Home for Thanksgiving, I find myself watching much for TV than I usually do. My parents have local news running in the background almost all morning, and as most local news stations do, they have local businesses and organizations on the news shows to gain publicity. Much to my surprise, this morning I was being advertised Charles Dickens! A city in Michigan called Holly (they’re really into Christmas) is having its 42nd annual Dickens festival. Volunteer actors will be performing “A Christmas Carol” 15 times in the next three weekends (outside, might I add) and there will be a “Run Like the Dickens 5k” in a few weeks. Dickens has, I realized after seeing this segment, become inextricably tied to the secular side of Christmas. If you ask anyone what play they’re taking their kids to during the holidays, it is likely “A Christmas Carol.” references to the ghosts in the story and Tiny Tim abound at the holidays. In my own childhood, my family would go to Greenfield Village (a giant outdoor historical museum) for something called Holiday Nights, where employees are dressed in period costumes from colonial times, there is ice skating, and storytellers leap around fires performing The Night Before Christmas or sections of “A Christmas Carol,” which is what drew me back around that fire on cold holiday evenings year after year.
Dickens worked so hard to be relevant during his own time, by changing how he published his novels, by collaborating with other authors, by publishing holiday stories every year, that I am curious to know what he would think of the relevance he still seems to have today. I read “A Christmas Carol” adapted for the stage in middle school, before we went and saw it performed. I watched the Oliver Twist musical in a music class. I didn’t ever actually read anything Dickens himself wrote until my senior year in high school, but he is such a part of our cultural consciousness that I still could have told you who he was and what he wrote with some degree of accuracy. Charles Dickens permeates the cultural knowledge of much of the English-speaking world, for the most part not through his large-scale character studies or social problem novels, but through one of his short Christmas stories.