I hope the holiday season has found you safe and cozy. To me, the holidays aren’t really about the denouement; they’re about the anticipation, the planning, the concentrated time spent thinking about what would bring others joy. This year especially, I’m holding on to the idea that it’s within our power to give people some moments of happiness, under any circumstances. So to that end, this month’s book is about the spirit of care and compassion, at a time when we still (always) desperately need it.
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
I first read this most basic of Christmas texts in that most basic of settings: a suburban Starbucks, with a holiday-themed beverage in a holiday-themed cup in front of me—toothpaste-mint and gritty chocolate with a syrupy finish. There may have been Uggs involved. London at Christmas it was not. No slipping on cobblestones, no whisper of snowflakes in the air. No mulled wine to warm your hands as you meander through a holiday market. And yet. The folkloric story I’d thought I was familiar with (from illustrated children’s editions, from the Muppets) completely defied my expectations and transported me. It’s a rare book that can make you laugh and cry, and Dickens carries it off through the tone and humor of the narration.
The humor lets the Carol get away with being, in essence, a didactic morality tale. On Christmas Eve, the miserly Scrooge is visited by the spirits of past, present, and future to show him how his meanness has been harming himself and others. He is forced to face his past regrets, his present isolation, and his barren future, but is also shown that, through his actions, he can choose togetherness over loneliness. When you boil it down like a Christmas pudding, it all sounds pretty straightforward. But it’s always easier to identify someone’s bad coping mechanisms from the outside; harder to spot the patterns in our own lives that we use to keep ourselves closed off to the necessity of human kindness. And the magic of the story is in the telling: the sumptuous descriptions of the season and the compelling, urgent compassion for fellow humans; the sense of creating something collectively that is greater than any individual celebration.
“I have always thought of Christmas time…as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
I’d extend that description to the winter holidays more generally, because, despite the title, the lessons of this book are in no way bound by religion. Nor should caring be limited to a single season; among other things this year, I hope we’ve learned that mutual aid should be a way of life. We all depend on each other, and total independence (especially the American version) is a myth.
If this is sounding too saccharine for you, let me point out that the Carol covers continued realities like poor working conditions, inadequate healthcare, the exploitative rich, and the utter lack of a social safety net. Granted, Dickens ties the immediate needs up in a bow with Scrooge’s conversion to generosity. This, I have to say, is not a solution for our current times: the billionaires are not going to save us, no matter how many spirits visit them. So for now, we’re back to each other, and the care and joy we can give.
In utterly unscientific friend-polls, I’ve found that while many people have seen an adaptation of the Scrooge story, most haven’t actually read the original. I’m here to recommend that you absolutely do. After almost a year of feeling like we’re standing on a crumbling precipice, it’s one more small way to share comfort and joy and compassion, especially until we can share it in person again. Merry survival, friends—I’ll see you in the new year.
If you like it
Try another book that features spirits, rebirth, and family estrangement: Francesca Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread. The story follows a mother and her twin daughters across multiple contents, dealing with compassion, class, and forgiveness—and some great descriptions of food that the Spirit of Christmas Present would approve of.
If you don’t
I reserve the right to call you a Scrooge. However, I get that the Carol is, on the whole, a joyful tune. You could lean into a holiday story with an elegaic ending: James Joyce’s “The Dead,” from Dubliners. If that’s too on the nose, or you’re more in the mood for toughness, I offer you Mean, by Myriam Gurba—an extremely lucid examination of how we have to harden ourselves to the world (TW for sexual assault). It’s an interesting counterpoint to the lessons of A Christmas Carol, showing that, though compassion is necessary, it can also be a luxury; sometimes survival requires building a shell or shield in order to get through the hardest parts.
Things I’ve written lately:
Park City’s Arts and Culture District Breaks New Ground, Park City Magazine
Six Ways to Enjoy the Arts This Winter (if you’re in Utah), Park City Magazine
Full recommended book list from this year on Bookshop - will start a new one in 2021!