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Book Review

Dickens's enduring gift to Christmases future

According to a new book about Charles Dickens, he wrote''A Christmas Carol'' in six weeks during a low point in his life. According to a new book about Charles Dickens, he wrote''A Christmas Carol'' in six weeks during a low point in his life. (ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO)
By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2008
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On recently revisiting "A Christmas Carol" - virtually a first reading after so many years -- it was striking to find how early it is in the tale that Charles Dickens telegraphs his message.

Long before the warning appearances of the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and "Yet to Come," Scrooge's cheerfully upbeat nephew Fred drops by his uncle's counting-house on Christmas Eve.

After an unsuccessful attempt to rouse some Christmas spirit in his uncle - responded to with growls of "Bah! Humbug!" - the nephew makes this declaration:

"I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due its sacred name and origin . . . - as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave. . ."

It is the Christmas message that by the end of Dickens's tale the shaken Scrooge will endorse.

In his account of how Dickens came to write "A Christmas Carol," novelist Les Standiford writes that it came during a low point in his fortunes after the publication of two less-than-successful novels - which had, however, followed closely upon the "stratospheric" success of "The Old Curiosity Shop" and of "Oliver Twist."

But the direct inspiration would have been the "season of depression" that Dickens saw around him in the industrial city of Manchester in October 1843 where he had gone to speak at the opening of the city's Athenaeum.

In the hours after his address, Standiford writes, Dickens "walked alone through the city's darkened streets," not only beginning to imagine what would become "A Christmas Carol," but also beginning "to take stock of himself" as a writer.

The story was written in some six weeks - even as Dickens was finishing the final installments of "Martin Chuzzlewit" - in time for publication by Christmas. It sold 6,000 copies almost overnight, with additional printings into the new year.

With unforgettable characters - the Ghost of Marley, Scrooge's long-dead partner; Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's put-upon clerk; and his invalid son, Tiny Tim - it is, as Standiford writes, "a bald-faced parable that underscores Dickens's enduring themes: the deleterious effects of ignorance and want, the necessity for charity, the benefits of goodwill, family unity, and the need for celebration of the life-force, including the pleasures of good food and drink, and good company."

But did Dickens "invent" Christmas as Standiford's title would have it?

While Mummers plays were performed in parts of England, and another Christmas classic, "The Night Before Christmas," had been published in New York in 1822, Christmas was not a particularly festive time.

What Dickens did, Standiford suggests, is that with "his immense and lasting influence," his tale "played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday" -- more of a "re-inventing."

As "a secular counterpart to the story of the Nativity," as Standiford puts it, "A Christmas Carol" survives as seasons of Red-nosed Reindeers, Nutcrackers, and Rockettes come and go.

And just as Scrooge learned its message, so too has Dr. Seuss's Grinch, amazed, at looking out over Whoville, to find that even after he had stolen the children's presents, "Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, Was singing! Without any presents at all! He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! It CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same."

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge- based freelance writer.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits By Les Standiford

Crown, 241 pp., illustrated, $19.95

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