It’s been more than 170 years since Charles Dickens penned the classic tale which revived our modern Christmas with an underlying concern for those less fortunate. It’s a story virtually everyone knows and remembers. I’m sure that a lot of people are probably sick of it being remade and adapted so many times by this point, but I for one somehow never get tired of seeing it, whether with ducks, Muppets or Jim Carrey. And yet, perhaps with its ubiquity, its core message is easy to overlook. It’s often portrayed as a children’s story with the more grim scenes neglected, and we often forget what we were taught as kids when we grow up. After all, our modern society is driven by glorification of wealth and contempt for the poor and downtrodden. I, who had never known a time before neoliberalism, believed the moral a simple “be nice to poor people” as a child. It was only when I repeatedly engaged with the homeless that I truly understood the meaning of the tale, and thus its immortality.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
In my younger years, I believed Scrooge to be a fantasy character. While I recognized selfishness, I thought no one actually believed in leaving the poor to fend entirely for themselves and that all their problems were self-inflicted. Leaving such innocent naiveté behind, I’m not sure that even the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come could convert folks like Kevin O’Leary. In fact, the scenes in which people cheered Scrooge’s death are reminiscent of Scotland’s reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death. Yet the idea that people can repent for their previous actions and attitudes to change their world view; that if one saw how the other lived, that it would dissolve their negative, sheltered prejudices; that is a powerful source of hope for humanity. And I too keep that message in my heart in hopes that I too may become less selfish and more understanding.
“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
Vancouver presents a morbid irony; it’s considered one of the most livable cities in the world, and yet so many struggle to live in it due to the dearth of affordable housing. Thus, many seek refuge at bus stations. Many walk on by, too busy or occupied with their own world. But such a sight, particularly across months, compelled me to pay at least part of my time for a visit, whether to drop change, fruit, or a conversation. Although there is justifiable anger and despair, people on the street tend to be grateful for relatively little. Often, that small act of concern is unfortunately more than what they are used to. So I stop by as it costs little to me. Lest one be tempted to dismiss them by claiming they deserved it, homelessness used to be rare in Canada until the 1980s when cuts to affordable housing were made, so indeed Ignorance and Want were created by the wealthy. And yet despite all their material security, they are irritable and paranoid in zealously defending their wealth, and I imagine they must be quite miserable because of it. Why cling to money beyond the amount which you require to live in comfort?
It’s clear that the picture of poverty shown by Charles Dickens is still very much present in our modern world, and the messages of valuing family and friends, the folly of pursuing wealth solely for its own sake, and understanding and caring for the plight of those less well off still resonate with us. Most of us, anyway. I’d like to believe that, at least. With all that in mind this Christmas, I don’t mind hearing the story a thousand times. After all, many, particularly those in positions of power, still haven’t gotten the message. But every little gesture counts, and it would do well to remember the three spirits long after the passing of the 25th of December.