Charles Dickens didn’t think much of Portland in his only visit here in 1868. He arrived at the foot of State Street by train and trudged up to his hotel on the corner of Congress and Prebble.
He spent a cold, sleepless night coughing and complained in his journal that the food was “bad and disgusting.”
But he was thrilled by an enthusiastic crowd of 1,200 people who came out to hear him read “A Christmas Carol,” a performance he himself called “a triumph.”
A century before the Beatles, the author was treated like a rock star, with one girl nipping a piece of fringe from his shawl for a souvenir.
And it’s easy to see why they were so enthusiastic. Plenty of things go out of fashion as the decades pass, but “A Christmas Carol” does not. The story of the cold-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who is haunted on Christmas Eve and redeems himself with generosity rings out still.
It’s a transformation acted out countless times every year on stage and screen. Millions who have never read Dickens know what it means to be “a Scrooge” and can repeat the old man’s foolish dismissal of the holiday (“bah … humbug”) and would recognize his cavorting figure relieved of his stinginess, “light as a feather, happy as an angel, giddy as a drunken man,” wishing everyone he sees a merry Christmas.
It’s a story constantly retold for new audiences. The unredeemed Scrooge is the model for Dr. Suess’ Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is both Scrooge come to his senses (“Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan!”) and the overworked clerk, Bob Cratchit.
The story endures because it tell us what we know: that it’s better to give than receive. Even people with everything they need can feel as though they don’t have enough when they try to hold on to it too hard. And even people with very little to spare feel richer when they can give some of it away.
Scrooge also gives us hope that any of us has the ability to change and can go from misery to ecstasy with nothing more than a change of heart.
It’s a powerful message at any time but in the darkest days of the year, in a place about cold as it was when Dickens visited (although the food might be better now), it can’t be heard enough.
If we could “keep Christmas” like Scrooge, the world would be merrier.