Thursday, December 20, 2012

Making a Difference, and Merry Christmas

"Oh, Father, it feels just like we're in a Victorian Christmas card!" exclaimed Tiny Tim.
I think we’ve all heard of cases where one person makes a difference. The 1960 Presidential election was won by less than one vote per precinct. Occasionally there are stories in the paper about people with humble jobs who manage to give a great deal of money to charity. Then there are those charismatic figures like Dr. Paul Farmer chronicled in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains beyond Mountains who through their energy, hard work and compassion make a difference. Sometimes, though, we think that as ordinary individuals we can’t make much of a difference.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has probably contributed to more people’s image and idea of Christmas than any other work outside the Nativity story in the Gospels. Yet, in 1842, the year before the story was written, Dickens was almost a failure as a writer. He had had great success with his first five novels, but the next three books did not do as well.  His father had spent time in a debtors’ prison (the dumbest idea ever thought of) and, at age 31 with a large family to support, Dickens saw himself sliding toward the same fate.

It was A Christmas Carol that saved him.  Written in six weeks, it was not enthusiastically received by his publishers, so Dickens took it upon himself to be responsible for the book’s publication.  The publisher received a commission based on sales and Dickens bore all other costs. The financial rewards came slowly, but the book had three printings by the end of 1843.  It was immediately and immensely popular.

Christmas in Dickens’ time was a minor holiday, observed (if at all) without lights and trees and presents and parties and cards.  Something in his story struck a chord, and the observance of Christmas began to change, no doubt helped by Queen Victoria whose family was regarded as the ideal for British society. Prince Albert was from Germany, and brought many Christmas customs with him. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens combined two traditions of old Christmas observances—telling ghost stories and marvelous tales of the holiday. There’s a reference to this custom in the popular song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (perhaps best known in a version by Andy Williams who had the unfortunate habit of pitching songs out of his range). The lyrics go, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories/ Of Christmases long long ago.” Dickens has four ghosts (Marley is a ghost, remember?) and the irrepressible high spirits of the Cratchits in his story. The transformation of Scrooge from miser to philanthropist is a heartwarming tribute to the power of the season. A recent book on A Christmas Carol is titled The Man Who Invented Christmas and while that might be an oversimplification, Dickens’ work shows what one person can do.

There is one notable coincidence about the story. In 1843, Sir John Callcott Horsley commissioned the first Christmas card with an illustration by artist Henry Cole, possibly under the influence of Dickens’ tale.  The English Victorians were crazy for sending cards with pictures (landscapes, mostly) to each other, and Cole’s role in introducing the Penny Post three years earlier might have been a factor in producing the cards. The picture showed a family with a small child all drinking wine together. (The illustration was controversial, although giving children watered wine at the time was not unusual.  At least it wasn’t gin, which was tremendously popular in that day among all classes and a real drag on the society and economy.) 2050 cards were printed and sold for a shilling each.

Obviously, the custom of sending Christmas cards has grown enormously since 1843.  The U.S. Census Department estimates that 1.9 billion cards were sent in 2005 (Who knew that the Census keeps track of matters like that?  I don’t recall being asked how many cards I sent on the last census.  I must have gotten the short form.) Valentine’s Day is next with a comparatively paltry 192 million.

The point is that one (very talented) person changed the face of the Christmas celebration. I would encourage each of us to think about what we as individuals and together as  groups can do to make this world a better place.  Somehow I think that would be the best present of all. In your observance of the holiday, whatever that may be, I hope you will take the time to read one of the versions of A Christmas Carol to recall its powerful message. It comes in short and long forms and is ideal for reading aloud. And in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this beautifully written and inspirational message full of historical treasures,and injected with your wonderful wit!