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A Dickens of a New Year

As I mentioned last week, I spent the holidays binge watching on Christmas movies – and since I’m not one for the Hallmark movies (sorry, America), that meant lots and lots of A Christmas Carol. The George C. Scott version. The Reginald Owen version. The Patrick Stewart version. An entire Christmas Day marathon of the Alastair Sim version (as well as an earlier showing on Turner Classic Movies with a much better print – step up your game, Fox Movie Channel). I didn’t see the Muppet’s take, sadly, but until they restore “When Love Is Gone” to the broadcast version I’ll stick with my family’s ancient videocassette.

We, as a people, watch A Christmas Carol a lot. We read it, we go to stage adaptations, we sit around the television for sitcom adaptations and a Doctor Who version where there’s flying sharks added for some reason. We know this story. We know not to be greedy misers. We know better than to harden our hearts, and seek solace in gold and material things, as Scrooge does before his transformation. We know we’re supposed to help Tiny Tim get well again. Clearly, constant exposure to this beloved tale has left us all kind and decent human beings, citizens of an enlightened and benevolent nation.

Yeah, not so much.

Part of the problem is overfamiliarity. A Christmas Carol is something of a victim of its own success – we’ve read it and seen it so many times that we’ve stopped paying attention, treating it as background noise. To actually hear its message fresh, and appreciate it, it’s likely that we’ll need to hear it from some other source.

Like, for example, Charles Dickens.

A Christmas Carol was one of a total of five seasonal ghost stories Dickens wrote, along with the scores of Christmas-themed articles and reminiscences with which he practically invented our modern conception of the holiday. But fortunately, you don’t have to wait a year to discover these other novellas. Because while four of them are set at Christmas, the fifth – and possibly the most relevant one for our times – is set on New Years’ Eve.

So if you still needed plans for tonight, Dickens has you covered.  Forget about drinking and ball drops - just stay home and curl up with The Chimes.

The Chimes focuses on Trotty Veck, an elderly ‘ticket-porter’ (what we’d call a messenger nowadays). Though a poor man himself, Veck is constantly ferrying messages between members of the ruling class, and he absorbs their beliefs and prejudices – including their belief that the poor are the cause of their own problems and deserve their fate. So strongly does he believe this, that he hinders the happiness of his own family.

And when the goblins come on New Years’ Eve, on another mission of supernatural redemption, they come to Veck. Not to the wealthy jerks he’s been listening to, but to him. It’s the poor man who has come to accept the system that’s been oppressing him, because it’s what he remembers from a vanished past he’s been conditioned to idolize, who gets a vision of the dystopic future that awaits if he doesn’t change his ways. And it’s a pretty terrible future – death and misery await the family he’s been trying to protect, all due to the values he’d been taught to espouse.

You see, that’s the other problem facing A Christmas Carol these days – most of us aren’t wealthy misers. There’s a degree of plausible deniability there – Dickens can’t be talking about us. We watch the three ghosts come for Scrooge and fantasize about them changing the ways of some hateful politician or industrialist, or even just a disagreeable boss. But these people only have the power we allow them to have. Ultimately, the wicked deeds they do are twisted reflections of our own values – either things we actively believe, or things we accept without question. And as we head into another tumultuous year, it’s worth taking a moment to actively question them, with or without the aid of Dickensian goblins.

Happy New Year, everybody!

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