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How 'A Christmas Carol' Helped Bring Christmas Back to Life

I shared my review of The Man Who Invented Christmas last week (I liked it.) In addition to screening the film, which was based off a book by author Les Standiford, Townhall also had the chance to sit down in a roundtable discussion with actor Dan Stevens and Director Bharat Nalluri at last weekend's premiere in New York City.

Stevens, famous for lighting up the screen both in Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast, is equally charming and entertaining as Charles Dickens. In our discussion, he explained the true story of how the author, down on his luck after three consecutive flops, helped revive London’s Christmas spirit by writing a Christmas Carol in just six weeks.

Writing a whole Christmas novel in six weeks came with plenty of risks - one being the potential to develop carpal tunnel. Dickens had a larger problem, however. He was facing an audience who did not fully embrace the holiday season. Puritan laws had suppressed holiday celebrations for years. Oliver Cromwell had banned Christmas in England altogether, until a restored monarchy revived the holiday in 1660. Still, in the 19th century, Christmas was far from the most popular holiday of the year, much of it having to do with the weather. By Dickens's era in the 1840s, bleak winter after bleak winter kept Brits pretty miserable, with little incentive to go outdoors.

Yet, somehow, Dickens found inspiration to write the most beloved Christmas ghost story ever told.

“I think Dickens found something in that sort of mid-winter celebration that was very convenient for his tale, the idea of redemptive hope in the very sort of darkest hour of the year,” Stevens said. “This is very universal I think, and it’s celebrated in a lot of cultures.”

Dickens's Carol helped turn Christmas into the joyous celebration it is today - the tinsel, the flashing lights, the radio stations that play Christmas music way too early, etc.. Kids eat it up. But, as I noted during the round table discussion, the holiday tends to lose some of its magic for adults. Does having a family help to reignite the holiday spirit, I wondered.

Nalluri’s eyes lit up.

“It definitely has for me, because I was the Grinch that Stole Christmas,” he admitted. “I hated Christmas, maybe because no one would play with me. Now I have kids, a 6 and an 8-year-old, and an Aussie family who are really into Christmas – super into Christmas because it’s sunny then, because it’s their summer. They really go full ball. It’s just seeing it through my kids’ eyes. I love it. I can’t wait for it now. I absolutely love it. When the opportunity came along to do this, I was super excited.”

Stevens, who has three young children of his own, told Townhall that they likely had an impact on his decision to do the film just as they encouraged him to do Beauty and the Beast.

"I'm sure they did," he said. "It's a book we love and treasure in our house. The book and the idea of this mildly terrifying ghost story. It's thrilling and it's a really important one to keep alive."

As you read A Christmas Carol, it's hard not to gauge the sense of compassion the author had for the poor. It's a testament to his own childhood, one that was rooted in poverty and cruelty. He was just 11 years old when his father was sent to a debtor's prison and he was forced to do child labor in a boot polish factory. Knowing what it is to live in hardship, Dickens didn't share a distaste for the lower classes like many of his wealthy contemporaries.

“I think when you’ve done your research on Dickens, and it’s a phrase we use in the film, where Dickens asked: ‘No man is useless who lightened the burden of another,’ Balluri explained. "And really that’s, I think, at the heart of pretty much everything that Dickens has done. And in a way, that’s kind of what Christmas Carol is as well. And for me, I hope we captured an element of that. It’s a joyous fun piece, and it’s a really enjoyable piece, and that’s what Dickens did. He’s a populist. He tried to make you enjoy it without you realizing that he had some other thing to say about us all as human beings. Look, if you get that, that’s great. If it makes you go to the library and get a Charles Dickens book out and read it, just one person, I’m done.”

Balluri and Stevens noted that Dickens's tendency to speak to man’s better nature has as much to do with his past as his faith. 

“In terms of religion, Charles Dickens was a Christian, as I think some of his moral values were instilled from that,” Nalluri explained. “There was an element of that that came through from him. I think a lot of it came from his father, who was a very generous man, even though he was profligate and not very good at sorting out money. But I think he caught a bit of that. But I think the genius of Dickens, and the reason why his books are translating across the world in many languages, and many cultures, and is very affecting, is that at the end of it all, it is some universal human truths really about how we should all be and how we should all kind of work together in society.”

“There’s something about the celebration in the winter solstice that appealed to the Christian fathers as much as Dickens that at that very darkest moment the light will return,” Stevens added.

So, we can credit Dickens for helping to revive Britain's Christmas spirit and closing the societal gap between the rich and the poor. Not bad for six weeks.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is in theaters now. Read Townhall’s review of the film here.

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