‘A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens is mainly regarded as a feel-good Christmas story about a miraculous, one night transformation of an unpleasant, penny-pinching, businessman with no regard for the welfare of his employee and the less fortunate people around him into a caring, jovial and charitable person. But there is much more to this story. Dickens with this book in effect had defined and elevated the celebration of Christmas. He, according to many commentators, transformed what was then a number of 19th century festivals with differing traditions, based on pagan origins, into today’s celebration of the holiday.
Christmas did not originate as a religious holiday to celebrate the birth date of Jesus. That actual date remains unknown. Also many of the traditions associated with this holiday do not have any actual historical link with the birth of Jesus. For example, there is no direct evidence linking a Christmas tree with the birth of Jesus. That tradition is thought to have originated in Germany and was brought here by immigrants from that country in the early 19th century. Also pagans chose the end of December as a time to celebrate the mid-winter by drinking the beer they made that fermented at this time of the year and eating the animals they slaughtered because they could not care for them in the winter. Historians surmise that the church adopted this time of year to celebrate its major religious holiday, the birth of Christ, to convert the pagans.
By the time the Puritans came to America, the celebration of this holiday by food, drink and merriment was considered improper and blasphemous. Such partying subjected Boston residents to fines imposed by the government. Meanwhile in England, Oliver Cromwell preached against these "heathen traditions" of celebrating Christmas.
Christmas as we know it today was essentially invented in 1843, the year Dickens’ book was published. "A Christmas Carol" reestablished today’s popular customs of wining, dining, merriment, family gatherings, caroling and gift giving, as it describes the rounds made by Scrooge to celebrate the day. Dickens popularized the common greeting of "Merry Christmas." That expression appears 15 times in his book. Prior to that year, all of this merriment and raucous celebration was discouraged, especially by the rulers of England.
But Dickens also established something more important with his book, namely, the idea of celebrating the holiday with Christian charity for the needy and with good will for everyone. Near the beginning of the book, Dickens described this charitable spirit of Christmas that we celebrate today, in a conversation between Scrooge and his nephew.
The nephew greets his uncle with "A merry Christmas." Scrooge responds with his classic: "Bah! . . . Humbug." And then tells his nephew "to keep Christmas in his own way and to let me (Scrooge) keep it in mine." The nephew replies, "But you don’t keep it." Scrooge counters, "much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you." The nephew answers by stating what Christmas means to him.
He says: "I have always thought of Christmas time -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time when men and women ... think of people below them as if they were fellow passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys! And therefore uncle I believe it has done me good, and will do me good."
After his visitations by the ghost of his former business partner and the spirits, Scrooge learns his lesson from events in his past, present, and prospective future life that makes him change. He adopts his nephew’s idea of charity and good will together with the religious meaning of Christmas.
Some of those issues resonate today. Scrooge’s initial way of paying a low wage to his employee Bob Cratchit, reflects today’s growing, long-term disparity between the wages of employers and employees. This economic situation is destroying the middle class in America. The lack of access to medical treatment for Tiny Tim’s curable medical problem, based on his financial situation, reflects the plight of millions of Americans today who still do not have such access and the strong opposition by politicians and conservative groups to their gaining such access under the Affordable Care Act.
Dickens’ main message was that Scrooge learned "How to keep Christmas well (and he obviously hoped) that may that be truly said of all of us," and that we, as Scrooge did, should try to keep that Christmas spirit all year. Dickens tapped into a wellspring of human nature to be charitable and express good will to all. He made this popular.
We would do well to follow his lead, rather than engage in such nonsense as dropping the word "Christmas," or grousing about the commercialization of the holiday.
Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz is a regular Eagle contributor.