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Books can help us reflect – as well as escape – this Christmas

By Barbara Henderson

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Dickens' tale of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol tells the story of the Christmas spirit perfectly - albeit dressed up in Victorian verbiage.
Dickens' tale of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol tells the story of the Christmas spirit perfectly - albeit dressed up in Victorian verbiage.

“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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

It is a passionate speech, isn’t it? Ebenezer Scrooge has to listen to his nephew’s spirited defence of Christmas in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and ultimately, he comes round to share the same sentiment.

Rereading the classic as I do most years, I am struck by the longevity of this cautionary tale of greed and redemption. The Victorians, of course, invented much of Christmas as we know it: the tree, the crackers and the cards.

Then, it was much more inextricably linked with community and looking after those less fortunate than ourselves, and never far removed from our Christian duty to denounce greed and selfishness.

I can look past a lot of inflated and verbose Victorian style to celebrate that!

Of course, Charles Dickens is not the only author to indulge the season. Just check out the beautiful descriptions of Christmas time in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: "The rooms were very still while the pages were softly turned and the winter sunshine crept in to touch the bright heads and serious faces with a Christmas greeting," or in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss: “Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”

CS Lewis famously loved winter best of all seasons, and the cursed Narnia in his stories is a land where it is ‘always winter, but never Christmas’.

Yesterday I took a walk over to Eden Court to look at their Christmas tree. Its meaningful design reflects the year 2020 back at us and brims with quiet resilience – it is breathtakingly beautiful.

The same week, lights began to appear on trees, bushes and railings around my street which had never been decorated like this before. In this of all years, we crave a little beauty, don’t we? And what is so wrong with that?

We are in dire need of the very things Christmas symbolises: hope and selfless kindness. As readers, we are fortunate that both are mirrored in scores of stories we can pick off the shelves, wherever you are on the Scrooge-scale.

We can make a difference: Buy from small bookshops and independent publishers. Take a moment to write online reviews. Share your love of reading, and theatre, art and music. Be a positive ambassador for creativity!

Every book is a chance to leave our own situations behind and to reflect, much as the Grinch does at the end of the famous children’s book by Dr Seuss: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”

I wish you peace, and a pile of books, this Christmas.

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