At this time of year, walking the streets of New York City, it is possible to imagine oneself in the midst of a evergreen forest. This is due, blessedly, to the sellers of Christmas trees, who set up swathes of trees and lights and little booths on this or that corner, through which you must pass on your way to the crosswalk. Mostly manned by our neighbors to the North, Vermonters, Québécois, these outposts fill the nostrils with the very essence of the holidays. Is there any scent more redolent of a crackling fire, and good things to eat, and tinsel, and Santa Claus, and anticipation? A rapid, worried adult walk to the office can spin like a top to one’s childhood, thanks to the great healthy wafts of pine rising from these urban forests.
Memory evoked by the senses is essential to holiday tradition, to beloved food, music and stories. That of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghosts was prominent in our family, but in the form of various film adaptations. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I read the story in Dickens’ own language, and realized with a shock how much had been missed by even the most treasured of movies, and how deeply connected was my idea of Christmas to the language of Mr. Dickens.
Scrooge is an iconic character so clearly drawn that the word has entered our language as an adjective for greed. Here is my favorite line about him: “He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days, and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.” Wonderful! One knows from many an actor’s interpretation that Scrooge was mean and avaricious, but that he was also cold….it is a description so specific that it immediately evokes how miserable it must have been to be in his presence.
There are many linguistic marvels. We all remember the Christmas day feast of the Cratchit family, the goose, and the toast, and Tiny Tim. But the dessert? “…Mrs. Cratchit entered…with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Speckled cannon-ball! Half of half-a-quartern! You can both see and smell the pudding, and imagine how small an amount of brandy this family was able to devote to its flame.
A central theme in all of Dickens is the neglect and abuse of children. When the Ghost of Christmas Present is about to leave, and reveals the scrawny, miserable children clinging to his robes, we understand his message to Scrooge, but the wording is stronger than the image: “No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.” Painting the neglected children of man as monsters beyond any imagination…this is powerful. Dickens persists throughout the story to balance the joy and richness of Victorian-era Christmas celebrations with the desecration of childhood and the crush of poverty. Then, as now, it has to be pointed out.
The lasting joy of Charles Dickens’ writing, his stories, ideas and sensibilities, have shaped my ideas about the winter holiday – for it does transcend Christianity, evoking as it does social justice, celebration, gratitude, plenty and giving – how can we thank him? Notice the dark amidst the light, be grateful for what you have been given, and share.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.