Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

The Least of These

Boxing Day illustration by George Cruikshank (1792-1878), the British caricaturist and book illustrator best known for illustrating the works of his friend Charles Dickens.

Today is Boxing Day, a day traditionally set aside to remind those who have been blessed with comfort to share their bounty with those to whom life has been less generous. The tradition seems to have begun in the 1600s in England when the more well-to-do put together boxes of money, gifts, hand-me-downs and leftover food for their servants who had worked on Christmas Day. These servants were given the day after Christmas off to spend with their families and enjoy the contents of the box.

One of the central tenets of the religion which takes Jesus as its lord is expressed in the following passage from the New Testament’s Book of Matthew:  “‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’’

The true character of a human being is shown in the way that she or he treats those who are in need, those who are suffering, those who have no power. People of character don’t spend time determining that some people are unworthy of human decency. The Jesus lauded as the redeemer of Christians did not trample on the weak or crush those who had erred. He saw no poor as “undeserving,” nor did he believe that some prisoners deserved kindness while others deserved a boot in the face. Jesus said that the way to show reverence for that which was pure and good was to show reverence for and generosity to “the least of these”—those most degraded, despised, troubled and troubling people among us. He said we should focus more of our love, mercy and understanding on these people than on the fortunate few. His concern was not with the inhabitants of any shining city on a hill; he saved his blessings (and, Christians say, his miracles) for those who had the least and needed love most.

We can celebrate the spirit of Boxing Day without using boxes; just choose a favorite charity or two and help them to help others, or do a good deed for someone in need. In the spirit of Boxing Day, I’m giving to my local food bank today. If you’re looking for an especially effective nonprofit to support with your Christmas cash, Hanukkah gelt or secular humanistic savings, CharityNavigator.com is a great place to start.

Blessed are the merciful. Peace be with you today and throughout the new year.

Charles Dickens: “Mankind Was My Business”

Christmas Carol Cover

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

—A Christmas Carol

In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story.  Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.

When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.

This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.

In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.

Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published on this day, 143 years ago.