Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas, Community, and Changed Lives


This month I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg for my book clubs. Carol has been a favorite story of mine since I was Martha in our third grade play. I memorized everyone's lines during rehearsal!
The Christmas Carol play presented by my third grade class!
I grew up watching all of the televised movie versions. In Junior Great books I read the story for the first time. My husband and I used to read it aloud during Christmas time and watch all the movie versions. What new could I learn? Turns out plenty.


I encountered Fannie Flagg when her Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was made into a movie. I read the book at least twice. A Redbird Christmas was not my favorite read. I found the characterization thin, the relationships sometimes unconvincing, but most readers will enjoy the upbeat, positive message of a small town coming together to change the life of an unloved and abandoned girl. I've lived in a small town, albeit not a Southern one, and the part of the story that I saw most real was the grudges that divided people on opposite sides of one river. Flagg's story finds ways to bridge that gap.

Redbird is about a Chicago man on a self-destructive road to early death who takes the advice of a doctor to winter in the south. He ends up renting a room in a dinky town, making friends and creating new and healthy habits. The townspeople have two pets: an injured Cardinal that lives in the General Store doing tricks and pecking open packages, and an impoverished and crippled girl who is unwanted and unloved. The bird becomes the girl's best friend, and the town adopts her and helps her to family and wholeness. Meantime our Chicagoan finds not only health but purpose and community. A Christmas 'miracle' wraps up the story.

We all know about Dickens's Scrooge, that money-grubbing, cold hearted man. He had a sad childhood, worked his way to wealth, and cut himself off from everyone and everything to nurse his grudges in dimly lit and hardly heated rooms. His business partner Marley returns from the dead with a warning to alter his life before it is too late.

Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past  who shows him that he was loved by his sister Fran and Mr and Mrs Fezziwig and his betrothed Beth. It was Scrooge's choice to alienated everyone by putting capitalistic gain and security over friendship and love.

Christmas Present takes him into the homes of loving families and shows that even the most abject poor and isolated men celebrate Christmas with their fellow men.

And Christmas Future shows Scrooge what the outcome of being separated from humanity brings. The wealthy and successful man of business dies alone and uncared for, while the poor crippled child Tiny Tim leaves a legacy of love behind.

What is Christmas about then? One lesson is that we are to live in community, to share each others burdens and bridge the gaps that divide us. That without relationships with others our lives are nil. That it is only through love that we reach our full humanity, and it is only the legacy of love we leave behind that remains after we have departed.

God bless us, everyone!

*****
A book club member told us about The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. The book is a little gem. In a few hundred pages we learn about Dickens's life, his career, influences on the book, influences of the book, and the pirating of creative property before copyright laws.

Dickens's comfortable childhood ended when his father's indebtedness landed him in prison and Charles in a humiliating and job. The experience haunted him all his life.

Shortly before writing Carol, along with Disraeli, Dickens appeared before the government to argue for support of the financially failing Manchester Athenaeum. The free institution housed a library and offered classes, lectures, music, and exercise facilities. Dickens had toured Manchester and saw abject poverty, houses unfit for beasts, and streets mired in refuse and ordure. It was a "hellhole". Fifty-five percent of children born in working class families died before age five. Dickens said the children in the free school displayed "profound ignorance and perfect barbarism," were filthy, and resorted to thievery or prostitution to survive.

Dickens was eloquent about education as a way for workers to rise out of poverty and become better citizens. "He proclaimed his belief that with the pursuit and accumulation of knowledge, man had the capacity to change himself and his lot in life," the author tells us. "The more a man learns, Dickens said, "The better, gentler, kinder man he must become." And more tolerant.

Dickens's career was floundering and bankruptcy was a real possibility.  He considered a career change. Instead he worked incessantly and in six weeks wrote the ghost story known as The Christmas Carol. Its influence was huge. Peter Ackroyd credits Dickens for creating the Modern Christmas. Standiford says at least Dickens reinvented it.

For centuries, conservative Christianity had rejected Christmas revelries as pagan. It was a minor holiday at best. Prince Albert brought German traditions that were making their impact, like the lighted tree in the illustration at the beginning of this post. Victorians imitated all the 'Christmas' trimmings described in the tale. Turkey was in, goose was out, for Christmas dinner.

The book is a nice introduction to Dickens through his most well known story.