by M. Rathore
With Christmas and the holiday season fast approaching, for those celebrating Christmas, some of us may have, in our mind’s eye, the dream Christmas of snow, wreaths on doors, log fires and a massive feast of turkey and all of the trimmings.
You may have your own family traditions.
Ours is that we have our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, and there is always enough for surprise guests, who in the past have included: my next-door neighbour, or the single mum with her new baby, forced to abandon the town her family are in due to domestic violence, and once, Alan, the homeless man who sits outside Aldi where we live.
It was Charles Dickens who gave us the idea of a family Christmas, through his story, A Christmas Carol – the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a mean-hearted employer, forcing his workers to work for very low pay, right up to Christmas day itself. This was not unusual for workers – and the term “Boxing Day” comes from when postmen, servants and people in low-paid, menial jobs were given a “box” of some money and/or gifts.
Before A Christmas Carol was published, people were not as excited about Christmas, especially to the extent we are now. Many people, including children, lived in poverty, and many children were orphaned, living on the streets, and others who lived at home worked from a very early age. Some as young as the age of 10 or 12, may have already left home to work as servants or apprentices.
Dickens brought it to the upper and middle classes – through his readings of his works – he would often read excerpts in front of audiences, acting out the parts, often left exhausted at the end of his performances. At the time, he was treated as a super celebrity by the public, so much so that when he died, in 1870, a young girl in London asked, “Mr Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
He may not have invented Christmas, but he cemented the ideas and values of the Christmases we have now, wishing for snow, charity and also the phrase “Merry Christmas.” He brought to us the idea of mince pies, giving gifts, turkey, mistletoe and seasonal happiness with our families – and it’s all down to the miserable Ebeneezer Scrooge being shown the error of his ways by the spirits that visited him that Christmas. We still use the word “Scrooge” to describe someone who is mean with their money, or doesn’t want to celebrate Christmas.
Through his work in A Christmas Carol, Dickens brought home the message that charity is not just at Christmas time, but for every day. He lived in London, and saw first hand, people begging- including children. Many of his stories, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit and Hard Times reflected the miserable conditions many lived in. As a child, he too experienced poverty, and his family were imprisoned in Marshalsea prison due to a debt owed by his father, while Charles himself was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory 12 miles away. It was not unusual for entire families to be jailed because of a parent’s debt.
Remember, at that time, health care wasn’t free, and the only way out of extreme poverty was the dreaded workhouse, where families were separated and forced to do often meaningless tasks for a tiny serving of food and a “bed” for the night. Charities for animals were introduced long before charities helping children! Dickens emphasised in his words that a wonderful Christmas did not mean piles of expensive gifts, but love, family and togetherness – regardless of income or wealth.
All of us at BCHS wish you greetings of the season, and hope you remember the message that Charles Dickens shared with the world 175 years ago – “Merry Christmas to all!”