Christmas with The Allusionist

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

[Clip from “A Christmas Carol”]

RM: No, you haven’t missed it. It’s Christmas Day and we’re celebrating with two fun stories from “The Allusionist” a show about language from Helen Zaltzman. “The Allusionist” is one of my all-time favorite podcasts and I’m not just saying that because Helen Zaltzman is one of my all-time favorite people. It is a show about language but is absolutely not just for word-nerds. It is 99pi-style storytelling using language as the lense to the culture rather than design. And if you haven’t discovered it yet, you are going to love it. With two festive seasonal favorites from “The Allusionist”, here is Helen Zaltzman.

HELEN ZALTZMAN: The War on Christmas – when did that start? Upon the birth of Jesus Christ himself, when King Herod ordered all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem be killed? In 1644, when Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans passed an ordinance prohibiting Christmas celebrations? In 1659, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans managed to get Christmas banned for 22 years for being a pagan festival? Or was it in 1998, in Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham? If you picked up practically any newspaper at the time, you would have read that Birmingham city council had renamed Christmas ‘Winterval’.

….Birmingham will celebrate the festive season as usual this year with carol singing, fairy lights and street entertainment – but don’t call it ‘Christmas’. Council officials have renamed it ‘Winterval’ in the hope of creating a more multicultural atmosphere in keeping with the city’s mix of ethnic groups.
…a ‘politically correct’ decision to call Christmas festivities ‘Winterval’…
…Cancel Christmas, call it Winterval…
…Birmingham council, claiming it was anxious not to offend those in other faiths, renamed Christmas ‘Winterval’…
…Crazy council chiefs provoked outrage last night after naming Christmas festivities ‘Winterval’…
…Political correctness gone mad…
…Churchmen believe the Winterval name is intended to avoid offending Muslims and other minorities…
…A municipal brainwave called Winterval, renaming the annual holiday and linking it to shopping rather than shepherds…
…The word Winterval has a nasty echo of communists who banned any Christian connotation in East Germany…
…Political correctness gone mad!

HZ: And verily, in Britain, Christmas was banished. Now we sing Winterval carols and wear ironic Winterval sweaters; we hang up our Winterval stockings for Father Winterval to fill with Winterval gifts; and when we turn on the radio, we rock around the Winterval tree to these festive tunes.

Mud, ‘Lonely This Christmas’:
It’ll be lonely this WINTERVAL
Without you to hold…
The Waitresses, ‘Christmas Wrapping’
Merry WINTERVAL, Merry WINTERVAL, but I think I’ll miss this one this year.
Mariah Carey, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’
All I want for WINTERVAL is…

HZ: Yep, that’s exactly what happened. Well, it’s about as true as most things that have been said about Winterval. Which came about thanks to one Mike Chubb.

MIKE CHUBB: Hi, my name is Mike Chubb. You could say that I was the one that has caused the furore that is Winterval.

HZ: In the late 90s, Mike Chubb was the head of events for Birmingham City council.

MC: As the manager of this huge event section in the city council and my team of something like 30, we came up with this terminology Winterval. It’s like a portmanteau word for ‘winter’ and ‘festival’.

HZ: I thought it was a portmanteau of ‘winter’ and ‘interval’, I must say, to sort of suggest it’s like this hiatus in the year.

MC: No, it’s between ‘winter’ and ‘festival’.

HZ: It’s a good portmanteau. It’s quite elegant. Until it became shorthand for ‘War on Christmas’ with a side of ‘political correctness gone mad’. It started well enough with Birmingham’s first Winterval in 1997. Events ran over several weeks and were attended by hundreds of thousands of people, without complaints from the press or the populace. So it’s not clear why the following year’s Winterval became a wincident. But it did.

HZ: In November 1998, the then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer – no, not as in ‘Claus’ – Mark Santer issued his Christmas message to the clergy of the diocese. It said: I wonder what madness is in store for us this Christmas? I confess I laughed out loud when our city council came out with ‘Winterval’ as a way of not talking about Christmas! No doubt it was a well meaning attempt not to offend, not to exclude; not really to say anything at all.

HZ: And soon the papers got hold of it. On 8th November 1998 the Birmingham Sunday Mercury reported that the Bishop of Birmingham had condemned the city council’s attempt to rebrand Christmas.

