In his The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (1990), author Paul Davis recounts a story from 1870 initially told by Theodore Watts-Dunton. Charles Dickens had just died and a sombre mood hung over the streets. As he was walked down Drury Lane, Dunton overheard a woman's reaction to the news: "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?"
The reality is the opposite, as we now know. Dickens is everywhere in the modern era, especially during this holiday season, aided by numerous remakes in film of his A Christmas Carol. But there's likely another reason for the British author's popularity in recent years -- the link between our times and his are becoming eerily familiar.
It was the Victorian Age, where wealth was abundant but focused on a few and poverty was tightening its grip on the populace, especially in the cities. Dickens took that growing reality and turned it into a Christmas classic, replete with ghosts, the poor and wealthy, the gilded halls and shabby hovels. The medieval Christmas traditions had given way to the institutionalized wealth and poverty of the Industrial Revolution. Poverty itself had gone from being a normal challenge to a burgeoning and abiding reality in the Victorian era.
Witnessing entrenched poverty expand in a land of plenty prompted Dickens to write his "little book" in 1843 and in sensational fashion restored the joys of what once used to be a festive Christmas season. Dickens succeeded in turning the knighted philosophy of his own world upside down -- the poor were ennobled, while the wealthy elite were characterized as miserly and even oblivious of the human suffering.
And so we enter our present era, with our need for Dickens perhaps greater than any in recent memory. Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in reminding us that we have perhaps entered a new Victorian age, in which one per cent appear indifferent to the struggles of the rest. In both Canada and the United States, poverty has gone from being cyclical to institutional. Homelessness, mental health, veterans with diminished benefits, hunger, overfilled emergency shelters, unemployed, or underemployed -- these and many other issues have now become a regular part of our communities.
Sadly, all this has occurred over a 20-year period when there was more money flowing through our nations than at any time in history.
As the number of those trapped in poverty swell there will be a growing yearning in society to show that poverty is systemic and not personal and one of their main allies will be Charles Dickens. People who refuse to lift themselves from their circumstances are one thing; those trapped in confining events despite all their best efforts are something else entirely and they make up the critical mass of those increasingly on the margins of society.
Two great movements have empowered Christmas over the millennia. The first was the notion of God coming to earth and willing to be born in a manger to reach out to struggling men, women, and children. The second was Dickens and his ability to link Christmas with poverty in a way that has proved enduring. Both have been the most radical of all Christmas lessons -- God in the flesh; nobility in the poor. Both placed importance and definition on those whom society had rejected, willingly or not.
This Christmas will be darker than last year for millions of our neighbours. As good citizens we must do all we can to take the chill off the sad reality of abiding poverty. It's time for Charles Dickens to remind us that nobility and determination dwell amongst the poor in large measure and that we'll never truly understand the message of Christmas until we elevate them into their rightful place in society.