I have the privilege at present to be rehearsing for forthcoming appearances on my local Village Hall stage in January as Ebenezer Scrooge. The great thing about this is that it gives me a heightened awareness of Dickens’ masterpiece A Christmas Carol and its messages about the meaning of Christmas.
There is a certain irony here, because over the years many folk have attributed the moniker ‘Ebenezer’ to me around this time of year, mainly because I do not fully embrace ‘the Christmas spirit’. In a nutshell when it comes to tinsel and trees, presents and paraphernalia of the season I freely acknowledge that I assume the persona of ‘a miserable old git’.
For me, these trappings are not what Christmas is about. Why do people buy each other unwanted presents every year, as evidenced by massive queues at ‘Customer Returns’ in the stores before New Year and a surge in stuff being sold on ebay every January? Why do people attempt to outdo each other with lighting up their house fronts and gardens when it wastes so much precious energy?
Like Young Scrooge in the book, Dickens’ endured a lonely childhood, was sent to boarding school and then apprenticed. His father was sent to debtor’s prison. His life experiences gave him a heightened sense of the injustice in society. Unlike Scrooge, through, when he had success and wealth, he still felt for the less fortunate and his books are all reflective of his disdain for the class system and the inequalities that result from the selfishness, greed and the misuse of power.
The Ghost of Christmas Present introduces the two children accompanying him thus: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree.” Dickens saw a lack of education on the one hand and an inability to put food on the table and clothing on the back as the two biggest issue facing those he shared the streets with. For the pre-epiphany Scrooge people in need were what prisons and workhouses were for:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
The post-epiphany Scrooge seeks the same gentleman and gives generously to the needy:
“Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness” — here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr Scrooge, are you serious?”
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favour?”
The Dickensian messages remain relevant in our own times. We still have massive inequalities in education, and skilled job screaming out for skilled people to fill them whilst unemployment remains a problem, the benefits system is creaking in more ways than one, food banks are increasing and charity shops increasing in number to meet the needs of those who cannot put food on the table and clothing on the back.
Like Dickens, I have a certain discomfort with the Christmas I see around me. Self-indulgence and waste by some of those who can afford it, stress and a willingness to incur debt in order to keep up by some of those who can’t.
Why not really treat yourself this Christmas. Read A Christmas Carol, stream one of the excellent film versions, like that starring George C Scott from 1984 or go see one to many productions of the tale that will grace local stages this season. It still has plenty to say to us.
Meanwhile, I can never be insulted by those who call me Ebenezer come December!