MC: And what happened then was … all those papers who thought, “Hey, this is a good wheeze, not much news at Christmas, is there? Let’s use an interesting story.” “Did you know Birmingham city council have cancelled Christmas, or renamed Christmas ‘Winterval’?” And thereafter it went nationwide and worldwide.

HZ: The only person who didn’t notice was Mike Chubb.

MC: I was so busy at the time I didn’t take in any of the media furore at the time. It just didn’t touch me at all, because literally we worked 41 days non-stop day and night.

HZ: Busy work, waging the war on Christmas. Except that wasn’t really what Mike and the council were doing during the war on the war on Christmas. In this war, only one side turned up to the battlefield.

MC: It was the media really that actually took it on: people like the Daily Mail. Just Google ‘Winterval’ and just look at the organizations who are up in arms about it. They’re up in arms because they’ve been led to believe that that’s what Birmingham City Council intended.

HZ: It wasn’t?

MC: No. Christmas was never off the page; it was part of a 41-day festival of events.

HZ: But people thought you were trying to rebrand Christmas.

MC: Yes. They said “it’s political correctness gone mad.”

HZ: But actually, political correctness had not gone mad; political correctness had not even been a factor. Because the council’s events team was not trying to rebrand Christmas. It was trying to bundle together a whole lot of events occurring in the weeks before and after Christmas.

MC: To market single events takes a great deal of money and a great deal of time. It is a lot easier if you actually find some way of putting it under, if you like, a marketing banner, under which all these specific events take place, each one with its own marketing campaign, each one with its own raison d’etre for being there.

HZ: Birmingham is Britain’s second-largest city, with a very culturally and ethnically diverse population; there’s a lot of stuff going on, particularly at that time of year. Hence they decided to use the marketing banner ‘Winterval’.

MC: It does what it says on the tin. It markets a major festival, at a time of the year called ‘winter’, and there’re all sorts of things that happen in winter. You know, Divali happens in winter, BBC Children in Need happens in winter, Chinese New Year happens in winter, New Year’s Eve happens in winter…

HZ: …Hannukah, Eid – Oh. And Christmas. Christmas lights, Christmas market, Christmas trees, Christmas carols…

MC: It was still called Christmas. That particular event which included the Christmas lights switch on, a whole a month full of events over Christmas – that came under Christmas. It was termed ‘Christmas’. It had his own brochure: ‘Christmas’! But unfortunately people decided not to see that. They decided that that’s what the council did.

HZ: Shortly after the war on Winterval erupted in the papers, the council actually issued a statement that they were not renaming Christmas, and Christmas was very visibly a major part of the Winterval line-up. But which story sticks more: the true one, that Winterval was a marketing and admin umbrella, or the lie, that Winterval had come to kill Christmas?

MC: Nobody actually could see the simplicity of the Winterval brand. But they read into it they wanted, to give voice to their own aspirations and prejudices.

HZ: Now, personally, I’ve noticed significantly more uproar about the war on Christmas than actual evidence that that war is being waged. Some people seem very eager for there to be a war on Christmas so they can leap to Christmas’s defence. Though Christmas has achieved cultural dominance way beyond religious lines, to cast it as an underdog provides a cover for taking a pop at other cultures. And to create and maintain divisions in society. Christmas is a pagan-Roman-Christian festival, celebrated by people from all sorts of cultures with all sorts of beliefs, including me, an ethnically Jewish atheist. Christmas is not threatened by multiculturalism. It is multicultural.

MC: People don’t like change. They’re scared of change. And to a certain extent, Winterval was used as an example of a change that’s gone too far, because they misread what the organizers are trying to do.

HZ: And they continued to misread it. After 1998, Birmingham didn’t run Winterval again, but in the following years, the Winterval myth was repeated dozens of times in Britain’s national newspapers. In fact, in 2011, after running one such piece, the Daily Mail had to print a retraction saying that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas. But, too little, too late: ‘Winterval’ had already become the byword for political correctness gone mad.

MC: And it still continues.

