In 1842 the young Charles Dickens (he was just thirty) went to see his sister living in Manchester. An even younger German, the twenty-two year old Frederick Engels, went there in the same year to work in his father’s spinning factory. The two men never met, but they shared a horrified response to the brutal poverty they found in the squalor of the new industrial revolution, and both determined to reform it. Engels went on to write The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), and shortly afterwards he met Karl Marx. Charles Dickens sat down to write too, and in 1843 produced A Christmas Carol, that other well-known proletarian classic.
It’s quite odd to recall that our best known story of Christmas is rooted in social protest, especially when you consider that A Christmas Carol has become a middle-class classic, something every repertory company, every church theater group in America considers doing every December. It’s the one story we all want to see and hear over and over again, even though most of our neighborhoods are no longer blighted with poverty and smoke. Why is this so? One reason may be that A Christmas Carol fills our continuing need for communal ritual, at a time when we don’t do rituals very well (Bronco games excepted). We’ve gotten rather out of touch with ritual, living in a time where technology has liberated us from nature, and where much of our social experience is isolated and virtual. That may be why this story seems more popular, more vital and even more necessary than ever, especially in the theater. You might think A Christmas Carol is just the holiday story that brings a smile to your face. I’m here to tell you it’s all that and something more—it’s a ritual service of communal healing.
What happens in this story? Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed. He comes in from the cold. When we meet him he’s virtually dead, a “wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” He’s an almost inhuman, permanently winterized money machine; the scope of his life is reduced to his bank book and counting house. Only a few flickers of mordant wit testify to a suppressed imagination and inner life. But in one hard day’s night he is visited by a ghost who prompts three other ghosts to take him on a journey through his past, present, and future, and when Scrooge reaches the end of his road his frozen heart has thawed and is pumping with life-blood as red as berries on a holly branch. He confesses he’s “quite a baby.” So he is. He is new born.
As spectators we watch with joy—and as ritual participants, we not only follow Scrooge, we are Scrooge; his journey is our journey to recover our lives again in midwinter. A Christmas Carol gets rid of the frozen old year, inside us and out; it opens the doors of our shut-up hearts. The way in which this journey occurs anticipates the rituals of modern therapy, which begin with the recovery of a painful past we’ve locked away down in the cellar. Once revived, we re-open and re-examine old wounds; we begin to live in the present again. And once we see the future, and know death will come, we can order our lives appropriately, living not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of those who will follow us. Living in the past, the present and the future is what Scrooge learns to do, and what we learn to do while participating in his therapeutic ritual. This is what it means to “keep Christmas well.” It takes more than entertainment to get us there; it takes an actual ritual, every single winter.
Victor Turner, in his classic work The Ritual Process, explains how ritual experience differs from normal social engagements. In ritual life, he says, the hierarchies of conventional social status are suspended as ritual participants form a homogeneous community. Within the ritual experience, silence is privileged over speech, sacred instruction over technical knowledge, foolishness over sagacity, simplicity over complexity, pain is accepted rather than avoided, unselfishness replaces selfishness, nakedness replaces distinct clothing (you can leave your Rolex at the door, and possibly in our stocking). Turner’s descriptions are based on observing rituals in central Africa, but do they not apply to Ebenezer Scrooge as well? All through his astonishing night, spent nearly naked in his nightgown, he comes to accept and celebrate his foolishness, his simplicity, his open heart shot through with grief, pain, and finally, joy. As he says, “I don’t know what day of the month it is! I don’t know how long I’ve been among the spirits. I don’t know anything.” By Turner’s definitions, he is a ritual participant par excellence, and so, in turn, are we, his audience, his “fellow passengers to the grave,” who gather in the dark to form the ritual community. Here we proceed, in Turner’s words, to the “liminal,” to the threshold of the sacred. Like Scrooge, we are given a glimpse of the invisible world. God bless us, every one.
Our new version of A Christmas Carol is not set in central Africa, but it sets the stage for a classic ritual experience—we might call it Scrooge’s Wild and Crazy Dream. Suppose you were invited to a touring production presented by the Smoking Bishop Players. This is not a lavish theatre company. Very often they perform with a trunk, some furniture, and candlelight, lots of actual candlelight, the light best suited to ghosts and storytelling. Do not expect Las Vegas spectacle, though they may have a few tricks up their sleeves as all clever spirits should. But do prepare yourself for some genuine good feeling and real magic, all administered by that master shaman, Charles Dickens. Our production is all Dickens, unadulterated and 100% pure. It’s a very old story, one you already know very well. But it is still timely, eternally new, and perhaps especially welcome after an endless bruising election season.
You don’t want to miss it. For all the heartbreak and suffering Scrooge undergoes in his long night’s journey into day, this is a festive ritual, made for joy, created by the man who “invented” Christmas as we know it. I say to you as Mrs. Cratchit says opening to the door to her rain‑soaked hard working daughter, “Come in my dear, and have yourself a warm.” We honor the American factory owner who gave his employees another day off after reading the story—it’s just the sort of generous gesture Dickens would have applauded. But we also like the response of Thomas Carlyle, friend of Dickens, and a serious, high minded reformer, whose thunderous rhetoric enthralled and roused liberal Victorians. What did Thomas Carlyle do after reading A Christmas Carol? He went out and bought a turkey.
Happy holidays, everybody! And a Happy New Year! Have yourselves a warm!