This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of the Wareham Courier.
In 1843, Christmas was dead. There was no doubt about that.
Its fortunes had waxed and waned for several centuries as puritan reformers in England and what would become the United States banned the holiday and its celebrations.
In 1843, Charles Dickens was in debt.
The 31-year-old author had found success with several of his novels and stories, but with four children at home, and a tendency for books to get published without an author’s permission, money could sometimes be tight. In his youth he had seen his father go into debtor’s prison, a theme that would run through much of his work, and he had no wish to follow him.
So Dickens started work on a short novel to pay off some of that debt.
What started out as a work of necessity became a labor of love as Dickens was grasped by his own work.
A Christmas Carol was an instant bestseller.
For more than one hundred years, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transfiguration from misanthropic miser to Christmas’s most ardent supporter has caught hold of our imaginations. Dickens’s story of family, love and good cheer has become the blueprint for how we celebrate the holiday season. As older traditions blended and marketing departments got to work capitalizing on Christmas, the modern holiday and meaning came to be with help in the United States from Washington Irving and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas earlier in the 19th century.
As the story gets repeated through film, television and dramatic readings, people can reconnect with Christmas in a way they can’t through Santa Clause and an Island of Misfit Toys.
“I think that everything isn’t glitter and presents,” Bill McCarty, an actor and Dickens fan, said.
Every year McCarty takes on the role of Scrooge in a two-man production of A Christmas Carol. For the seasoned actor, it’s a little like slipping on a pair of old winter boots, but it still touches him each time Scrooge attempts to wipe his name from the grave under the penetrating gaze of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
It’s a scene that he remembers hearing on the radio in his youth, when Lionel Barrymore would play Scrooge. The performance so impressed him, McCarty would look to Barrymore’s Scrooge when finding his own voice for the character.
Scrooge is hardly a sympathetic character when his nights start to be haunted by the spirits of the season, which is a challenge for McCarty. However, the biggest challenge for the actor is showing the change in Scrooge as he comes to understand that Christmas isn’t merely about frivolity and getting the biggest goose in the shop window.
“I wish more people would think about that instead of presents and money,” he said.
It’s a criticism that’s almost as old as the Dickensian version of the holiday itself. In an 1850 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe one of the characters complained that the meaning of Christmas was overwhelmed by all of the shopping.
Whether you experience A Christmas Carol with Muppets, Bill Murray or even just a good book, it’s easy to melt away some of that icy materialism. Through Dickens’s tale, the power of Christmas, of family and compassion, shines through the holiday like the light through Scrooge’s window on Christmas morning as he throws open the shutters on a whole new world.
Bill McCarty and Paul Hayden will perform a dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, in the Old Methodist Meeting House in Wareham. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.