HZ: Just a few weeks ago in the British Parliament, Shailesh Vara, the Conservative MP for North-West Cambridgeshire, told Prime Minister Theresa May…

Shailesh Vara: minority communities should respect the views and traditions of mainstream Britain and that means Christmas is not Winterval, and Christmas trees are not festive trees.
Theresa May: I do agree with my honourable friend.

HZ: Well we can all agree with him that Christmas is not Winterval, since it never was Winterval.

MC: It’s so simple. It’s not difficult; it’s just certain people just decide to say what they want to say. Maybe they want to create a bit of a stir because it sells papers.

HZ: But in a way, as a marketing story, it is very successful because the brand really clung on. If you just called it, I don’t know, ‘Birmingham winter holidays’, no one would…

MC: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

HZ: It’s just unfortunate that the brand had been so misinterpreted.

MC: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah.

HZ: If you had your time again, would you do it differently?

MC: No.

HZ: Good for you!

MC: People have got to experiment; they’ve got to introduce – and the public need to be introduced to – new exciting initiatives, because otherwise we’re just going to live in a very dull society.

RM: Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go buy that prized turkey in the window and settle in for another story from “The Allusionist” featuring a couple of familiar 99pi voices, after this.


RM: Here again is “The Allusionist” on 99% Invisible.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: So we’re in the parking lot of Cow Palace. There’s a gun show happening at the same time.

KATIE MINGLE: It says “Welcome patriots.” We are here for the Dickens fest. Excuse me.

HZ: Katie Mingle and Avery Trufelman of 99% Invisible are about to enter Victorian London. In the Cow Palace arena in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, California.

KATIE MINGLE: It’s als sunny and 60 degrees. It feels not Christmassy at all.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: The great Dickens Christmas Fair: entrance. There’s a giant portrait of Santa Claus as you walk in.

HZ: The Dickens Christmas Fair has been an annual event in the Bay Area since 1970, founded by husband and wife team Ron and Phyllis Patterson, who previously had started the Renaissance Fairs, in the backyard of their home in Los Angeles. Their kids run the Dickens Fair now. It’s held on five weekends prior to Christmas. It’s 120,000 square feet of Victorian London festivity.

KATIE MINGLE: Oh my goodness. Wow.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: They did a really good job!

KATIE MINGLE: OK. So. It smells like apple cider or something spiced. It’s sort of set up to look like an old English market or…

AVERY TRUFELMAN: There are like store fronts and right here there’s a big old timey sign that says champagne and there are like barmaids serving champagne. And there’s the British – Oh my god, Helen, there are British flags everywhere. All along the ceiling. It looks like a film set of a street.

HZ: The streets are named things like Nickleby Road. Cratchitt’s Yard. Pickwick Place. Fezziwig’s Dance Party.

KATIE MINGLE: We do have a map.
AVERY TRUFELMAN: A hand-painted map. So we’re on Nickleby road right now. By Charles Dickens’s house.

HZ: The streets are thronging with people in different interpretations of Dickensian costume – not compulsory for attendees, but encouraged.

KATIE MINGLE: That baby is like wrapped in a potato sack. That man actually took his baby, put dirt on its face, wrapped them in a potato sack and brought them to the Dickens Fair.

HZ: The Dickens Fair’s London is also inhabited by scores of volunteers in well researched period costumes. They’ve been taught relevant history, given vocabulary guidelines, and chosen names from a selection of approved Dickensian names.

KATIE MINGLE: What’s your name?

HORTENSE SNEVERLECKY: Hortense Sneverlecky. Of the theatrical family Sneverleckys.

HZ: Oh and the English accents. Which I thought were alright.

HORTENSE SNEVERLECKY: …You go straight down until you hit the docks and if you go any further you’re going to hit the Thames. You don’t want to hit the Thames.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: Wait, there’s a Thames?

HORTENSE SNEVERLECKY: Of course there’s a Thames, we’re in London, you silly fool.

BARMAID: Where’s she from anyway?

HORTENSE SNEVERLECKY: I don’t know but they’re giving me that look that says, “Ooh you’ve been having a little too much laudanum, missy.”

HZ: Laudanum was not a controlled substance in 19th century Britain, but it is now. So the Dickens Fair doesn’t sell it. But there are lots of places to buy tea and ale. There are performance stages, a fencing academy. Shops – lots of shops.

