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Commentary

Opinion: The Ghost of an Idea: A reflection on Charles Dickens and the history and meaning of the season

English actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 film of the same name, adapted from Charles Dickens’ novel “A Christmas Carol.” Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

By David DeWitt

The writer is editor of the Ohio Capital Journal, where this commentary originally appeared.

Since the stone age, winter festivals have bestowed their warming glow of fire and light and bountiful feast in nearly every culture of human civilization drudging through the cold, dark, biting months surrounding the solstice.

Using the stars and sun as a guide for monitoring the seasons, humans through history sowed their crops, stocked food reserves, mated their livestock, and held last feasts before the setting of the deep winter, with celebrations often placed on the solstice itself — the shortest day of the year before they begin to grow longer again. The winter solstice this year fell Wednesday, Dec. 21.

In our time, in the Western world, Christmas has become the primary heir to many of these traditions, manifested in a holiday punch stirred out of the advent of Christianity, the pagan celebrations of ancient Scandinavia, Germany and Rome, and the feasts and solstice celebrations of our earliest civilizations.

In the early 19th Century, however, Christmas began to flounder into a more minor holiday.

But in 1843, 31-year-old English author and journalist Charles Dickens, a prodigy who had already gained fame and acclaim with “The Pickwick Papers,” and “Oliver Twist,” would write his holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol,” in just six weeks.

The novella was released Dec. 19, 1843 and sold out by Christmas Eve. It has never been out of print since.

Dickens’ work reinvigorated the holiday, its festivities, and Christmas celebrations in Victorian England and 19th Century America, reverberating in kind down to our own celebrations today.

Over the last 179 years, A Christmas Carol has been adapted countless times for every form of media and performance known.

The tale’s profound moral teaching stands to timelessly warm our striving hearts, and to warn us all against ignorance, hatred, bigotry, greed, selfishness, and the exploitation of others.

Dickens called it his “sledge hammer blow … on behalf of The Poor Man’s Child.”

The history of winter festivals and feasts, and Christmas

An illustration of winter solstice at ancient Stonehenge. Creative Commons photo from EnglishHeritage.org.

In neolithic Europe, both Stonehenge in England (constructed in stages from 3000 B.C.E. to 1500 B.C.E.) and Newgrange in Ireland (3200 B.C.E.) were built to align with the sun on solstices.

In what is now modern Iran, the “Yalda Night” festival has been celebrated marking the solstice since the ancient Persian King Darius the Great, entering their official calendar in 502 B.C.E.

In Southeast Asia, Makar Sankranti, noted for its flying of kites, is a festival of the solstice that falls in January, marks the end of harvesting, and celebrates the days beginning to grow longer again. It dates back to about 400 B.C.E.

In East Asia, the solstice, marked as the Dongzhi Festival under their solar calendar, the “extreme of winter” is a feast celebration dating back to the Han Dynasty of 206 B.C.E.

“Yuletide” carols being sung by a choir are in reference to Yule, a Germanic pagan tradition including singing, feasting, drinking, and sacrifice. Its name is related to a time of year and its roots difficult to trace, but by the 9th Century it had become associated with Christmas, and by the 10th Century essentially synonymous with it, merged by Norway’s King Haakon the Good.

The ancient Romans celebrated their most popular festival Saturnalia in honor of their god Saturn, originally on Dec. 17 but eventually extended to a full week of revelry.

And in ancient Judea, Hanukkah in December, while not tied to the solstice, began by commemorating the Second Temple in Jerusalem being rededicated in the Second Century B.C.E. after Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees repelled the forces of Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes, whose soldiers had overtaken and desecrated the Temple. Hanukkah celebrates perseverance, but like other wintertime festivals through history, it is also a celebration of light and community.

In 274 C.E., Roman Emperor Aurelian set a feast in honor of the god Sol Invictus, “The Unconquered Sun,” on Dec. 25, which marked the solstice on the Julian calendar.

While the relationship of that celebration and Christmas is debated, rather than appropriation, some Christian theologians make an a priori argument of the world’s creation aligning with the spring equinox, pegging Jesus’ conception, or “incarnation,” as March 25, celebrated today as the Christian Feast of the Annunciation.

That date was the original determination of Christian traveler and historian Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 C.E., in Christianity’s first known attempt at chronology, only passages of which survive. Thus the birth of Jesus nine months later would fall on Dec. 25, the Julian winter solstice, which became the date marker in the Christian tradition.

The church of Rome began celebrating Christmas in 336 C.E. during the reign of Constantine, who made Christianity the religion of the empire.

