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Originally published Sunday, December 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM

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Do we really get "Christmas Carol" message?

"I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time ... as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year...

Seattle Times theater critic

"I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time ... as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."
— from "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Every December they turn up, right on cue.

Potted poinsettia plants. Striped sugar candy canes. Cartons of eggnog — served straight, with brandy, in lattes. Fragrant wreaths and decorated fir trees.

And another sign of the season: the slew of plays and films based on Charles Dickens' festive novella, "A Christmas Carol."

But the throngs who will see a dramatization of "Christmas Carol" today may be interpreting the story's message quite differently than Dickens intended when he wrote the popular fable, some 160 years ago.

Certainly, he'd be happy to see the staying power for his story. One still finds winter stagings of "A Christmas Carol" in England, where in 1843 Dickens (the most popular British novelist of his time, and perhaps all time) penned the saga of one Ebenezer Scrooge's conversion from mercenary skinflint to ebullient benefactor.

Dozens of "Carols"

A recent computer search turned up 10 productions of "A Christmas Carol" on the boards now in London, Oxford, Winchester and other British burgs.

That's a meager smattering, though, compared to the "Christmas Carol" proliferation in this country. A half-dozen conventional and spoofy versions of the story are being staged in Chicago alone; nine more in the San Francisco area.

And Western Washington? Take your pick of a dozen-plus "Christmas Carols," playing from Seattle and Tacoma to Longview and North Bend.

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Prominent among them are ACT Theatre's vivacious annual mounting of "Carol," and a lean, fierce storytelling-style adaptation at Richard Hugo House, titled "Fellow Passengers."

How to explain our extreme national fondness for this evergreen Victorian allegory — lauded by some 19th-century critics as a treasure, derided by others as "grossly sentimental"?

Call it icky-sweet or highly compelling, let's agree "A Christmas Carol" has a corker of a plot, with its ghostly visitations and time travel jaunts to Yuletides past, present and future.

Holiday fantasy

And the vision of the picture-perfect holiday Dickens painted is an irresistible (though nearly impossible to realize) fantasy. Especially in a country that's turned Christmas into an annual extravaganza of yearning, spending and mandatory mirth.

After a tough moral accounting of his misanthropy, and a glorious repentance and release from it, Scrooge reconciles with humanity to enjoy the Victorian Hallmark Christmas many of us still crave: a strain-free, jolly-holly family celebration with feasting, singing, games, dancing, presents, beaming elders and ecstatic children.

But also wrapped up in the bright-colored paper and satin ribbons of the tale nestles its author's most precious gift to his readers: an impassioned, humanist sermonette about Christian charity, and a call to eradicate the sins of "ignorance" and "want" in a land of plenty.

Even if one shares President Bush's view, expressed in his 2001 inaugural address, that Americans as a whole are a "generous and strong and decent" people, charity remains a subject of great ambivalence and debate. There is much divergence of opinion as to how it should be defined, and practiced, in the wealthiest of nations.

A charitable nation

As a country we do readily open our wallets and checkbooks to contribute to religious, educational and other causes. According to the "Giving USA 2004" survey (conducted by the Trust for Philanthropy), individual and institutional charitable giving totaled about $241 billion in 2003 — up 2.8 percent from 2002.

Millions of Americans also volunteer their time and talents each year to help keep senior-citizen centers, food banks, literacy programs and other services to the old, the young, the infirm and the disadvantaged going.

One attraction of "A Christmas Carol" to modern Americans may, indeed, be Dickens' endorsement of individual acts of generosity as vehicles for personal salvation. Whether giving alms to the poor or buying his clerk Bob Cratchit a fat goose for his family's Christmas dinner, Scrooge digs into his own pocket rather than advocating an increase in taxes and government-based programs.

"A true radical"

Yet Dickens' charitable philosophy did not begin or end with such individual gestures of beneficence. He was, as biographer Peter Ackroyd has noted, "a true radical, even revolutionary" man who despised "the political system of his country as much as he loathed its social mores."

Dickens was an activist who publicly protested what he viewed as the horrors of England's ruthless industrialist-capitalistic system, with its lavish rewards for the wealthy, exploitation of the working masses and punishment of the destitute. He particularly advocated for state intervention in ensuring adequate housing and education for all its citizens.

But first and foremost, he was a novelist. Enriched by his rich wit and powers of description, Dickens' moral outrage fueled his fictions. In "Oliver Twist," "David Copperfield" and "Hard Times," and so many other books, he made vivid to his readers the child-labor abuses, disease-riddled slums, cruel workhouses and punitive orphanages of 19th-century Britain.

Dickens also bemoaned in print the economic and social injustices he observed abroad. In "American Notes," a chronicle of his 1843 trip to the U.S., he derided Southern slavery, Yankee religious hypocrisy and journalistic "cant."

Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" soon after that first American tour, finishing the slim volume in just six weeks. Master storyteller that he was, he embedded his political and moral concerns in a gripping Gothic narrative, and represented his case for a profound shift in values in an indelible lead character: Ebenezer Scrooge.

For symbolically the story is about much, much more than an old coot rediscovering the pleasures of Yuletide. Scrooge not only gives Cratchit a good dinner: He becomes an enlightened employer, granting Cratchit a raise, more vacation time and medical benefits for his ailing son, Tiny Tim.

Marley's message

Moreover, Dickens has the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's late business partner, voice the intrinsic people-over-profits motto of his tale. "Mankind was my business," declares Marley, who is damned to Hell for his selfish indifference. "The common welfare was my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

Dickens did not live to see the creation of a welfare state in Britain and a "social safety net" in the U.S. One presumes he would have welcomed such policies.

But also, one may presume, he would be distressed by news that 8.4 million children did not have health insurance in 2003, according to U.S. government statistics. And he wouldn't think our society was doing all it could for its needy — not when U.S. Census figures report that there were 36 million peopleliving below the poverty line in 2003.

Would Dickens be content if seeing "A Christmas Carol" this winter spurred us to toss some spare change to a panhandler? Or stuff a few dollars into a Salvation Army bucket? Or even write a fatter check to a favorite charity?

One suspects not. He would likely ask more of us collectively. He might urge us to make real sacrifices to promote the "common welfare" of our "fellow passengers."

And he would never let us off the hook with a Christmas goose.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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