KATIE MINGLE: Strawbender’s Fine Hats and Bonnets. I’ve been wanting a bonnet.



HZ: Shops selling Victoriana such as corsets, jewellery, pies, and wands. Hang on – wands?

GREG JENNER: Right. Okay. Well I don’t really know where that’s come from.

HZ: Historian Greg Jenner has visited The Allusionist before. In the episode Xmas Man, he talked about the history of Santa Claus, and Victorian Christmas cards with dead mice and bacon on them. Greg knows a lot about history, and a lot about the history of Christmas. So I’ve asked him to check a few things at the Dickens fair to see whether or not they are Dickensian.

GREG JENNER: Yeah, I don’t think magic wands are particularly Dickensian.

HZ: They’re 15 dollars each.

GREG JENNER: Yeah. I guess that’s just Harry Potter rolling over into some other season, isn’t it. “We’ve got a lot of wands left. What else is British – Dickens? That’ll do.”

HZ: Or perhaps someone just mixed up their David Copperfields.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: There’s a lot of commitment here. It’s interesting to see this many people go there, play make believe on this grand scale. Like all ages.

KATIE MINGLE: It’s kind of wonderful, really.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: There’s a man with a top hat.

GREG JENNER: Yes, top hats, no problem at all. Both Dickens and Abe Lincoln were top hat aficionados.

WOMAN: Happy Christmas!

AVERY TRUFELMAN: Happy Christmas – wait, does nobody say ‘Merry Christmas’?

WOMAN: That’s an American sort of thing.

HZ: Greg: ‘Happy Christmas’, Dickensian; ‘Merry Christmas’, non-Dickensian?

GREG JENNER: Season’s greetings were very varied. Happy Christmas, Merry Christmas, Happy Yuletide, Season’s Greetings, Biblical quotations, lines from carols. So, frankly, there’s no real wrong way to say ‘Happy Christmas’ in a Victorian fair, aside from eg ‘Cowabunga Christmas’, which would obviously be completely inappropriate.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: Are there particular words and phrases that are useful?

WOMAN: ‘Bollocks’ is wonderful, like “That was bollocks!”

MAN WITH BABY: There’s one guy, the bollocks/not bollocks guy. He has a sign that says “You’re either bollocks or you’re not bollocks.” Then people walk by and he’s like, “You’re bollocks, you’re bollocks.” I walked by and he said, “You’re bollocks, but the baby’s not bollocks.”

HZ: Greg, the word ‘bollocks’?

GREG JENNER: Well… that’s a good old English swear word. I don’t know off the top of my head if if Dickens ever used it in his novels, perhaps he did. But it’s got a long history – it goes all the way back to Anglo-Saxon English, ‘beallucas’. So if your festival is all about sort of quaint Britishness, then ‘bollocks’ is our standard go to English insult.

HZ: It’s our quaintest swear.

GREG JENNER: I think so, isn’t it?

AVERY TRUFELMAN: And there’s just one alley where everyone is dressed up as like a beggar or a prostitute or I guess a what is it – Artful dodger is a… pickpocket. Yeah. And pickpockets, and chimney sweeps. There are a lot of people with fake mud on their faces here.

KATIE MINGLE: Which is kind of a weird thing. Dressing up as pauper.

HZ: It wouldn’t be my chosen form of escapism on the weekend, sure, but –

WOMAN: Being rich is expensive and hard and you have to do boring things. When you’re scum, you get to gamble and drink and scream a lot, and it’s really fun.

GREG JENNER: But I think we completely underestimate the terrifying daily stresses and strains of not having enough food; of having sexual violence if you’re a woman who was a sex worker; of the diseases; the infant mortality rates; the fact that children are working in factories and pickpocketing on the streets; the lack of educational reform: there is an enormous canvas of sadness, of human sadness, which Dickens picks up on. But there’s a strange romance to it which we seem to revel in, and I don’t quite know why that is.

HZ: Yeah. What was the life expectancy?

