The New York Browning Society, Inc. Newsletter
Founded in 1907

Annual Holiday Poetry Reading
Date Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Time 1:00– 2:00PM

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By Laura Clarke

We hope that you will be able to join us on December 9th for the New York Browning Society Annual Holiday Reading.

Every December I reread A Christmas Carol so I thought I would spend a few moments discussing what the holiday spirit meant to Dickens and how he invented the celebration of modern Christmas as we know it. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, many of the traditional Christmas festivities celebrated by the folk dwindled out as England became more industrialized and as more people moved to the cities to work in factories. Dickens saw the decline of the traditional Christmas celebration as a symbol of the decline of modern society. He worried that modern industrial and capitalist Britain only cared about money and was becoming a completely materialist society.

Dickens presented a vision of Christmas as a holiday centered in the family. It was a holiday that venerated the innocence of children and brought the family together to sing, eat, and play. His depictions of Christmas carols, parties, food, and celebrations became widely adopted in Victorian Britain as a result of the massive popularity of his novel. Dickens also envisioned Christmas as time for Christian charity and love, as a time to remember and care for the poor. This for Dickens was the “Christmas Spirit.”
Dickens depicts Scrooge as the embodiment of an unfeeling and cruel modern capitalist society, and we know this because he does not understand the meaning of Christmas. When Scrooge is asked for a donation for a charitable cause, he declines by referring to Thomas Malthus’ idea of the surplus population. In his essay “An essay on the Principle of Population,” Malthus wrote that the rise in human population would outpace the production of food, which would lead to widespread starvation. He argued that this problem of “surplus population” was the fault of the poor because they were having too many children. He observed that if they did not stop having children, they should be left to die from poverty, disease and famine. Scrooge grumbles: “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge also asks why he should donate money when poor people could go to the workhouse. The Poor Law of 1834 abolished systems of poor relief and established workhouses instead. Workhouses provided shelter and work for destitute men, women and children, but, in reality, they were institutions that enforced child labor and starved the people who were forced to stay there. For Dickens, Scrooge embodies everything that is wrong with modern society.

Dickens tells us that Scrooge has no sense of fancy or imagination. This is a crucial problem for Dickens as in his essay, “Frauds on the Fairies,” Dickens argues that a country without belief in fancy will never be a great country, because only people with fancy can
believe in the ideals of the good that cannot be proved by fact and logic. The characters who have Christmas spirit in A Christmas Carol are those individuals who have fancy and who are able to feel and enjoy transcendent feelings of joy, happiness, and love.

Christmas for Dickens was the antidote to the materialism of modern society. Ironically, it was in the nineteenth century that Christmas became commercialized; however, it is still possible to celebrate the holidays in the way that Dickens envisioned it. Dickens’ idea of Christmas is encapsulated in the words of Scrooge’s nephew:

“Apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—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 seen by one consent to open up their 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.”

The holidays will look different this year, but we hope that you will be able to find some joy in the season.

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball
John Leech
Steel engraving, hand-coloured
9.6 x 8.7 cm vignetted
Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, 1843 Edition. frontispiece.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.

James Browning Kepple, President
Robert Kramer, Vice President
Laura Clarke, Corresponding Secretary
Nancy McGraw, Recording Secretary
Gene Bierhorst, Director-at-Large
KT Sullivan, Director-at-Large
Tom D’Egidio, Director-at-Large
Stephen Downey, President Emeritus

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