After Shakespeare, Charles Dickens is probably the most quoted writer of all time. He is also known as "the man who invented Christmas," thanks to the enduring popularity of his holiday story "A Christmas Carol."
As theaters in our community are reinventing how they reach out to their audiences, the Guthrie is continuing its 46-year tradition of presenting this holiday gift to Minnesota families. On Monday, exactly 177 years to the day it first appeared, Dickens' tale of wonder and delight will begin its run on Zoom.
This is no ordinary year, of course, and this will be no ordinary "Christmas Carol." It has been reinvented by the Guthrie as "A Dickens Holiday Classic." Whether or not you observe Christmas, the universality of this "ghostly little book," as Dickens called it, continues to resonate. From 1843 down to 2020, it still speaks to us. Especially now.
The poverty in Victorian England that Dickens himself experienced overshadowed him all his life. He never overcame the memory of feeling "utterly neglected and hopeless" as a 12-year-old child sent to work in a bootblack factory. As a result, he was a crusader for social reform. He had a deep compassion for the poor and especially for poor children. No wonder so many of them figure in his stories — struggling urchins, like Oliver Twist, Little Nell, Little Dorrit and, of course, Tiny Tim. Even old Scrooge, "hard and sharp as flint," sobs at the memory of himself as a solitary and abandoned child, left alone at school over the holidays.
So many of Dickens's characters, like Bob Cratchit, endure terrible working conditions for fear of losing the means to support their families. Scrooge, we know, was the boss from hell. And yet, when he revisits the holiday party that old Fezziwig throws for his employees — a party the Ghost of Christmas Past describes as "a small matter" that didn't cost very much — Scrooge comes back with a statement any employer could only hope to hear: "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up … . The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune." Dickens understood the concept of servant leadership, putting the needs of others before considering your own, long before it became a 20th-century management model.
Which brings us to the central theme of "A Christmas Carol": considering the needs of others and taking responsibility for the common good. The story opens on Christmas Eve, when Scrooge is solicited to be generous at a time "when Want is keenly felt and Abundance rejoices." Scrooge, the champion of self-interest and individual rights, declines, replying that "it's enough for a man to understand his own business and not to interfere with other people's."
But that evening the anguished ghost of Old Marley, his dead business partner, warns Scrooge that mankind and the common welfare are his real business, or else he can count on a pretty terrible afterlife. And three ghosts later, we have a changed Scrooge, whose "shut-up heart" has been pried open by walking among his fellow beings and awakening to compassion for their misfortune.
So when we tune in to the Guthrie's traditional holiday offering to be entertained by its brilliance and wit, let's also take to heart Dickens' message of compassion and generosity, especially at this time of year.
Let's not forget the thousands of Minnesota children who live in poverty and are homeless, and the hundreds of children at our country's southern border separated from parents who can't be found. Let's reach out to our neighbors who are working from home, who are staying on the job as essential workers and, hardest of all, who have lost their jobs. And let's each of us assume responsibility for the common welfare by taking every step to protect our neighbors from the spread of a virus that has sickened 380,000 Minnesotans and caused the death of more than 4,500.
Dickens ends the story with a reformed Scrooge, "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew," a role model for all of us to take to heart as we celebrate the season and confront a new year. Let us be worthy of Tiny Tim's benediction, "God bless us, every one."
Karen Bachman of Minneapolis, is retired. She is a lifetime director, Guthrie Theater board of directors.