Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ignorance and Want: Why Dickens Wrote “A Christmas Carol”

Years ago, families gathered round the fireplace at Christmastime to read “A Christmas Carol” aloud. Now they sit around the wide-screen HD TV to watch one of the myriad dramatizations of the book Charles Dickens wrote so long ago.

The story has been recycled so often that most new versions are updated satires of other-worldly adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge. No longer viewed as a serious parable of social corruption and redemption, the drama has been so eroded, it’s become a sanitized fairy tale. Many versions don’t even feature two of the most critical characters in the book: the children hidden beneath the robes of the second of three Spirits Jacob Marley foretells.

Though Dickens wrote the book to educate people about the dangerous influence of greed, the lesson people generally take away is nothing of the sort. Instead of changing attitudes toward poor people, his seminal work sparked renewed interest in ancient traditions of secular holiday celebrations that had been ignored since the days of Puritan asceticism.

People still believe the story encourages seasonal materialism. They think Dickens wanted us to exchange expensive presents and binge on Christmas dinner. They forget that besides treating the Cratchit family to gifts and goose, Scrooge raised Bob’s wages and promised to pay for his family’s medical needs, with the wretched Tiny Tim being the first beneficiary. He also swore that as long as he was alive, the Cratchits would never again be poor.

The real lesson of Dickens’ story is that employers and governments must ensure the well-being of workers in exchange for their labors. Instead, companies and politicians are doing all they can to cut wages, medical benefits, and retirement funds, and politicians pass laws that minimize corporate responsibility when workers are injured or killed in dangerous work environments. They eagerly cut benefits for people in the middle and lower classes in order to enhance the financial standing of people who are already wealthy.

Dickens must have been sorely disappointed that little had changed for the working poor by the time he died 26 years after publishing the book. Indeed, he’d be just as sad if he were resurrected today and learned that for the past three decades, corporations and politicians have been eagerly reversing so many of the hard-won rights and benefits that were established for workers, one by one, throughout most of the 20th century.

That’s why I’m suggesting we revive a Dickens tradition, with a twist. Rather than watching endless TV reruns of this classic story each December, I’d like to hear the book being read by groups of people in public places around the country. One venue could be Wall Street, that center of commerce and greed which spawned the economic meltdown that spread across oceans and borders throughout the world.

The headquarters of major banks would be significant locations, as would statehouses in Wisconsin, Ohio, and any other states where conservative governors and lawmakers are stripping away rights from hard-working people. I know there are so many other significant locales where people could gather with friends and loved ones to read this moving story.

And the biggest twist of all: Besides volunteers taking turns reading, at least one girl and one boy, dressed in rags, could listen to the story being read aloud. When a reader comes to the point where the second Ghost reveals the hidden waifs dubbed “Ignorance” and “Want,” one boy and one girl could stand up to represent these symbols of our social failures.

These two youngsters could have signs hung around their little necks identifying their roles. More children could stand with signs reading “fear,” “oppression,” “war,” and any number of other conditions that mark the worst abuses of society. Children could even choose their own “names” or other relevant social messages.

Finally, I’d love to see a slew of videos posted on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, even news i-reports pages, showing that the next generation is finally beginning to understand the lesson Charles Dickens hoped to teach the world nearly two centuries ago.

Perhaps if we start early enough to spread the word about this simple plan, something might actually come of it when the holiday season rolls around. It would be a truly blessed thing to see people finally begin to understand how Scrooge really “knew how to keep Christmas well” throughout the year and for the rest of his natural life.

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