What the Dickens? Christmas the Scrooge Way

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic favourite when it comes to the Christmas spirit, and he entwines a fictional biography with class commentary.

By Serena Ypelaar

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

This phrase from Charles Dickens’ well-loved Christmas novella cleverly establishes the intersection of life and death, as the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner comes to warn him off his cold-hearted ways. A Christmas Carol (1843) illuminates the importance of generosity during the festive season, but it also serves as an excellent form of fictional biography.

In the book, Dickens exemplifies the writerly adage “show, don’t tell” and spins a compelling illustration of a man’s life without resorting to long-winded character monologues. Where a lesser author might have their protagonist prattle on at length about their upbringing in a style that bores most readers, Dickens instead shows us almost firsthand how miser Ebenezer Scrooge became the person he is.

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Ebenezer Scrooge (Alistair Sim) watches events of his past as shown by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) in the 1951 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”. Photo: The Guardian

It’s a fascinating combination of realism and supernaturality, with the Ghosts of Christmas Past appearing to guide Scrooge (and us) through a revival of his past. Not a retelling, but a re-experiencing. But what does Dickens want from us when taking us through fictional Scrooge’s lifetime? An understanding of the character is the obvious answer, but it also goes a little deeper than that. He wants us to foster empathy for not only Scrooge, but those he deprives.

Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, illustrated by John Leech. Photo: Wikimedia

From an interpretive perspective, the flashback device serves to place us directly in Scrooge’s shoes, therefore holding us accountable. By using Scrooge as an overarching symbol of avarice (especially during the holidays), Dickens warns against the danger of greed. In his customary fashion, he prompts us – through experiencing Scrooge’s life alongside him – to ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Do we donate to those in need at the holidays? Many of us do, but many of us don’t. We fret about shopping and wish lists but fail to consider those for whom (like the Cratchits) a big family dinner would mean the world.

It’s fascinating to consider that Dickens predated the commercial bastardization of Christmas by almost century, as we now sit at a point where Christmas for many people is defined by dollar signs (or pounds, for that matter).

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, who walks with a cane, as illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Cratchits cannot afford adequate medical care for Tim. Photo: Wikimedia

So when we read A Christmas Carol or watch an adaptation (my family and I favour the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim), we’re prompted to examine our own behaviour. In damning Scrooge for his constant refrain of “bah, Humbug”, are we ourselves really focused on the true meaning of Christmas? We can interpret Dickens’ work many ways, but the one immovable theme at the core is that Christmas calls us toward togetherness, kindness, and compassion. Dickens wishes us a Merry Christmas, certainly, but he doesn’t let us off easy when it comes to our own thoughtfulness. That much is clear when he stresses the final two words of Tiny Tim’s famous refrain: God bless us, every one.”

The world may be an unequal place, as Dickens knew well, but his works inspire us to do whatever we can to reset the balance and share what we have.

In parting, Merry Christmas, and thank you for reading The Mindful Rambler! Sending you all the best wishes – take care of each other.

Leaving you with a wonderful Dickens parody on the television series Quacks, starring Andrew Scott as the writer himself!

The pen is mightier than the sword, especially when it’s Jane Austen’s

243 years after Jane Austen’s birth, her words still loom large over the literary world –  and in the dialogue about women’s rights.

By Serena Ypelaar

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday.

This time every year, I’m left reflecting on the legacy of that talented and incredibly smart woman, one whose voice speaks so loudly in both her contemporary era and our own. Despite living in a male-dominated society, Austen’s wit and wisdom has pervaded the literary world and she remains one of Britain’s most prominent authors.

Jane Austen.
Photo: Goodreads

So on her birthday, I’d like to recall the significance of her work as a canon that redefined feminism even at such an early point in time.

The author of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among other titles, left an indelible mark on English literature as a writer who speaks from a distinctly feminine perspective in a patriarchal society.

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Anne Elliot discussing gender inequality in “Persuasion” (1817)

To paint a brief picture, in Austen’s society only landowning men could vote; genteel women of the middle and upper classes could only retain or augment social standing through a successful marriage. Even then, influence was confined to that of one’s husband, a notion at odds with today’s circumstances. Failure to marry well would usually result in spinsterhood, living with one’s parents for the remainder of one’s life (which was extremely embarrassing back then) and a complete lack of independence.

Despite all this, Austen rejected the marriage proposal she received from one Harris Bigg-Wither and instead committed to reconciling the two seemingly disparate lifestyles I’ve just mentioned: autonomy as a single woman.

How did she do it, you ask? She did it through her words, as a woman writer. She wrote about women’s experiences of Regency society, highlighting issues of income, class, personality, gender, and manners. She successfully sold her novels to earn money, making her quite entrepreneurial for a woman of her time. Her discerning assessments of the dynamic between men and women – despite being set 200 years before now – still resonate with us today, and her comments on the human condition have charmed readers of all genders and classes.

I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.

