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A Dickens Christmas

December 1, 1997

Mark Miester

Published more than 150 years ago, Charles Dickens' Yuletide classic A Christmas Carol has become as much a part of the collective holiday unconscious as Santa, Rudolph and Mr. Bingle. Virtually everyone, even those who have never read the slim volume, knows the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold-hearted miser who, with otherworldly help, comes to understand the true spirit of Christmas.

What you might not know is that Dickens himself is partly responsible for creating that spirit. Prior to A Christmas Carol, Easter--not Christmas--was the major Christian holiday, says Janice Carlisle, professor of English and a specialist in Victorian literature. What Dickens succeeded in doing with his story was to transform Christmas from a religious feast to a family feast, bringing the celebration out of the church and into the home. He was, essentially, the first to take Christ out of Christmas.

"Dickens is often given credit for making Christmas a secular holiday," says Carlisle. "Christmas became the time when you celebrated fellow feeling, charity and good will. That can be read as specifically Christian as you want it to, but it doesn't have to be. An atheist can be quite happy with Christmas as Dickens uses it, if that atheist is interested in the religion of humanity--the responsibility of one person to another."

English graduate students Ellen Burton and Scott Cook know how Dickens uses Christmas as well as anyone. In August 1996, the students spent a week studying Dickens' five Christmas books as participants in the Dickens Universe, a gathering that brings together scholars, graduate students, high school instructors and assorted Dickens devotees.

What makes the project unique, Carlisle says, is that it serves the general public as well as academics. The Dickens Universe is a yearly presentation of the Dickens Project, a 16-institution scholarly consortium founded in 1981 to promote the study and enjoyment of the life and work of Dickens. Over the course of a week, graduate students team-teach workshops for the general public. The students also take a graduate seminar taught by Dickens Project faculty members.

Finally, on the weekend, a scholarly conference is held. Six months later, the Dickens Project sponsors another conference where graduate students have the chance to present their own papers on 19th-century literature and culture.

"Besides connection to the public, the most important thing that the Dickens Project offers the university is wonderful opportunities for graduate students to meet faculty from around the country," Carlisle says.

Cook is one student who benefited directly from that. Murray Baumgarten, one of the country's leading Dickensians, agreed to sit on Cook's dissertation committee after meeting him at the gathering. Though often neglected today by general readers and even scholars, Burton notes that each of Dickens' Christmas books was phenomenally popular at the time.

"The books that haven't maintained their popularity to this day did well," Burton says. "A Christmas Carol was not even the best seller among them."

A Christmas Carol, published in 1843 as the first of Dickens' Christmas books, reflects both Dickens' passionate feelings about poverty and the need for social reform, as well as his shrewd commercial instincts. That combination has led some contemporary critics to question the sincerity of his views.

"You can't divide Dickens, the intensely sincere social reformer, from Dickens, the entrepreneur," Carlisle says. "He wanted to make a very good living, but he also wanted to change the world. Writing was his way of doing both at the same time."

Dickens' commitment to social reform was a product of his own miserable childhood. After falling on hard times, his father was thrown into a debtors' prison in 1824. Dickens, at the age of 12, was forced to go to work in a shoe-blacking warehouse. Those experiences had a profound impact on the young writer.

"Every time you see a neglected, miserable child in Dickens, he's talking about his own childhood," Carlisle says. "So to a certain extent, Tiny Tim, as the sickly child with no prospects, would be a kind of Dickensian figure."

Another factor helpful in understanding A Christmas Carol is its historical context. The 1840s in Great Britain were a time of tremendous social unrest, with dreadful harvests compounding already horrendous poverty. While the middle class was awakening to issues of poverty and social injustice, it was also fearful of the drastic reforms called for by working-class social activists.

According to Carlisle, A Christmas Carol served to quell some of those fears by suggesting that individual charity, rather than societal upheaval, was the best remedy to poverty.

"I think Dickens was a canny entrepreneur," Carlisle says. "He knew people were concerned about the social situation. He sells certain kinds of feelings about the poor so that they become an occasion for middle-class self-congratulation, when in fact what needed to be done was probably much more than individual charity--wholesale social reform."

In the end, however, Carlisle offers a simpler explanation for the appeal of A Christmas Carol. "It's very entertaining," she says. "It has an intimate voice, so reading it feels as if somebody is talking to you. Its style is inventive, engaging and lively. "It's just a wonderful story, brilliantly told."

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