December 20, 2023
Dickens and Disparity
By Patrick Cragg
180 years after its first publication, Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol remains a festive favourite, with new adaptations and productions every year. It still has plenty to tell us about the real meaning of a happy Christmas.
What first comes to mind when you think of A Christmas Carol? It might be Tiny Tim’s famous line “God bless us, every one.” It might be Scrooge growling “Humbug!” It could be the imposing Ghost of Christmas Present, the darkness of Scrooge staring into his own grave, or it might be Michael Caine singing with the Muppets!
Dickens’ story has become central to our image of Christmas. It was published in 1843, at the time when Christmas traditions as we know them were being shaped by the Victorians. In fact, reading the story with a child today is a good lesson in historical similarities and differences. Goose was a cheaper and more popular dish than turkey in the 19th century, because turkeys had to be transported by horse and cart from the farms into town, while geese could walk by themselves (as long as the farmer steered them the right way!). Less affluent people didn’t have ovens at home, so the book describes a queue of people outside the bakery waiting to cook their Christmas goose in the baker’s oven.
With blazing fires, thick snow, church bells, shops bursting with food and drink, dancing and singing, there’s no doubt A Christmas Carol is a celebration of all things festive. But of course, the story has a dark heart that makes it relevant and poignant to readers today. Today as in 1843, poverty and hardship rub shoulders with comfort and wealth. Money and commercialism still distract us from immersing ourselves in our families and our communities. Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit and his family hover, precariously, just above the poverty line. They do their best to put on a good Christmas for their children while counting every penny. It’s a situation too many people will recognise today.
There’s something very relevant to Christmas about the way the three spirits confront Scrooge with his past, present and future. Yearly traditions help us to mark the passage of time, and when we have our own children, seeing Christmas through their eyes reminds us of being children ourselves. Inevitably, seeing our families every year will make us keenly aware of those who are no longer there. At Christmas, past and present really do seem to blend into one.
In the end, of course, the old miser Scrooge changes his ways and learns to be compassionate and generous to his fellow man. A Christmas Carol is the story of a rich miser learning to be more generous. It’s also a hymn to the importance of family and human companionship. Scrooge is a loner, a misanthrope. “Darkness is cheap,” Dickens tells us, “and Scrooge liked it”. A fixation on money has isolated Scrooge from his family and his community, to the point that he seeks isolation now as keenly as he seeks financial gain. But when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present listen in on Christmas at his nephew’s house, his nephew vows never to give up on Uncle Scrooge, and never to stop inviting him round for Christmas. At the Cratchits’ Christmas table, the pleasure the family takes in each others’ company elevates their humble dinner to a truly joyous occasion.
When Scrooge realises that his miserly ways are driving him to a miserable, unlamented and lonely death, he immediately begins to do good with his money. He takes the Cratchits an enormous turkey for their Christmas dinner – although some readers are bound to wonder exactly how he intends them to cook it – gives Bob Cratchit a pay rise and money for the medical care that Tiny Tim desperately needs. And of course, he reconciles with his nephew and begins to enjoy a family Christmas.
A Christmas Carol might not satisfy some modern readers in its treatment of poverty and inequality. Simply asking the rich to be kinder isn’t really addressing the deep-rooted social ills that haunt us today just as they did in 1843. But its recognition of kindness and togetherness as the true heart of Christmas gives the story its enduring power.
Contrary to what the Scrooges of the world might believe, poverty isn’t simply a product of idleness. The majority of people in poverty in the UK live in a household where someone works.
Well over 200,000 households in Britain experience what the charity Crisis calls “core homelessness”: the type of homelessness that doesn’t necessarily manifest as rough sleeping on the streets, or even show up as homelessness in official records. It looks like sleeping in garages or on sofas, or moving between B&Bs and unsuitable accommodation. Crisis offers shocking statistics: The average age of death for people experiencing homelessness is 45 for men and 43 for women. People sleeping on the street are almost 17 times more likely to have been victims of violence, and over nine times more likely to take their own lives than the general population.
Britain is a highly unequal society. The richest 10% of families in the UK hold 43% of all the country’s wealth. The lowest 20% of households receive just 8% of all available income. Just as in Dickens’ time, the gap between rich and poor is starkly apparent and punitive to those who have less.
Dr Kathy Weston wrote movingly in last week’s Wednesday Wisdom about loneliness. Research shows that over 7% of people in the UK experience “chronic loneliness”: they are “often or always” lonely. That means there are likely people in your workplace, in your children’s class, on your road, who will head into Christmas knowing it brings isolation and a lack of interaction with others. What can we do to support others over this festive season and reduce social isolation among those in our own communities?
As a former guest researcher on Tooled Up, Dr Jesus Datu, explained, there is research into kindness that shows the many benefits that acts of kindness can bring.
There are many charities in the UK that offer help and support to those experiencing homelessness, poverty and hardship. You can find out about the work done by Crisis at Christmas here, and about Shelter here. The Trussell Trust supports people who cannot afford enough food and rely on food banks, a particularly urgent need during holidays when school meals may not be available.
One of the key virtues we can try to instil into children is gratitude, especially in the festive period where some families are blessed with such an abundance of food and presents. I learned recently about Harvard’s ‘Making Caring Common’ project which provides resources for raising children “who care about others and the common good”. You can read their tips on promoting gratitude here. To find out more about how we can help combat loneliness within our communities, the Campaign To End Loneliness and Wavelength offer support and resources.
This is our last Wednesday Wisdom of 2023. We wish you a peaceful and relaxing festive season.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
The Tooled Up platform features a whole section of resources devoted to promoting kindness, including family fundraising ideas, a kindness passport (great for use in the classroom), a 100 acts of kindness activity (which includes prompts for kindness online), a list of books that can help to cultivate kindness and empathy, and interviews with kindness experts, Dr Jess Datu and Professor Robin Banerjee. You can also help your children to notice their own kindness by encouraging them to complete our self-esteem building activity, What Makes You You? Encouraging our kids to reflect on family values around kindness is key and our activities for younger children and teens can help. Our ‘time and a place’ quiz for children and teens will also nudge them to develop a level of empathy for the feelings of others. Our fantastic 14 day Wellbeing Journal, which emphasises gratitude, is perfect for teens to fill in during their time off school.
If you’d like to strengthen and solidify family connections this festive season, we have some seasonal resources designed to help the holidays progress smoothly. 50 Ways to Bond with Your Child Over Christmas is full of easily actionable tips and our Christmas screen time article and short podcast will help you with strategies to help make screens enjoyable for the whole family, rather than a site of conflict. If your children divide their time between two homes, we also have some great tips about managing the Christmas period from Dr Reenee Singh.
Our library of resources has grown hugely in the last 12 months and we now have nearly 800 evidence-based resources for you to enjoy. Remember to keep browsing over the holidays. New resources are added all the time!
A final message goes to the educators in our Tooled Up community. We recognise all of the hard work that you do throughout the year and how hard it can be to wind down as Christmas approaches. Please enjoy our brief wellbeing tips for teachers by either watching our video, or reading our written tips if you are low on time.