By Julia Purdy
After the Gospel, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is probably the best known story of Christmas in the English language. Since 1900, the entertainment industry alone has produced at least 50 versions for film and TV. We enjoy the “Carol” like a box of Christmas candy, a cornucopia of special effects thanks to technical advances in film and cartooning … The mood is festive, the ghosts are not too scary, we get distracted by the sensual delights.
The Spirit of Christmas Present sits surrounded by heaps of goodies: “Turkeys, geese, game, poultry … barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense Twelfth-Cakes, and seething bowls of punch” … the shop windows are stuffed with the same… the perfect image of plenty. This is the image of Christmas created by Victorian England that has been perpetuated in every single depiction of “A Christmas Carol” since then.
The Victorian Christmas, bursting with prosperity, has become a fixture in our culture. Accordingly, thanks to the commercialization of the season, we become mere consumers – distracted by the trappings of Christmas in an economy that, while it frantically overproduces, depends on sales and profits. Grinding poverty is easy to overlook.
The advertising industry has transformed today’s Christmas into mostly about what material thing you’re getting – or “gifting” to yourself.
For the “season of giving” we cloak ourselves in sanctity, yet we roll up the driver’s side window and hit the door locks and pass by the shivering panhandlers at the traffic light because they are losers and I am a winner, and who wants to support a loser?
And anyway: our taxes support the homeless and battered women’s shelters, free meals in schools, food banks, drug rehab facilities, the Education Fund, the prisons, they all take care of the social needs of the unfortunate … don’t they?
That is what Ebenezer Scrooge told the “portly gentlemen” who went door to door collecting cash for fuel and food for the indigent. They told him, “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.”
Scrooge asks if the prisons, the workhouses, the Poor Law, are still functioning and says he is “very glad to hear” they are, adding: “I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
Portly gentlemen: “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
Scrooge’s Malthusian retort: “If they would rather die … they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides – excuse me – I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” the gentlemen retort.
Yes, we might know it. And we do know it. In just the space of two years, the wealth of the U.S. has been dramatically shifted into the hands of the affluent whose goal in life is to become millionaires, and for whom there seems to be no limit on what they can spend money on… the jewelry, the electronics, $4 million automobiles, multiple lavish homes, ski vacations and cruises for the whole family, junkets into space…and now, real estate investment – when, down the hill, extreme difficulty has been forced on families and individuals who struggle to make ends meet, often in survival mode.
Jacob Marley was miserably encumbered by lockboxes, safes and ledger books, in the end Scrooge capers about, giddily free of those bonds, exclaiming with glee, “I don’t know what day of the month it is. … I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…..”
Ebenezer Scrooge discovered true happiness and fulfillment lie in actually doing something real for someone, in person… and better, that he was capable of doing such.
It’s the entire point of “A Christmas Carol,” which is: do as much good as possible for those less fortunate than you, while you are here on Earth with a body, hands, legs and a heart—money is only a tool, to use for the greater good…or your dying will be as meaningless – and mean – as your life was … that is the punchline.