by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – As always at Christmastime, I’m troubled by a spirit: Charles Dickens. Climbing from abject poverty – his father in debtors’ prison, and himself toiling in a lamp-black factory – to international fame as an author and public speaker, he never forgot his roots and advocated all his life for assistance to the poor. He even did a good deal of assisting himself, in the form of financial aid to his ever-indigent extended family. His characters, from Oliver Twist to Pip to David Copperfield, trudge ever up steep hills of crushing disappointment to eventual security.
Dickens wrote prolifically. Viewing a facsimile of one of his manuscripts, loaded with deletions, marginal balloons of later inspirations with arrows showing where they’re to be inserted, and great splotches of ink where he pressed his quill pen too hard upon the page, it’s impossible not to wonder how any typesetter, working by – at best – smoke-dimmed sunlight, but more likely by lamplight, could have made any sense of it, let alone set the type correctly. But set it they did, somehow.
Of all Dickens’ characters, his best known is Ebenezer Scrooge, a famously miserly bachelor who lives alone in his deceased partner’s former apartment, “a gloomy suite of rooms in a lowering pile of a building up a yard.” Gloomy, solitary, and misanthropic, Scrooge can be moved, if at all, only to anger. “No beggars ever implored him to bestow a trifle, no children ever asked him what it was o’clock. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him, and when they saw him coming, would tug their owners up alleys and into courts, and wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!'”
Very early in “A Christmas Carol,” when he’s approached in his office on Christmas Eve by two London gentlemen raising money to feed “the poor and destitute,” he reveals his attitude toward charity. Though reminded that Christmas “is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt and Abundance rejoices,” he turns the gentlemen down with the excuse that “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the prisons and workhouses, and those who are badly off must go there.” The petitioners withdraw, and Scrooge gets back to his work “with a much-improved opinion of himself.”
There’s a lie in Scrooge’s answer; he can afford to make what he calls “idle people” merry, as he proves later in the story. There’s also evidence of a deep misunderstanding of the poor: Most likely, none of the poor are poor because they’re “idle.” It’s always the excuse for niggardliness in the well-off.
I’m pretty sure the main reason for Scrooge’s continuing popularity is his capacity for transformation, and by extension, ours. When shown during the night by the three spirits the genesis of his crabbed nature, the joy even the poor find in whatever they can muster for a celebration, and the inevitable grim outcome of his present course, he wakes up Christmas morning a changed man.
To me, the greatest moment in the story occurs when Scrooge, leaning out his window on that bright, gleaming morning, calls down to a boy he spots loitering in the yard below, “What’s today, my fine fellow?” He orders a prize turkey to be sent to Bob Cratchit’s house; later, in the street, he greets one of the fund-raisers with a two-handed handshake and astounds him with the amount of a donation; and still later turns up unannounced and vulnerable at his nephew’s festive dinner, begging to be let in to an event he’d spurned profanely the day before. In short, he’s become what all of us are capable of becoming.
Many of our leaders over the years have, in the service of their own interests, appealed to our baser feelings with regard to those in need of help. Who can forget Ronald Reagan’s Scrooge-like remark about “welfare queens”? Or Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”? Not to mention the recent warnings of far-right writer Stephen Miller about the supposed millions of undocumented immigrants streaming across our nation’s southern border, laden with disease and bent upon dumping their children and committing crimes.
Without commenting upon the veracity of the claims of these persons, it’s hard not to see whom they’re intended to inflame and who will be most affected. There’s little doubt that we’re plagued by problems of poverty and immigration. The internet is loaded with comments written by angry people who, having achieved or been given some equity in our society, now want to pull the ladder up behind them. They’re exactly the people that Dickens’ three spirits have come to visit.
“At this festive season of the year, Mister Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we make some provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.” This is the statement that old Scrooge comes to embrace. As should we. We don’t have to roast the turkeys ourselves; sainted people in church kitchens are doing that for us. We don’t have to distribute the Christmas dinners or presents ourselves; we have charitable institutions already at it. But they all need our help, as much of it as we can give. Even the Discretionary Fund at church, which dispenses money for groceries, rent, winter clothes, a medical copayment, or a bus ticket to Rochester, is important in not only assisting the less fortunate among us, but keeping the fabric of our society intact. We need to remember that everything we have – including our ability to amass the means to help others – is a gift. It’s absurd to claim we’re all created equal, and all have the same access to opportunity. It’s even more absurd to use those claims to deny largesse to those less blessed in this life than we. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” – Jacob Marley