The name of the story’s hero, Ebeneezer Scrooge, has become a byword for tight-fisted refusal to enter into the Christmas spirit. It’s probably the book we have in mind when we refer to a ‘Dickensian’ scene, meaning picturesque snow, carol singers with lamps in hands at garlanded front doors, blazing fires, piles of presents under an imposing tree, a table groaning with festive fare.
While it’s true that Dickens’ work helped to shape our ‘traditional’ celebrations, the novel itself is actually nothing like the dramatised version of a Christmas card scene which it has become in our collective imagination.
The book takes us on a weird and sometimes grotesque rollercoaster ride as we accompany Scrooge on his apparition-led journey from emotional isolation to an awareness of humanity and fellow feeling.
At the beginning, Scrooge’s world is bleak and joyless. His fear of being poor has warped his spirit. He is materially wealthy, but unable to feel: ‘No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.’
The change begins when he is brought face to face with his own corpse (oh yes, that old Christmas tradition) and is taken through a series of scenes and images which lead to the awakening of his inner, repressed kindness, warmth and generosity, and an understanding of the true worth of money.
On the way, Dickens has a pop at the greed, self-interest and indifference to the poor and the suffering which mark the worst aspects of society.
The book suggests that Christmas, while identified with holly, mistletoe, red berries, turkeys, geese, sausages, oysters, pies, puddings, candied fruit, is best celebrated through embracing our connection with each other and the purpose and responsibilities of society.
It’s made easy for us because the representative poor family, the Cratchits, are unfailingly good-humoured in the face of hardship and deprivation. Their Christmas dinner is a goose stuffed with sage and onion, eked out with apple sauce and mashed potato, followed by a very small pudding, doused in brandy with a joyous sprig of holly stuck in the top.
It would be a hard-hearted person indeed who wouldn’t want them to enjoy a more lavish spread, or who wouldn’t go on a charity run to raise money for Tiny Tim’s medical treatment.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, its allegorical figures and moral purpose, A Christmas Carol can’t fail to speak to us on some level.
The Christmas experienced by the seven-year old-Pip in Great Expectations is a much more straightforward and miserable account of the occasion.
The dinner sounds pretty sumptuous, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, roast stuffed fowls, mince pie, Christmas pudding, followed by nuts and oranges and apples in the parlour.
But every minute is an ordeal for the little boy. He’s the only child in a company of adults who either disregard him completely or torment him with exhortations to be grateful for being alive.
They remind him of the trouble he has been to his sister, who has brought him up. He is the subject of a sermon comparing his existence to that of the pork they are eating.
Warming to his theme, the preaching guest gives a graphic account of the slaughter of a pig, telling Pip that he would have ended up gracing someone’s table, had he been a pig instead of a boy. Pip is reminded of all the times he’s been a nuisance, and of all the times his sister had wished him dead and he had the nerve not to comply with her wish.
It makes you forgive every tiresome relative who asked you why you weren’t wearing the Christmas jumper they sent you and why weren’t you eating your Brussels sprouts.
Telling pork pies
Of course, this Christmas dinner is even more of an ordeal than usual because Pip has taken a pork pie from the larder and given it to the convict Abel Magwitch, and is hoping against hope that his theft won’t be discovered. It is discovered, of course it is.
But at the very moment of discovery he is saved from his sister’s wrath by the sudden arrival of soldiers on the convict’s track.
This relief, though, is only temporary. It marks the beginning of the guilt and shame which plague Pip to the extent that you really begin to think life as a pig would not have been a bad alternative.
Peace at last
It takes Pip a long time to get over his childhood experiences. We’re not talking about a difficult phase or a turbulent adolescence, we’re talking years.
Not until he is about 25, if then, do we feel that Pip might be able to enjoy a peaceful Christmas dinner. His painful emotional journey is honestly and unflinchingly described, and is of an entirely different nature from Scrooge’s sudden conversion.
The festive scenes in A Christmas Carol are ebulliently described and serve their purpose, but Pip’s wretched experiences find a home in our hearts long after the last cracker has been pulled and the last reindeer has settled down for the night.