With Christmas season upon us, book lovers the world over must think yet again of that familiar holiday story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
Whatever winter festival you celebrate, A Christmas Carol endorses its most lavish version. As the miserly Scrooge is instructed by his ghostly visitors, this winter celebration should be brimful of gifts, lights, decorations, and loving charities, and spent with a myriad of friends and family gathered closely around tables full of delicious food.
However, in the context of 2020, when “social distance,” sadly, has become a buzz-phrase, the Dickens Christmas scenes that spring to my mind are not those from A Christmas Carol, but rather from another great Dickens work that begins its tale on Christmas Eve: Great Expectations.
The opening of Great Expectations describes a very different kind of Christmas indeed. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Pip, a dismissed and denigrated little boy, who happens upon a starving, escaped convict out on the lonely moor near his home. This convict frightens Pip into stealing him a pork pie from his older sister’s replete Christmas pantry. We then watch Pip in misery at Christmas dinner, unable to enjoy much food in spite of the plentiful treats provided, as he is bullied and harassed by the Christmas guests and riddled with guilt over his theft.
Though this Christmas scene begins with fear, it ends in compassion. At first Pip sees the scary convict as a monster. But later, when the kind blacksmith Joe takes Pip along to follow the authorities who chase down and capture the convict, Pip comes to see him through Joe’s eyes, as a cornered, harried, and harassed wreck of humanity–not wholly unlike himself.
These two versions of Christmas are both described by Dickens but could hardly be more unlike. One celebrates the value of sharing companionship amidst material surfeit. The other shows that food and company alone are not enough to provide enjoyment or meaning when true fellow-feeling and love is lacking.
Around the world, many who celebrate Christmas or other Winter Festivals may be feeling a similar contrast, perhaps remembering last year’s cherished holiday rituals and merrymaking, celebrating with co-workers, friends, and family who came together from far-flung places, around tables of plenty in houses filled with laughter.
But now, people may may be facing a quieter holiday amid recommendations to keep a “social distance” during the epidemic. Many who honor a winter holiday may do so alongside just a spouse or a few family members, or perhaps alone, in a much quieter house than last year.
What does classic literature have to say about facing a quieter holiday–Christmas surfeit v. Christmas simplicity?
Looking to vintage literature from the American 19th century, we find that this is actually a favorite theme. On one of my favorite web repositories of classic American literature, Americanliterature.com, we find a whole section devoted to stories about Christmas. The Academy of American Poets’ website, Poets.org, provides links to many poems about Christmas from several eras. Let’s see what some of these works had to say about the virtues of a quiet Christmas.
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Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.