Over the ensuing centuries, various pagan and Christian traditions from different areas were merged into the Christmastime traditions we know today: The incorporation of mistletoe from pagan traditions in Scandinavia; The candle lights and feasts and festivities of Roman Saturnalia; The decorations in holly and other evergreens of both the Romans and the ancient Celts; The charity and benevolence of St. Nicholas — Nicholas of Myra, a Christian bishop of Greek descent from the ancient city of Myra in what’s now Turkey, who lived from 270 C.E. to 343 C.E.; And the Christmas tree, dating back to at least 1419, when a Germanic guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, flour-paste wafers, tinsel, and gingerbread.

The stage for Victorian England and the arrival of Dickens

Amid the First English Civil War, and the overthrow and later execution of King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1644, forbidding carols and festival get-togethers.

English protestant puritans of that time not only rejected the ornate and opulent Roman Catholic cathedrals and pageantry, but also any lavish celebrations such as those seen at Christmas, in favor of more austere and modest houses of worship and observations.

Some very early Christian puritans even rejected celebrations of Jesus and martyrs’ birthdays outright, insisting instead that the date of their martyrdom stands as their true birth.

Christmas was reinstated in England with the restoration of King Charles II, a cousin of the extravagantly Catholic “Sun King” Louis XIV in France. Charles II converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.

Within three decades, during Great Britain’s Georgian Era (1714 to 1837), Christmas celebrations started running from St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 to the 12th Day of Christmas, Jan. 6.

These are the celebrations recounted by British author Jane Austen (1775 to 1817), who mentions Christmas in all six of her completed novels.

The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, became known as the occasion for charitable giving and “Christmas boxes” from employer to employee, coming to be called Boxing Day.

But as the Georgian Era ended and the Victorian Era began, the Christmas season was giving way to the Industrial Age, and celebrations became shortened to fit the needs of industry.

The spirit of Christmas was being relegated to a minor holiday under the smokestacks of industrial profit.

This was a time of debtors’ prisons, workhouses, the torturous treadmill, and the Poor Law.

When Charles Dickens was 12 years old, his father was thrown into debtors’ prison, with Dickens himself forced to labor pasting labels to shoe polish containers 10 hours a day at Warren’s Blacking factory.

The six shillings he earned each week went to his family’s debts and for his own lodgings.

Dickens drew on his own life and workhouse experience previously in his hit novel, “Oliver Twist,” in 1838.

He would do so again after educating himself in the spring of 1843 about the ongoing abuses in child labor and of the poor at the time.

Charles Dickens’ sledgehammer: ‘A Christmas Carol,’ in prose

Dickens is said to have originally conceived of writing a pamphlet — a widely distributed printed argument against these horrors, and a call toward humanity’s better nature.

But by October 1843, Dickens leaned into his considerable creative genius to produce a work of fiction instead.

Charles Dickens giving a performative reading of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo from the New York Public Library. 

Under excruciating deadline, in less than two months, crying and laughing to himself in its creation, punctuated by long strolls through the streets of London, Dickens would write and publish, “A Christmas Carol,” complete with a gold stamped cover and illustrations by John Leech. Dickens spared no expense, and set a low, affordable price, thereby costing himself in profit.

He vowed it would “strike a sledge hammer blow … on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”

“I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea,” Dickens wrote in his introduction, “which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.”

And so we find out, bit by bit, what that Ghost of an Idea may be.

After establishing the veracity of the death of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner Jacob Marley, Dickens introduces the character Scrooge in unforgettable fashion:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint … secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster … External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintery weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he.”

The book divulges at scant references Scrooge’s business to be in some form of banking or commodity speculation and exchange, and definitely in money-lending, as illustrated in a key passage later.

During the character’s introductory scene, he famously calls Christmas a “Humbug,” displays contempt to his nephew for the idea of romantic love, and when asked to contribute to charitable giving for the “poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time,” Scrooge barks that they should go to the prisons, workhouses, and treadmill.

The theme of so many rejoicing in abundance while so many others suffer acutely is repeated throughout the work, and is one to which we ought pay heed today, alongside all the rest.

In the voice of nephew Fred, we hear what Dickens for the rest of his life described as his Carol Philosophy, that the holidays are “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

When Scrooge is later visited by the Ghost of Marley, shackled and tormented, Marley’s lament is one of regret and self-flagellation.

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed, not to know, that … this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed… Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity mis-used! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!

“At this time of the rolling year I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!”

As Marley exits, Scrooge becomes sensible of “confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory.”

He observes the air outside filled with phantoms, including one who “cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below.”

In case it could possibly be missed, Dickens puts a fine tip on his point: “The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

The three spirits

During his visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge is first exposed to the loneliness and alienation of his childhood, his refuge in adventure books, and the frailty and big heart of his adoring and now-deceased sister.