GREG JENNER: Incredibly poor; really poor. So the average life expectancy in this 1820 was perhaps something like 40 years old. And now we’re closer to 80. The factor of course that’s contributing to that is massive infant mortality rates. You have a really high chance of having at least two children die on you, if you have a family of six or seven kids. Women would frequently have very serious illnesses in childbirth. More often than not, that was the thing that would kill a woman, complications from childbirth. For men, of course, you have military service being particularly dangerous in the age of the British Empire, which is off travelling the world and conquering things in a ruthless fashion. But also of course you have terrible diseases and no understanding of germ theory until the 1850s and 60s. So there are horrible cholera outbreaks, people don’t understand what spreads cholera; there is scurvy, there is dysentery, there is typhoid. Just terrible deprivation, people unable to feed themselves, unable to have healthy diets. There is chalk in the bread: this is a period of history where you can die of an ear infection or you can die of a scratch on your wrist. Anything can get infected. So it’s really not a very nice time to be living if you don’t have quite a lot of money. And even if you do have money you might still die young, as happened to several of Dickens’s closest relatives.

KATIE MINGLE: OK, let’s go see if we can peek in. We’re getting close to the house of Charles Dickens where he’s about to do a reading.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: He’s writing! You can see in the window!

KATIE MINGLE: Oh my goodness! What is he writing?

HZ: Could be one of his twenty novels and novellas, dozens of short stories, articles, plays, but given the environment, there’s quite a high possibility he’s writing something about Christmas. A Christmas Carol wasn’t his first Christmas story, but it was such a hit that, like Mariah Carey rereleasing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, each year afterwards there was pressure for Dickens to keep supplying festive material.

GREG JENNER: So his other Christmas stories: The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, The Haunted Man and the ghost’s bargain. He also writes in Household Words, which is his sort of magazine.

HZ: He’d be working on stories for the Christmas edition of the magazine from July of each year.

GREG JENNER: There’s The Christmas Tree, The Christmas Dinner. There’s a very sad essay written in 1851, the year in which four of his family members die, called What Christmas Is As We Grow Older, which is a kind of tribute to them, but also a calling out in defence of Christmas and saying Christmas is about looking forward, and hope, and hoping for a better future, while the same time remembering those who’ve gone before. So he returns to Christmas many times in his career, and indeed Great Expectations starts with a Christmas scene. But none of those matched the success of A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol is by far and away his best, his most defiantly popular and most influential Christmas story.

HZ: How many other books have been adapted hundreds of times for film and TV? The popularity of A Christmas Carol has never waned. It was an absolute smash hit straight away – it was published on 19 December 1843, and by Christmas Eve it was already sold out. The next year, it was adapted several times for stage, and reprinted and reprinted – it has never been out of print. Dickens did public readings of the book in Britain and the US until his death in 1870. And beyond?

KATIE MINGLE: We’re at Charles Dickens’s house, where he will be doing a reading.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: But this is a very elaborate house completely set up like a full interior, and there’s like a swooning couch and a fireplace and a bookshelf. Tchotchkes all over the place. Pictures on the wall. Rugs. Full nine yards. This exterior is painted like stone. Charles Dickens wearing a long black coat is standing at a podium reading dramatically from A Christmas Carol to a crowd that has gathered of costumed and non-costumed people, sitting in his house. He’s very enthused. He’s gone beyond the podium. He’s leaning into the audience. He’s using his hands; he’s gesticulating.
CHARLES DICKENS: “‘Merry Christmas, Bob.’ Scrooge said it with an earnestness that could not be mistaken. He clapped him on the back. ‘A Merry Christmas, Bob, merrier than I have given you in many a year.’”

AVERY TRUFELMAN: What do you know about Charles Dickens, Katie Mingle?

KATIE MINGLE: So little.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: I was in a production of Oliver! once.

HZ: But Dickens is one of those authors whose work you kind of know without even having read it. Some authors’ work sticks so much in cultural consciousness, their name becomes an adjective. Kafkaesque. Orwellian. Dickensian.

GREG JENNER: Well, ‘Dickensian’ is a very very broad idea. There’s an incredibly vast canvas of what we think of as Dickensian. And even though we use it as a word, that word itself has so many different interpretations and meanings.

