Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Not a Children’s Story

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career.  When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th grade students knew from films but likely never read.

I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me.  I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense, and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th century literature.

Here is Dickens’ Preface:

            “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which

            shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the

            season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay

it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind.  And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, health care and living wage issues remain current.   The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better health care for the poor.  Back in the first part of 19th century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children.  Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family.  Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel, and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.  Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it.  By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts.  Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” instead.

Mortality: The Ultimate New Year’s Motivator

The most chilling part of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” comes near the end when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come points Ebenezer Scrooge to a tombstone with his own name on it.

It is this final vision that does its job in making Scrooge realize he better change his ways before he dies if he wants his life to have meaning.

The idea of coming to terms with one’s own mortality and using that knowledge as motivation to make the most of each day is powerful.

Scrooge declares that “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”  And just as with New Year’s resolutions, people have the best intentions to do good in the world and for themselves but often life’s daily happenings can derail them.

It takes a strong constitution and willpower to keep goals on track.

My life-changing moment wasn’t a ghost but a dead body, when at age 11, I witnessed my grandmother in a coffin. That startling image slapped me in the face with the sinking realization that life does not last forever.

I remember many times afterwards lying in bed struggling to get to sleep thinking about the eventual void in our future.

It accounts for the nervous energy I have and the impatience I display knowing that time is short and why I make lists all the time.  Lists of errands to do each day, and lists of goals to work on each year.

In a way, death drives me to get things accomplished.

Of course, the number of years a person has to live can’t be predicted, though many internet tools claim to guestimate one’s lifespan with a high level of probability.

Based on the Social Security Administration’s Life Expectancy Calculator, I can expect to live another 24 years at my current age.

According to life insurance companies Northwestern Mutual and John Hancock, I have another 32 years.

Death clock.org actually gives a projected day of death and graphically places it on a tombstone like the Dickens’ tale.  I have only 13 years left with them.

On poodwaddle.com there is even a clock that continuously countdowns one’s life.

The iconic images each December 31st of an old man representing the year that is ending and a baby representing the new year to come symbolizes the death and rebirth in all of us.

Each passing year marks a slight death for that is one year that will never come back.

However, with the utterance of “Happy New Year” comes yet another opportunity to reboot, redouble our efforts to be better people.   Even if “life happens,” there is always hope that some of what we set out to do will occur.

If each person does something positive once a day, by next year, that would amount to 365 positive actions.   That is a lot of contributions for one person.

One day a tombstone will have our name on it.   And no matter how much money we have or how healthy our eating and exercise habits are, we will die.

Abraham Lincoln once said that “in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”

Here’s hoping that in 2017 you make the most of what days we have to do good for ourselves and for others.