Gail Walker: What Dickens taught us is that the people who need us most could be on our own doorstep
The festive season is not one of universal joy, but complicated for many by grief and regret, writes Gail Walker
Outside the air is crisp as snowflakes fall from a darkening sky, prettily frosting the lattice panes while inside the fire roars merrily in the grate. Lit by the glow of the flames and tasteful candlelight, the expectant upturned faces of cherubic children. Who can that be, coming up the garden path? Why, ’tis none other than old Mr Fezziwig and — ’pon my soul — he has brought some revellers with him, to sing no doubt rousing renditions of appropriately seasonal songs and revels.
‘Tiny Tim! Tiny Tim! Some spiced punch for our guests! Perhaps our visitors will, after their most welcome performance, stay for a round or two of that most diverting parlour game, The Minister’s Cat ...’
Anyone puzzled at the enduring appeal of Dickens need only examine his greatest legacy to the world — Christmas — to discover the key to his popularity. All the rubbish we find ourselves up to our knees in now in 2018 can be directly attributed to the bearded gentleman of Gad’s Hill.
His creation — the greatest parlour game of all — is the Christmas we endure today. In fact, with our day, it has reached its zenith — an oddly non-religious festivity of ‘merriment’ for no good reason and ‘bonhomie’ for its own sake which strikes such a chord nowadays.
As in A Christmas Carol, the religious bit has all but disappeared to be replaced with a general sense of concern for homelessness, want, climate change, being nice and keeping it all as much in the abstract as possible, because we still want to spend a lot, eat a lot and drink a lot.
So I’m afraid what’s coming up the garden path in 2018 is less Mr Fezziwig and more the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
In direct proportion to the feelgood virtue signalling of the festive spirit — such as Christmas jumpers and charity days — is the consumption of vast quantities of ‘stuff’, be it in the form of food, alcohol, clothes or goods.
Take the buying presents. Some people buy presents for the sake of getting it over with. “It’s an electric stapler. You just pop your pages under the head, let the microchip sense that there’s something there and … hey presto … stapled. It even has Bluetooth so as your stapler and phone can talk to each other.”
And we wonder why western civilisation is doomed?
Even worse, the ‘thoughtful’ present that reflects on the giver very well but strikes the receiver with mortification. “Remember you said that you really liked studying Joseph Conrad at Queen’s?” You rip open the wrapping to unveil a copy of Nostromo. Signed by the author!
And all you can offer in return is a bottle of Black Opium purchased half-an-hour earlier … maybe there’s still time to buy online a racquet signed by Pete Sampras. After all, she once played on the school tennis team?
Let’s not forget Gift Voucher Poker: “I’ll see your £15 Debenhams ... and raise you a £30 Space NK.”
What about the pre-Christmas meet-up? Do lifelong friends want to see you in August or March? No way. It simply HAS to be the week leading up to the big day.
And always in some new trendy eateries. The Lopsided Triangle, The Unhappy Goat, The Saggy Duncher, anyone? Can’t do The Greasy Spoon, as they have a poor vegan menu.
But that’s just the tip of the Titanic-sized iceberg threatening to sink your Christmas jollity.
Take cards. Of course you can’t buy elderly relatives an innuendo-laden card of Santa creeping into bedrooms and polishing off the sherry but you can’t safely buy snow-drizzled cottages and robins either. This is 2018, after all — even grannies nowadays have smartphones with wifi. If you think kids are clued in for their age, get a load of the Aged Ps! She’s read Naomi Wolf, for goodness sake, and Granda has the Sopranos boxset.
And then there’s the usual festive horrors: Johnny Depp burying his knick-knacks in the desert while being watched by a bison, Julia Roberts walking across a pool in Paris, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, newspaper articles about whatever happened to the race to be the Christmas No1, the seemingly never-ending quest to find a parking space in Belfast city centre, impromptu buskers belting out old blues tunes about the hard times they’ve seen as if they were born in a shack in the Lagan Valley delta (or music students giving us a very tasteful selection of Chamber Quartet classics), emails saying only seven, six, five, four shopping days to Christmas...
Hell is not only other people, but is also shopping on the day before Christmas Eve watching people fight like hungry wolverines for the last box of water biscuits on display.
Indeed, the fevered effort to be full of good cheer at Christmas — that colossal social pressure — must have a role to play as the figures for depression soar.
The season is simply not one of universal celebration. For very many, it is complicated by grief, remorse, regrets, bitter memories, tragic current circumstances. But none of that is reflected in the marketing of Christmas. Except, that is, in the Christmas message as it is still ‘marketed’ in the Christian denominations.
But there will also be a common sense everywhere there of the loneliness of the season, the mortality which accompanies all our days, the bereavements, the departures, the rejections, the hurts.
It is, however, worthwhile being mindful of that one element the Dickens Christmas shares with Christ’s version. Compassion for those less well off than ourselves.
That means our own emotionally-stricken next door neighbour, in all his or her unseasonal grumpiness, or those families nearby hit by suicide or those many individuals living outside a family circle, ill and alone, as much as it is the sentimental caricatures of poor people in foreign parts or street sleepers whose identities we don’t know.
What Dickens and the Christian message share is that the people who most need our compassion are often those who live beside us and with us every day, those whom most of the time we hurry past without a thought. The Bob Cratchits and the Tiny Tims were on old Scrooge’s own doorstep.
And all around us today are the people who need reminded that they have a value simply because they are there, not because of what they can do for us.
Sometimes the best gifts cost nothing at all.