HZ: Men with mutton chop sideburns and stovepipe hats, women with hearts of gold and tragically short lives? Orphans fending for themselves, while menacing adults lurk around every corner? “Please sir, I want some more”? And Christmas! Merry Christmas. Christmas goose, Christmas ghosts, “God Bless Us, Every One”…

GREG JENNER: ‘Dickensian’ is quite a tricky word, actually. I think we don’t always necessarily know what we mean when we say it. As a word it conjures up poverty, perhaps; a sense of squalor; a sense of people trapped in this brutal society where there is no safety net, no fall-back plan; where children and women can suddenly be cast into a life of poverty or crime or violence. But ‘Dickensian’ also should summon up some of the beautiful things as well, some of the wonderful things he harnesses. When we look at A Christmas Carol, the way he depicts the street scenes, singing to each other, the sense of community, the shop windows filled to the brim with delicious goods and treats to eat on Christmas day and toys, this is also a bountiful visual iconography. Dickens conjured up both quite alarming and also quite enrapturing, entrancing visions of what a city and a community could be. So ‘Dickensian’ tends to be quite negative, but it should apply to all the different worlds that Dickens created, and some of those were rather pleasant and lovely, and some of those were rather cruel and dark.

KATIE MINGLE: What’s the deal with Christmas?



HZ: Yeah! A lot of authors have written about Christmas, but don’t have festive fairs devoted to them. Why is Dickens the one who gets to be the adjective? Why is he given credit for Christmas?

GREG JENNER: Charles Dickens’s Christmases are not brand new in 1843. You know one of the things people often say is Dickens invented Christmas, which is absolute nonsense, of course he didn’t. He perpetuated some traditions. He reinvigorated others. There had been Christmas for centuries, there had been traditions that he had grown up with as a child that he perpetuated and shared in his books.

HZ: Singing, feasting, charitable donations…

GREG JENNER: It’s all medieval, Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, whatever you want to call it. So Dickens is not the architect. He’s a cheerleader.

HZ: Very different professions.

GREG JENNER: Maybe. Maybe so. They both build large structures, don’t they?

HZ: A Christmas Carol landed at a time when there was a trend for nostalgia.

GREG JENNER: The 19th century is an era where you have many folklorists and antiquarians taking an interest in the old ways. There is definitely in the 19th century this idea of a mythologized past, of the Tudor era being halcyon days. Just as we have the Dickensian festivals in San Francisco and we look back to the Victorians, the Victorians looked back to the Saxons and the Normans and the Tudors as a kind of glory days of simplicity, where the good old days of Christmas were were much more pleasant. Because in some ways the Victorian Christmas is a reaction to industrialization, the trauma of enormous economic thrust of people moving from the countryside into the cities, of communities being broken up, of dark satanic mills, of factories, of trains and industry, of the British empire expanding and people being separated by huge geographical distances.

HZ: Not only that, A Christmas Carol was riding a wave of renewed interest in Christmas, so along with the revival of older festive customs, there were new ones emerging that decade too. Christmas cards were suddenly logistically viable, with the invention of the Penny Post in 1840. Christmas trees also became popular around then – King George III’s German wife had introduced them to Britain in the late 1700s, so they weren’t completely new, but they were newly fashionable when in 1848, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children posed in front of theirs for the Illustrated London News. And, like when whatever Kate Middleton wears sells out, Christmas trees became all the rage.

GREG JENNER: So quite a lot of traditions, what we think of as traditions now, that we assume are Dickensian: they’re not Dickensian. They just arrive at exactly the same time through pure coincidence. And it’s all mushed together, and this Victorian festival suddenly feels like it’s this brand new thing. But it’s not; it’s a continuity with some extra additional elements and the capitalism ramps it all up. Christmas is a commercial economy without parallel. It’s incredibly capitalistic and had been for a while, but in the 19th century becomes more so and you see the emergence of Christmas magazines, Christmas books, Christmas toys for children which is a new market that’s just sort of opening up.

HZ: But, Dickens’s main intention wasn’t to cash in on Christmas. I mean, he did need the money – though he’d had considerable literary success the previous decade, lately the serialisation of his novel Martin Chuzzlewit hadn’t been too popular and his income was looking dicey, plus he had a growing family to support, and was often bailing out his parents and siblings too. And, Dickens did sincerely love Christmas – his children wrote about the relish with which their father approached the festivities each year. But that wasn’t the primary motivation either. Instead, his heartwarming Christmas fable was the cover story for a political mission.