Marianne Dashwood describing the severe expectations of women in her society in “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Regardless of how I feel about today’s designation of “chick lit” as an excuse to dismiss female authorship, Austen owns her femininity unabashedly, delivering exacting jabs and insightful criticisms from the seat of an observer – each time a considerate and emotionally complex female character. What makes her so relevant today is that amidst the ongoing push for equal rights, people connect to her ability to find flaws in her society and propose solutions to them.

I hate to hear you talk about women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives. 

Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” (1817)

Since her books achieved mass popularity, Austen has served as an inspiration to many, though she’s not without her critics (jealous haters). Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, and other writers claimed to find no brilliance in her work, but as The Mindful Rambler is by no means a neutral publication, I feel no hesitation in discrediting their criticisms. Austen is brilliant because she represents the everyday. What might seem to some the banalities of the well-to-do in the countryside in fact set Austen apart, through the minutiae of her social criticisms and her practiced understanding of others. We’ve all met a Mrs. Bennet, whether she is our own mother, a voracious aunt, or otherwise; we all want to meet a Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey in my case, but I’m sure we’ll get to that in a future post).

A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen employing her signature biting irony in “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I write this from the perspective of a woman who loves writing too, and whose work has been shaped by two prominent female writers, J.K. Rowling and Austen herself. But while the former shies away from gender politics in favour of the ideological, the latter champions her gender through representation and highlights disparities between men’s and women’s quality of life. Austen does this using a combination of cultural nuances and hyperbolic characters, stressing important themes while more subtly suggesting at other details. The result is a complex but convincing illustration of feminism in the early 19th century, one that we can use to inform our discussions of feminist literature today. And we have a well-educated, unmarried woman in Regency England who forged her own path – despite the restrictions of her society – to thank for that.

Learn more about Jane Austen and her portrayal of women here.

Home for the Holidays

What does tradition tell us about the holidays? As Hanukkah is underway and Advent begins, we examine how collective rituals can unite us, both within and across faiths.

By Serena Ypelaar

What is tradition, really?  

It’s defined as the transmission of customs/beliefs between generations, and the nature of the word itself suggests its deep reliance on community. There’s a reason culture can be steeped in tradition – and a reason that there’s a stigma attached to solitude at the holidays. And that’s because tradition depends on sharing to survive. You can most certainly enjoy traditions on your own (I sure do), but the fact is that they don’t sustain unless they’re shared with other people and carried forward. Since we as humans are mortal, they obviously wouldn’t live past just us. 

Not unless we share them.

As we kick off December I wanted to take a look at the nature of community and its integral significance in holiday rituals. So here we go: a brief but hopefully interesting look that will prompt us to reflect and help us cherish the people that make the traditions great. 

Christmas | Christian tradition

Christians celebrate the birth of their saviour Jesus Christ by attending a mass or church service to have communion, as well as partaking in a feast and gift-giving. However much mass consumerism may exploit the togetherness of Christmas to sell more products, the holiday itself dwells in generosity, regardless of money spent.

Seth Cohen from the OC discusses how Chrismukkah has twice the resistance of normal holidays because it's half Christmas, half Hanukkah.
As the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, Seth Cohen from the O.C. was a staunch supporter of “Chrismukkah”, getting people on board to sustain the hybridized traditions.

Hanukkah | Jewish tradition

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights to symbolize the successful rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucid empire. At the dedication of the Second Temple, the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one. Jewish observances also include playing dreidel and gathering to eat oil-based foods such as latkes.

Winter Solstice | Cree Tradition

Among Cree nations in North America, the winter solstice allows an opportunity for rest and renewal. As the shortest, darkest day in the year, the solstice sees Cree people reflecting on the past year and their connections with plants and animals by looking at the stars. Specifically, the Seven Sisters constellation, or “the hole in the sky” prompts Cree people to come together and reflect on their ancestors.

Kwanzaa | African-American tradition

Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage in the United States. Children are included in the observances, and respect is paid to elders and ancestors, concluding with feasting and gift-giving. Families also decorate their homes with African art and colourful African cloth such as kente.

Sinterklaas / St. Nicholas Day | Dutch tradition

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain.
Photo: Wikimedia

Celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France, and former Dutch colonies, Sinterklaas Day celebrates the Feast of St. Nicholas, in which Sinterklaas returns from Spain. Children put out wooden clogs on the night of December 5 and awake to chocolate letters, ginger cookies such as speculaas and kruidnoten, and oranges in the clogs. The Sinterklaas parade is also a well-attended event among families in Holland.

Ōmisoka | Japanese tradition

Toshikoshi soba.
Photo: Flickr

Ōmisoka signifies the end of the year, and is celebrated on the final day – December 31. A few hours before the year ends, Japanese people join together for parties and eat toshikoshi soba or toshikoshi udon, long noodles which symbolize passing from one year into the next. From midnight, the first hours of the day are spent at a shrine or temple, and greeting one another. 

Tradition is an instrument of community. As we’ve seen, one person can practice rituals, but it takes many to sustain traditions for years to come. It’s interesting to imagine, with the rise of digital technology and its new prominence in our lives, the new traditions we may create and carry forward – and those which may falter. Nevertheless, one thing has endured throughout: our human craving for connection.