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A richer world

Dr Sushil K Sharma
Wednesday, December 27, 2017

CHARLES Dickens (1812-1870) wrote five Christmas books, of which A Christmas Carol was the first. Written in 1843 and published on December 19, 1843 it sold the entire 6000 copies of the print-run within a week. Before the end of the following year, more than 15,000 copies published in seven editions had been sold.

However, because of the book's lavish bindings and the relatively low price he chose to sell it for, much of that money didn't make it back to him, who was hoping to make at least £1000 from the book.

"What a wonderful thing it is that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!" he wrote later.

The book enjoyed immediate popularity and has remained widely read and beloved. It also heavily influenced the way we imagine an old-fashioned English Christmas. The book did have enormous cultural impact Dickens was hoping for, since as a writer, he came from a poor family.

He has been remembered as a friend to the poor throughout his life via his writings.

In the winter of 1843 it appears Dickens had visited the London Field Land Ragged School, which taught poor children. Dickens easily empathised with such children living in poverty, coming as he did from a poor childhood, a fact that set him apart from many other English authors.

At the time he sat down to write his slim volume — a novella — Dickens was in great financial difficulties, his reputation in shambles, his bank account overdrawn, and could not get the attention of any publishers to even print his material.

Faced with bankruptcy, he was contemplating giving up writing altogether. Instead, he pulled himself together and in six short weeks, wrote a book that not only restored him in the eyes of the public but began the transformation of what was then a second-tier holiday into the most significant celebration of the Christian calendar.

Indeed, in Stanford's excellent book The Man Who Invented Christmas it is stated that before the mid-19th century, Christmas did not tower over all the other Christian holidays. In fact, it was a minor holiday: not nearly as big as even Easter, somewhat closer to Memorial Day.

Initially Dickens publisher wasn't interested to produce a deluxe gift book for a holiday that hardly mattered. They didn't want to risk any more money on Dickens at the time. Little did they know that The Christmas Carol would create not only a gigantic Christmas book market, but change the popular understanding of Christmas, forever.

Whatever the case, while Chapman and Hall didn't believe in the idea of a Christmas book, Dickens did.

He paid for the production despite the fact that he was struggling financially. He was certain it would be a major success and he paid for the production, which was a beautiful little volume, being the only Dickens first edition to feature hand-coloured plates.

Dickens was a prolific novelist as well as a journalist dedicated to social reform.

A Christmas Carol was written to have a major influence on our idea of an old-fashioned English Christmas. Although highly moral in tone, A Christmas Carol helped to make the holiday a more child-centred, secular celebration; a move away from a purely religious concept of Christmas.

Although Dickens was a major influence on the way the later Victorians came to celebrate Christmas, when the author was young, it was unfashionable to celebrate the holiday. Instead, the emphasis was on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, which takes place on January 6.

In the 1830s, the number of people observing Christmas in England was relatively small, but those who did were impassioned in their celebrations. While observances differed among religious denominations and geographical regions, Christmas was typically celebrated with large family gatherings invigorated by the drinking of wassail, a festive alcohol.

The author's images of opulent festive celebrations must be seen as examples of nostalgia because of the fact that they celebrate the happy parts of Dickens's childhood. He would not reveal the sadder autobiographical aspects of his life until David Copperfield in 1850 and Little Dorrit in 1856.

Oliver Twist established Dickens as a writer with a social conscience, and he used A Christmas Carol to depict the plight of the poor in England. The 1840s were known as the Hungry Forties, a period of economic depression in Great Britain where bad harvests led to high food prices that caused widespread poverty among the urban poor.

In A Christmas Carol, compassion is the main ingredient in the kindness and generosity that Dickens seems to crave. Scrooge gets a load of the contrast between those people who are willing to feel pity towards him (his ex-fiancée, his nephew, his clerk) and those who coldly dismiss him as he does them (fellow businesspeople, his servants, the pawn shop owner).

Though he doesn't give away any of his money, and though he feels no sympathy for those less fortunate than he, Scrooge, as Dickens makes clear, is no criminal. He works hard for his money, day in and day out.

In the end, Scrooge becomes a sympathetic character. And his belief that prisons and workhouses were enough social aid for those in poverty — a common enough belief in Victorian times — is overwhelmed only when he realises that the city needs something more, empathy in the form of charity.

Scrooge then reaches deep inside himself and finds a whole bunch of empathy that he has been repressing. Suddenly he is flooded with nothing but good vibes toward those around him.

After that, he transforms into a new person who can put himself into the shoes of others and even forgive them for their misdeeds. In other words, he's now one of the people who are emotionally best equipped to live life.

Like Scrooge at the end of the story, when he becomes as good a friend as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew; Dickens himself was a charitable man. He made a good living and used his wealth and influences to help those less fortunate. Dickens may not have gotten rich from the publication of A Christmas Carol but he did make the world a little richer.

Scrooge's transformation from cold, cruel miser to warm, charitable man is effected after his confrontations with the ghost of his former partner and three spirits: the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future.

His appeal shows the moral, which is that it is never too late to begin to act in a loving and caring way towards one's fellow man in, as Dickens saw it, the necessary spirit of Christian love, forgiveness and generosity.

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.'

This is the moral compass that humanity needs to follow, as clearly established by the magical transformation of Scrooge in the book A Christmas Carol. This is the true meaning and spirit of Christmas.

* Dr Sushil K Sharma BA MA MEng (RMIT) PhD (Melbourne) is an associate professor of meteorology at the Fiji National University. The opinion is the author's and does not represent the views of FNU or this newspaper.

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