GREG JENNER: He was a man who had a tremendous political appetite and who was of the middle classes, and of course befriended the upper classes, but was always on the side of the working classes. And this of course was largely because he’d experienced poverty as a child.

HZ: Dickens was the second of eight children in a pretty close family, and had what he considered to be an idyllic childhood. Until he was 11, whereupon his father, who regularly had financial problems, was sent to prison for debt, and as was custom at the time, Dickens’s mother and younger siblings moved there with him. For a year, Charles Dickens lived alone, had to quit school and work ten hour days, six days a week at a boot-blacking factory. Though the family reunited, the experience stayed with Dickens, informing much of his work and political attitudes.

GREG JENNER: He is a man who’s always championing those who have had a less fortunate life. He campaigned against public executions; he thought they were vile and grim. He campaigned for women; he campaigned for better schooling for children. He’s a man who uses his voice as a campaigning tool.

HZ: Though in the Victorian era Britannia ruled the waves, coloured the globe pink etc, at home, many people were destitute. The Industrial Revolution had ushered in such huge societal and economic changes that century, but welfare and health services had not been instituted yet. Dickens was horrified by the poverty so many people were stricken by in 1843, particularly the conditions children were living in on the streets, in schools for the impoverished, working down mines or in factories, as he had done himself. And he was desperate to make a palpable difference. As a journalist, he planned to write a pamphlet about it, ‘An Appeal to the People of England, for the Benefit of the Poor Man’s Child’. But he realised that not many people would read a political pamphlet. They would, however, read his fiction. And as a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, so Dickens coated his plea for social justice with a feelgood Christmas ghost story.

GREG JENNER: Dickens later on would write many many journalistic pieces and editorials and he would he would use his power as a journalist and an essayist, but with A Christmas Carol he’s using his power as a sentimental novelist to move people to action, to inspire them to be better Christians, to be better British people, to be better neighbours, family members, lovers, friends, co-workers, colleagues etc. It’s a book about charity and it’s a book about community and about what happens when the ravages of capitalism erode the human spirit; they corrupt the heart of Scrooge. He was a man who once felt, who once cared, who once loved; and ultimately over the years he’s been gradually worn down by this Victorian urge to make profit, economy, industrial progress, moving forward. And he’s lost his humanity, to the point that his own family don’t really want to hang out with him; they don’t really know him. He’s lost all of his empathy for his fellow man. And so A Christmas Carol is an allegory, a very Christian allegory, a deep spiritual book about a man who has become lost finding his way back to his humanity.

HZ: And Dickens’s mission did succeed. Somewhat. The book was credited with causing a rise in charitable giving and greater generosity to your fellow humans and employees at Christmas. But it couldn’t transform society straight away.

GREG JENNER: You know, literature can move us. But ultimately structural systems are very hard to shift and the Victorians had many many years of moving forward and very small steps being taken with you know children’s rights or educational reforms and so on of the rights of women in particular.

HZ: The Christmas aspect may have overpowered the political message. Though the sentiment to be kind to fellow humans hasn’t been lost. It’s there in all the screen adaptations – even the ones riffing on the story, like Scrooged, or running a little further away with the inspiration, like Bad Santa. But I tell you what, I reread it this week, and the original still works a treat.

GREG JENNER: Because it’s a really readable book. The characters leap off the page and it’s really moving and inspiring and you desperately hope that Scrooge stays reformed.

HZ: It’s really funny as well. I think one of the disadvantages to the word ‘Dickensian’ is that it makes his work sound like it’s going to be as stodgy as a Christmas pudding, boiled for eight hours. But it’s not a cosy period piece.

GREG JENNER: His book is a reaction to the economic situation in the 1840s. So his book is deeply modern and yet his outlook, his attitudes, his sense of nostalgia and whimsy is of course in many ways deeply traditional. So he is bringing a kind of fusion between hyper modernity and old fashion old timey lovely nostalgia days of yore. And when we look back at Dickens, we do the same, really.

RM: “The Allusionist” is produced by Helen Zaltzman with music and production by Martin Austwick. It is a member of Radiotopia and you should subscribe to it immediately and thank me for the suggestion.

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