Where did Christmas really come from?
While this time of year carries with it incredible spiritual significance and is imbued with feelings of compassion towards fellow man and family gatherings, it is an interesting to explore the origins of these traditions. In The Man Who Invented Christmas, screenwriter Susan Coyne explores the story behind the story of Charles Dickens’ famous 19th Century novel, A Christmas Carol. According to Coyne, it was Dickens’ desire to emphasis a sense of good will to all mankind that played a primary role in helping develop the ethos around the holiday that we observe to this day.
“We all know that the particular date of Christmas goes back to this sort of co-opting a Roman holiday and a lot of sort of pagan elements, like the yule log, the holly and the mistletoe,” she argues. “It’s always been sort of a mixed bag but, when Dickens was writing this, it had become a very minor holiday. It didn’t have any particular significance. It certainly didn’t have the spiritual significance that we think of it now. So, what he did was combine the actual holiday with sort of humanistic ideas about this being a social holiday in which we become citizens and think about our fellow man and think about children being at the centre of it, which was kind of a novel idea at the time. [Or] as a time for family gathering. There’s nothing in here about gift giving for instance or consumerism but it is about celebrating life, celebrating one’s good fortune and also thinking about how to pay it forward and how to share your good fortune with the less fortunate. It’s very powerful message about that. So, when we talk about the real meaning of Christmas… it kind of goes back to Dickens. He was the one who said there should be a meaning to this holiday.”
What’s more, Coyne feels that the inspiration for Christmas Carol lies within Dickens’s own story. Having suffered a childhood that ranged from financial security to poverty and abandonment, she believes that much of the psychological battles within his book stem from his own journey.
“There’s this thing about it that, you know when you go back and read the book and really think about it and kind of imagine the world before A Christmas Carol, you wonder ‘where did he get this idea of three ghosts?’,” she says. “It seems so obvious now and so many movies take that idea but the idea of being haunted by ghosts of Christmas is such an odd idea really. It occurred to me as I reading the biographical details of his life that he was kind of haunted by his own childhood stories and now, more than ever, [his childhood] was really becoming kind of front and centre for him, the good and the bad. When it had been great, when it had been wonderful and they had these wonderful Christmases in the country and then, when it all turned terrible.”
“In my mind, the writer is actually reflecting on the past, present and the future himself because he’s writing in a crisis. He’s in a terrible crisis with money. He’s in a terrible crisis creatively because the well may have gone dry and he’s also in a crisis about the world, which is a very interesting part of it. He not only felt bad about if he was ever going to write again but he felt what’s the point of writing books when the world is like this? And what should I be doing to make the world a better place?”
As a result, looming largely within the script lies in Dickens’ strained relationship with his father. While he struggled with his father’s personal issues, Coyne also believes that Dickens had a deep love for him as well.
“He adored his father in many ways, and said he was the kindest person that you could ever meet but he’s never going to grow up… He was very self-important… He was criminally reckless with money and a dreamer. [He was] a lover of the finer things of life, which is why he had no money. He was a wonderfully, complicated character in his life and he could never, as much as he felt angry with him for imperiling the family with his reckless spending, he also realized that there was something wonderful about him as well.”
Much of Dickens’ work carries with it a strong sense of justice, arguing for social change and hope for the poor. According to Coyne, it’s his ability to balance storytelling with his heart of fairness that helps Dickens’ work to continue to feel relevant even to this day.
“Well, it’s something I have been thinking about a lot, especially with the hopelessness that people seem to feel right now,” she reflects. “It feels like a very dark time. Sometimes it’s comforting thing to think that this isn’t the first time in history that some people have wondered where we’re going and what comes next. What I like about Dickens is that he was a vastly popular entertainer. People loved his books. They read them for the fun, the characters, and the humour but that didn’t stop him from feeling responsible to create a call to action, a reason for people to hope and a reason for people to be active. So, I guess you could call him a kind of popular moralist and that’s a role that very few people are willing or able to take on nowadays, I would say. He had this unique position that way and maybe we need another Dickens nowadays.”
While the heart of Dickens’ work lies within its iconic miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, Coyne feels that the soul of the piece extends to Dickens’ himself, expressing the artist’s inner tension between the desire to affect change and him resistance to being changed himself.
“The thing about Scrooge, at least in our version, is that he does not want to change. The magical thing about A Christmas Carol is that, in the course of one night, he realizes he needs a major course correction. It amused me to think of because, actually, none of us want to change. We usually have to get kicked into it somehow or other. It amused me to have this character who was sort an extension of Dickens own imagination, a part of his own soul… One of the things that’s sort of the legacy of A Christmas Carol and part of Christmas is this time about redemption. It’s a time for second chances. We get to be better people. We realize that there’s always hope. All those things. I felt that there had to be a personal element to Dickens’ story as well.”
Interestingly, it’s this personal element that Coyne believes continuously drives people back to A Christmas Carol after all this time, recognizing that there is a sense of common humanity inherent to Scrooge to which everyone can relate.
“[A Christmas Carol] seems to have hit a nerve [where] people keep going back to it,” she claims. “There are hundreds and hundreds of adaptations of it… I think that it has to do with the character of Scrooge. I think, in some ways, we all identify with him. I guess we all have a little bit of Scrooge in us, maybe? We all think that we can be better. We all have nasty selfish habits where we don’t want to give them up. I don’t know what it is exactly but I have a feeling that it all goes back to that wonderful character that he’s created. He’s not a stock villain. He’s a very human character and, as we discover from his past, he wasn’t always that way. He did have a love affair. He did have aspirations. He did have friends. But almost, because of his lack of courage, he became this miserly, self-contained, secretive person. I think that there’s a human story in the middle of that, that we can all identify with.”
In the end, however, Coyne also feels that Dickens’ Christmas Carol continues to hold an impact because of the universal message of love and equality that permeates the story.
“He took the idea and, in a way, it’s an ecumenical story It belongs to everybody I think, in the way that he explains it. We are all human beings. There’s a wonderful speech about it at Christmas time, we should be thinking about our common humanity instead of what divides us.”
The Man Who Invented Christmas is in theatres now.