Sunday, 21 December 2008
Bibliotherapy: What to read when you expect too much of Christmas
There are times, trudging through the supermarket aisles, when it is tempting to mutter Scrooge’s curmudgeonly manifesto: ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.’ But such is the enduring influence of ‘A Christmas Carol’ – a story that has done more to mythologize a seasonal ideal than any other since the Bible – that it also celebrates a message of goodwill: ‘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…” Scrooge is redeemed at Christmas, and so, by implication, are the rest of us, in joyful happy endings.
Yet 17 years after the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens published a far darker account of the season in his serialised novel, ‘Great Expectations’, beginning in December 1860. It opens on a bleak Christmas Eve, when the orphaned Pip is sitting beside his parents’ graves, and it is here, surrounded by the dead, that he encounters an escaped convict, Magwitch. Having stolen some food for the starving man, Pip endures a miserable Christmas dinner, expecting yet another punishment from Mrs Joe, the bullying older sister with whom he lives; and though the feast she serves is plentiful, it is ruined for Pip by the goading he receives alongside the roast fowl and pudding.
Indeed, the dinner-table conversation should serve as a warning of how not to talk to one’s family on Christmas Day. After grace, Mrs Joe says, ‘in a low reproachful voice, “Do you hear that? Be grateful.” By the time Pip has been compared to a piglet deserving of slaughter by the butcher’s knife, all possible glad tidings have been swallowed up in gloom.
‘Great Expectations’ offers something more complicated than a happy ending, rather like most of our lives, and our Christmases; but it is also a reminder that even if Christmas does not – cannot – live up to our expectations, it should contain small acts of kindliness, as well as a very large meal.