Scrooge is next exposed to his former employer Old Fezziwig, and after an intellectual challenge by the spirit, concedes it wasn’t wealth or spending that gave value to Fezziwig: “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. … The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

This causes Scrooge to reflect on his mistreatment of his own clerk, Bob Cratchit, whose family Dickens based on his own. Like Bob’s other son, Peter Cratchit, Dickens had to pawn family possessions to pay their bills and debts.

Scrooge is next brought to the cancelling of his engagement by his fiancé Belle, who explains that his love of her has been replaced by a golden idol. Young Scrooge retorts, “This is the even-handed dealing of the world! There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty.”

Belle points out that Scrooge’s nobler aspirations have fallen off as the master one — personal gain — has engrossed him.

Young Scrooge characterizes this as wisdom on his part, but then seems to admit that he would not seek out to win Belle’s affection in his new mindset of weighing things by personal gain. She parts wishing him happiness in the life he’s chosen.

A final scene shows Belle happily married and celebrating Christmas joyfully with her children. Her husband tells her he saw Scrooge earlier that afternoon: “His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world.”

At this, Scrooge flies into a temper, and attempts to snuff out the light of Christmas Past, though he could not extinguish the light completely as it streamed out “in an unbroken flood upon the ground.”

The jolly, feasting giant of Christmas Present appears next, giving Scrooge tour of poulterer’s and grocers’ shops, the bustling city, and people of all stripes, sprinkling tidings of Christmas cheer from his glowing torch, to the poor family’s dinner table most “because it needs it most.”

Scrooge challenges the spirit in an accusation about blighting the poor — as shops and government offices that could serve them close on the sabbath — arguing, “It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family.”

Indignant, Christmas Present’s response reveals Dickens’ assessment of anything done in the name of religion, but not in its spirit:

“There are some upon this earth of yours 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 our kith and kin, as if they had never lived.

“Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

In a subsequent visit to the Cratchit home, it’s made clear the family’s joy suffers no dependence on wealth or personal gain, but is instead upheld in their love for one another.

When asked about the prospects of survival for Tiny Tim, the spirit relishes the opportunity to rub Scrooge’s face in his own words, another key inflection point:

“What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” he told Scrooge, “who became overcome with penitence and grief.”

“Man, if man you be in heart… forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, and what men shall die?

“It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

Sledgehammer dropped, in a fearsome blow.

The Ghost of Christmas Present proceeds to show Scrooge miners singing carols amid their arduous toils, and sailors over dark and unknowable waters, singing all the same.

Scrooge becomes joyous himself with mirth amid the parlor games at the party of his nephew Fred.

From there, “Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end.”

They saw sick beds; those in struggle waiting patient with greater hope; those in poverty exuding a richness of spirit; and anywhere where “vain man in his little brief authority” had not shut the door to the spirit of the season, the Ghost left his blessing.

Before departing, at Scrooge’s behest, the spirit unfurls his robe to reveal two children “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.”

They are the clutchings of humankind, the girl, “Want,” and the boy, “Ignorance.”

“Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the spirit. “Are there no workhouses?”

The Ghost of Christmas Future returns to the theme of Scrooge’s loneliness and alienation from the warmth of humanity and humanitarianism.

Scrooge is introduced to a series of characters indifferent to the death of an unnamed man.

After not having the power to unveil the corpse itself, Scrooge asks to see some emotion connected with the death.

He is shown a couple who had taken a loan from the deceased whose hearts become filled with a thankfulness at his passing.

Deflated, Scrooge asks to see tenderness connected with death, and is shown the Cratchit family mourning Tiny Tim.

Having failed in his desperate hope to see a future version of himself repented, Scrooge is eventually led to his gravestone where he pleads that it not be too late for him:

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

Dickens’ warning mustn’t be missed here that Scrooge is feeling this torment of regret at what he thinks are his final moments alive.

When the Spirit dissolves into Scrooge’s bedpost and curtains, and Scrooge finds himself not dead, he joyously sets about redeeming himself.

In gestures to the Cratchits, charity, and his nephew Fred, Scrooge throws himself into his newfound appreciation for the value of a life truly well-lived, in service to others in a spirit of community, generosity, and love.

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

The notion that we might strive in spirit to our most kind, generous, loving, and noble selves, lest life be wasted and end in agonizing regret, is a haunting Ghost of an Idea indeed that ought to still give us all pause to self-reflect.

Dickens gives the “Poor Man’s Child” his walk-off: As Tiny Tim observed, “God Bless us, everyone.”

Blessings and gratitude

Indeed may blessings be upon us all and may we all count our blessings. And in humble gratitude for our fortune, may we extend our blessings to others, especially others less fortunate.

We breathe. Our hearts beat, and the lights of life warm us. We hold timeless love within ourselves, and in the hearts of others.

And we all have this precious, extraordinary opportunity to help along our fellow travelers, to practice kindness, love, joy, understanding, community, charity, and generosity of life and spirit, while we last on this good Earth.

May we never squander it.