to me to most effectively evoke the darkness and dirtiness of the city at that time. London was black with sooty fogs, the Thames wsa basically an open sewerand the streets were filthy with the manure of 300,00 horses. It also illustrates an overlooked aspect of the Vistorian Christmas revival that, to me, resonates in the present. Behind Scrooge’s story is a background of the negative social effects of the previously mentioned Industrial Revolution. In addition to the ghosts of Christmas, the spectres of chronic illness, poverty, child labor, urban squalor, greed and materialism stalk the narrative. These ills have not disappeared, indeed, as both population and automation have continued to increase, so have they. Dicken’s tale remains popular for it’s colorful characters but it remains relevant becuase in many areas things have not really changed, just altered their appearance.
While the film shows Cratchit in a seemingly decent home, there is obviously no money for medical treatment for Tiny Tim. He is pleased to have found a possible job for his older son and his daughter works as a servant. The fact that Tim survives after Scrooge reforms and aids the family proves treatment was available, but for a price. Sound familiar? The rise into the middle class could easily be undone by illness. accident, a bad investment or a bank failure. Mr. Jorkin, who embezzles the firm into bankruptcy and enables Scrooge and Marley to take over in a bailout, is the ancestor of Michael Milkin and Bernie Madoff and their ilk. The scene at Old Joe’s pawn shop shows the absolute squalor the poor lived in and opens with a shot of very young, filthy, children coughing consumptively while working at sorting rags and scrap clothing. Child labor was rampant and children worked in horrible conditions.
Even something as simple as Tiny Tim’s disappointment when the toy he admires in the shop window is sold has a backstory. Before the age of Victoria, children’s toys, like all else had to be made by hand, and were the province of the rich. There were no stores full of goods on display everywhere. Factories were able to mass produce things like clothing and toys, making them much more affordable. To the many, however, these goods were still out of reach and their presence everywhere only served to emphasize the income gap. So Victorian era boys stole boots the way 21st century ones steal expensive sneakers and sports jackets.
Which all goes to the real point of the story. Scrooge gets much more out of life when he starts sharing his money. He gets more out of life doing right by the people around him, showing charity and generosity, than by squeezing them dry. As a miser, he wasn’t guilty of glitz and extravagant spending, but he did judge people by their pocketbook. Nephew Fred’s wife had no dowry, so Fred was disowned for marrying her until Scrooge had his enlightenment. How much better to accept Fred’s dinner invitaion and be part of a celebration than sit eating gruel alone in an empty house. Scrooge’s greatest realization is that it’s all about people and relationships, not money and possessions. In the end Scrooge gets what he asked of the Spirit of Christmas Future. “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.” “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!” He awoke to a new view of the world and helped to realize that view with his actions. And so can we all.