This morning as I went about some of my Christmas Eve preparation and chores, I listened along to this "History of Literature" podcast episode on Ebeneezer Scrooge, the character created by Charles Dickens' in his quintessential holiday story, A Christmas Carol (1843).
The podcast includes a reading of excerpts from the first stave of A Christmas Carol, and reminded me, first of all, of the absolute genius of Dickens as a writer. If you've only seen movie versions of A Christmas Carol, it is definitely worth reading or listening to a reading of the original text! I was lucky enough to be asked to teach the novella to 10th grade high school students a couple of times and I just loved having the chance to read the story anew several times now and each time I marvel at Dickens' masterful use of language.
Listening to this early 19th century story again also reminded me that we still talk about our social and emotional investment in holiday traditions - what we call "Christmas spirit" - in the same way that Dickens presented it. (Indeed, some say that Dickens helped create the very idea of our modern, secular European-American Christmas traditions.) Of course, in Dickens' story, "Christmas spirit(s)" takes on a double meaning - as both the feelings of community, tradition, and generosity inspired at this time of year, and in the figures of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come who visit Scrooge and reveal to him the impact and missed opportunities of a life of miserly selfishness.
A Christmas Carol is set in and reflective of what we now think of as a "Dickensian" time in British history, characterized by the brutalities of industrialization, of the poverty and "wage slavery" of the working classes set against the lavish impersonal wealth of the owner class, of the homeless and the elderly, as well as the chronically ill or injured, forgotten by the public and relegated to private charity cases. In thinking about the hardships of Dickens' own life and writings in the early-to-mid 19th century, I reflected upon our own struggles here in the early 21st century. In 2020 renewed attention has been brought to the extremes of racial and economic inequalities, and this year those problems were exacerbated by a global pandemic, leaving so many more people not only dead or facing long-term illness, but unemployed, underemployed, homeless, and without adequate healthcare, with demands for both public assistance and private charity to address a range of economically and socially precarious situations. It is not a stretch to say that 2020 has a Dickensian stamp all over it!
Even if you manage to close out 2020 with your health and finances intact, the holidays are definitely different for everyone this pandemic year. After nine months of demoralizing social distancing, cancelling of plans and postponement of important life events, and the monotony and isolation of work & school from home, the new wave of December lockdown orders, travel restrictions, and warnings against large family gatherings have many people feeling a terrible sense of loss of traditions, connection, and overall Christmas spirit.
Reflecting on Christmases Past and Present got me thinking about my own historical research. Although I love Dickens, and I am a 19th-century historian by training, I am currently doing research on the American women's suffrage movement of the 1910s, in the final years leading up ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. In this centennial celebration year of 2020 scholars have been publishing articles on all facets of the women's suffrage movement and I came across several timely and relevant pieces on how the flu epidemic of 1918 impacted suffrage organizing activities. (See, for example, this New York Times piece on "How the Spanish Flu Almost Upended Women's Suffrage.")
In researching this time period for suffrage news, I began to wonder if maybe the pandemic flu sufferers of 1918 might have any insight to share with us about getting through the holiday season. So I conducted a search on newspapers.com (one of my new favorite writing and genealogy tools!) for key words "Christmas influenza" in U.S. newspapers covering November 1918 through January 1919 and came up with a few pieces that seemed like they could have easily been written today, one hundred years later. I thought you might find these interesting to read through.
Avoid large holiday gatherings, please!
No remote learning option here!
A direct message from the past as we face our own "coronavirus Christmas," and a reminder that our personal disappointments are serving a larger good.
(NOTE: If you're interested in a more detailed historical account of how one town (Fresno, California) handled the entire flu epidemic season, from school and business closures to public health warnings and regulations, and the eerie parallels to our situation today, visit this wonderful series by California State University-Fresno professor of history, Ethan J. Kytle.)
Final thoughts: It strikes me (often, as a historian) that nothing we are going through or feeling in 2020 is new. People have always suffered through separations, disappointments, illness, death, and sadness, while also finding ways to connect and have hope. And, don't forget, in the midst of dealing with the 1918 pandemic, our counterparts of 100 years ago were also dealing with the physical and psychic wounds of soldiers returning home from World War One. So what of our Christmas Present? What IF (as the Grinch also discovered, haha), it's not about the "presents" at all? I'm almost certain that we'll return next year to the crowded shops, the Christmas entertainments, and the usual holiday thrills. I leave you with words from Scrooge's nephew in the opening pages of A Christmas Carol:
But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round --
apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to
it can be apart from that -- 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.