Our hearts lighten when Charles Dickens’ miserly Ebenezer Scrooge sends a turkey to the Cratchit family for Christmas.

We delight in the idea of bells ringing in the holiday when we read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells.”

And we reminisce about Christmases past as Dylan Thomas recites his timeless memory piece, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

These classic chestnuts of American and English literature remind us of happy times and bring us optimism. We dwell on their power of redemption, conversion and hope. But we sometimes forget that the characteristics they share are the difficult contexts from which they sprang.

Dickens wrote during the Victorian era, when many families in London, like the Cratchits, couldn’t afford a proper holiday meal. Longfellow’s poem was born of his desperation surrounding the death of his first wife and the enlistment of his son in the Union Army during the Civil War. His poem references the thundering cannons in the South that drown out the sound of Christmas carols. And Thomas wrote a romanticized version of Christmas memories.

Joseph Conforti, professor emeritus of New England studies at the University of Southern Maine, said the holidays bring out mostly happy memories and feel-good nostalgia. When we see “A Christmas Carol,” we sometimes overlook the deplorable conditions of London that were prevalent when Dickens wrote. When we hear the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or watch the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we don’t think of World War II, though both are rooted in the war.

“We have a way of filtering out the context in which a lot of these Christmas traditions develop and just retain the sentimental, nostalgic warm glow of their aftermath,” Conforti said.

It’s that warmth that sticks with us. But hope and despair spring from similar places, and often these stories resonate because they remind us that whatever struggles we face – in our own lives, our families or our broader communities – hope can prevail.

Between now and Christmas, thousands of Mainers will see holiday shows steeped in nostalgia, drawn by surety and comfort. We attend plays, sing-alongs and readings because the performances succeed in doing what they are designed to do. They lift our spirits, put us in charitable moods and prepare us for celebrations with friends and family.

These events pull the strings of nostalgia – or at least our sense of what nostalgia is supposed to be – said actor Andrew Harris, who will perform as Dickens and Thomas in upcoming holiday events. He thinks our fascination with the past is all about comfort, even if those presumably simpler times were full of great hardship.

“I think there’s safety in going back,” Harris said. “Things are so unpredictable at the moment, and life is so confusing. People yearn for or harken back for something they recognize or think they recognize.”

Daniel Noel is among them. He performs as Marley in the Portland Stage Company version of “A Christmas Carol,” a role he has mastered a dozen times.

While he relishes the nostalgia of that show, he’s also aware of the difficult context of the modern days in which he performs.

It’s winter. It’s the holidays. For many poor people in Portland, these are the worst of times. To go without is one thing. To go without when the season is supposed to be filled with joy is something else. Noel feels concern and sympathy.

He dreams of doing street performances of some of these great works. It’s the people on the street for whom “A Christmas Carol” may ring most true, he said. They’re the ones whose spirits need lifting.

For now, he said, he focuses on what he can do on stage.

“I don’t have a lot of money,” Noel said. “I’m not rich or famous, but I can make people happy for a night. That’s my gift this year. I want to make people happy, even if only for one night.”

Here are some of the performances that touch on that afterglow.


Through Dec. 24, Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. $15 to $45. portlandstage.org; 774-1043

Portland Stage first produced the Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in the mid 1970s. It’s become a holiday tradition for generations of Mainers, telling the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his conversion into a generous man. This year’s show will feature a mostly new cast, including Ron Botting as Scrooge.

Director Anita Stewart cast Botting – who happens to be Stewart’s husband – because she wanted a Scrooge capable of compromise. She felt a less edgy, less angry Scrooge was a good approach given the division, politically and otherwise, in our country right now.

“Ron is not making Scrooge into the devil, which is so often where you want to go with his character,” she said. “There is anger there, but there is also a heart there. He is not the person he is often held up to be. He could be your next-door neighbor who happens to hold different beliefs than you.”


7 p.m. Dec. 11, Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress St., Portland. $15, mainehistory.org; 774-1822

This is a fictional gathering of the two most famous writers of the late 19th century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Dickens. In real life, the two were friends. They admired each other’s work, and how each handled his respective fame. This program imagines a dinner when the two get together for an evening of fellowship. Actors Daniel Noel, portraying Longfellow, and Andrew Harris, portraying Dickens, will trade stories and holiday-related readings. Noel looks forward to “Christmas Bells,” which Longfellow wrote in 1864. It delivered one of the most repeated phrases of the season: “I heard the bells on Christmas Day, Their old, familiar carols play, And wild and sweet, The words repeat, Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”


6 and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 13, Victoria Mansion, 109 Danforth St., Portland. $25. victoriamansion.org; 772-4841

Andrew Harris dons his Dylan Thomas persona for his version of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which Thomas wrote over many years beginning in the 1940s. At the time, Thomas was one of the world’s most famous poets, and this piece captures memories of his youth.

Harris, a Victoria Mansion trustee, will perform in the hallway of the grand staircase. He will interpret Thomas’ prose and put into context the significance of Thomas as a writer and his use of language.


American Irish Repertory Ensemble, Dec. 11-21, Studio Theater at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave. $12 to $22. airetheater.com; 799-5327

Maine’s Irish theater company presents its version of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” coupled with an original piece that is based on a very old tradition. “The Legend of the Wren” is based on the Irish tradition of the Wren boys, who go from house to house on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) singing and collecting donations for a community celebration. AIRE founders Tony and Susan Reilly created the piece.

Both pieces are full of nostalgia.

“It’s about looking back on the simplicity of life, and the things that have such joyful memories,” Tony Reilly said. “In this day and age, when so many people can’t even go to a restaurant without taking out their smart phones, these pieces create a sense of community. They are about the idea of the human spirit and warmth, of spending time together in a simple, connected way.”