As I sit here by my solitary candle, I am not gazing at its steady flame but at the lights on my Christmas tree, which is standing in the corner of the lounge opposite me.
Christmas is my season. I suppose now that I have white hair and a beard of sorts and have begun to look ‘Santa-esque’, it should be my favourite season. I have certainly always preferred it to the forced festivities of New Year.
Even though I live alone and spend most of Christmas week with my family up North, I still decorate my lounge and make a lot of fuss over the tree. On my travels in recent years I have collected trinkets and baubles to adorn its branches. Every year I try to put the decorations up around the first Sunday of Advent (generally the first Sunday in December) and leave them up until the official end of Christmastide (the feast of Epiphany on January 6). They are a cheering sight in these bleak and dark days of winter, especially when I arrive home from my family after my Christmas visit, to my solitary residence again.
Last week I took a friend to the Charles Dickens Museum in London. It is a tall townhouse in Doughty Street, in Bloomsbury, not far from Russell Square. The house was the first marital home of Charles and Catherine Dickens. They lived there from 1837 – 1840 and during that short space of time, raised the first three of their ten children there (Charley, Mary and Kate). There Dickens finished ‘The Pickwick Papers’, wrote ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. And it was there, in his late-twenties, that he very quickly rose like a comet to international fame.
Though now a museum, there is a homely atmosphere as you walk through its rooms. There are also mini exhibitions on display and, as might be expected, at present, there is one on ‘A Christmas Carol’ which Dickens wrote only a few years after he moved (in 1843). This is the best time of year to visit the museum as every room is festooned with Christmas decorations in early Victorian style, including, in the corner of the parlour, a Christmas tree. I am honoured to think that my own tree is likewise in the corner of my own parlour! The tree’s branches have colourful ribbons on them and small thin candles (tapers) . There were no flashing electric lights in those days or electric light at all and in the gloom of the parlour, lit only by candles or oil lamps and the fire in the grate, the tree’s candle lights must have been as warm and spectacular as our own electric ones are now.
Charles Dickens virtually invented Christmas, through ‘A Christmas Carol’ and his other annual Christmas stories.
However he was only bringing together traditions that had existed for years before, even if some may have declined by then. Just as Shakespeare created our image of Ancient Rome in his play ‘Julius Caesar’, so Dickens, in his novel, creates the heartwarming image of Christmas that is now indelibly etched in our national (indeed international) consciousness.
However, we must remember that he wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ spurred on by his own acute social conscience. Ever the champion of the poor, as he was only a few steps from abject poverty himself in his childhood, it was the plight of children born into poverty that abhorred him most. At the centre of the book is the scene where the Spirit of Christmas Present, as he is about to leave Scrooge, opens his cloak to reveal the children of Ignorance and Want, who beset Scrooge with outstretched hands.
The book was written in Dickens’ despair at the conditions of children living on the London streets and on the streets of other major cities, heightened by the current economic depression known as the ‘Hungry Forties’, where the failure of two successive harvests left many walking the streets in starvation. He was also sickened by the use of child labour in the mines and rather than petition Parliament, he decided to write a short work of fiction instead, exposing the ignorance of the wealthy and powerful classes to the ‘want’ of the poor.
What would Dickens have to say about our own Christmas in 2019 with its own child poverty, a growing homeless population, food banks, ineffective universal credit scheme, and children slipping into drug abuse and knife crime? And successive governments that are not ignorant but refuse to see and act. What indeed?
And what would he make of the last three years of political machinations and parliamentary drama around Brexit? He would have seen huge opportunities for comedy I am sure. And what of our new Prime Minister? Dickens loved creating eye-catching names for his characters and took his time over inventing them. I fancy he might have dubbed him ‘Mr Boris Brexit Bombast’. And yet, having seen our new leader so often in the news recently, despite his attempts to be Churchillian, he does not appear to be a 19th Century Dickensian figure either, as his voice and manner are more those of a licentious 18th Century Tory. Indeed a periwig would sort out his uncontrollable hair.
Dickens wrote a story about a Christmas Tree, which he calls the ‘new German toy’ as the practice of a tree at Christmas had been introduced into our country by the German Prince Albert, the young Queen Victoria’s consort, a few years before. His tree has ‘glittering tapers’ (like the one in the museum), miniature doll’s furniture and musical instruments, imitation fruits and sweets and a host of other trinkets, including rosy-cheeked dolls hiding behind the green leaves.
What of my own tree? Yes there is a string of lights like glowing icicles and a host of different baubles and trinkets, some purchased here and many from my travels. I must admit to an aversion to Christmas trees in stores, bars or hotels that have identical baubles: all gold or blue or red or whatever and often with fake gift boxes at their base. They look so unimaginative and half-hearted. But better a tree than no tree at all I suppose.
In the Dickens story, as he looks at the tree he is gradually reminded of ghosts from the past. What am I reminded of? Well places that I have visited and the dear friends who were with me. I have decorations from Paris, Rome, Florence, Assisi, Venice several from Budapest of course, San Francisco and other places in California like Monterey, San Simeon and L.A. and Vancouver. There are even several from the Vatican – but I didn’t steal them! And there are those that were given to me by family and friends. And, like Dickens, one or two trinkets remind me of one or two friends who are no more.
The Christmas Tree is a light bearing tree. To those of us who are of the Christian Faith, it symbolised the coming of Christ into the world, the light that lightens all people. For Dickens it is a ‘commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion’ reminding us to think of others and help them at this time.
The evergreen fir tree has links with the winter solstice and so to the tree of life which is common to so many faiths and cultures. So the Christmas tree is also the Tree of Life. It is a perennial symbol of light in the darkness. And of hope too.
As I look at my own tree I see all those things. Yes my tree is a tree of life. My life.
As Tiny Tim says in ‘A Christmas Carol’:
‘Merry Christmas and God bless us everyone.’
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