There are those who decry contemporary Christmas for losing touch with its religious roots and reforming itself in the name of consumerism instead. They are only half right: in fact, Christmas never was much of a religious holiday to begin with – especially not in protestant culture. Several of the American colonies actually banned the celebration, viewing it (correctly) as being, at heart, a descendent of the Pagan Winter Solstice festival that the Catholic Church had simply co-opted.
The modern Christmas that we know and love is a fundamentally secular invention, and its inventor is Charles Dickens; its canonical text – the 1843 A Christmas Carol. With Puritanism having thrown a wet blanket over the occasion and the inhumane ethos of the Industrial Revolution seemingly poised to deliver its deathblow, Dickens wrote his novel to reincarnate the holiday in the name of basic values that he saw Capitalist society losing sight of: conviviality, generosity and gratitude.
Seemingly overnight, the story took the English-speaking world by storm. Indeed, it has become such a part of our cultural background, there is hardly any need to summarize it. We’re all familiar with poor Tiny Tim, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (“Scrooge” and “humbug” quickly entered the general lexicon in their own right) and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future that scare him straight. When Tiny Tim says “god bless us, every one” to close the conventional theatrical adaptation, the line produces a somewhat jarring realization: that this famous refrain actually has a specific origin.
The American Conservatory Theater puts on a production of A Christmas Carol every year and, bless them for it, this amounts to more than quaint tradition: it allows the work to remain a living, breathing work of art rather than becoming a calcified parable or mere source of culturally diffused tropes. It isn’t a return to religious roots that Christmas needs; rather, what the holiday requires is just this sort of a return to Dickens.
Tuesday night was my first time seeing a staging of the play, and I was bowled over by the difference this made, compared to the film and TV adaptations I grew up on. For one it was visually delightful: a captivating melee of soaring ghosts, clever staging tricks and whirling, bright wool trenches (the Victorian costume chest always has some real gems to offer) – far more festive than the gloomy versions I had seen.
The stage offers something on a deeper level, too. Being a story, basically, about a man regaining his capacity for empathy, A Christmas Carol benefits tremendously from the physical presence of live actors. Watching real people move and emote in a shared space affords a special, direct access to Scrooge’s (James Carpenter) change in character — a spiritual experience that film cannot reproduce, animation still less.
The book may never go out of production, but A Christmas Carol begs for enactment such as this. The year that we cease to produce Dickens’ work for the stage, effectively entombing it within the moving image, will be an icy Christmas indeed. Until then, we’ll rejoice with A.C.T. in this deeply satisfying articulation of the holiday’s modern soul.
A Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at American Conservatory Theater