A Dickens Christmas x 5

Being an autodidact, I was not aware until a few weeks ago that Charles Dickens had written five Christmas novellas in the 1840s, not just "A Christmas Carol" - all, he averred, with "a strong moral message."  Most UK schoolchildren probably know the other four as "The Chimes," "The Cricket on the Hearth," "The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain" and "The Battle of Life." Each of them delivers, as Dickens put it, "a strong moral message" and all but the last come with supernatural twist.

I came across this jolly factoid cluster while researching an idea for a sequel to my own Christmas novella: "Milagro on 34th Avenue." That 2015 novella, about which I've written here previously, gives homage to my favourite Christmas movie - Miracle on 34th Street (particularly the 1947 original with Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara and little Natalie Wood, directed by playwright George Seaton). I derived Milagro's characters from my personal experiences as a "real-bearded" department-store Santa several seasons running back in the early 'aughts - a source of story material by no means exhausted.  A third element of "Milagro"  involves children because - in the spirit of Dickens - every Yuletide tale worth its tinsel needs to give Christmas trees and conscience a good shake.

In the 1947 movie, little Natalie Wood asks Macy's Kris Kringle to get her mother a house as a test of his authenticity. In my version, which also contains supernatural overtones, two children ask a Manhattan department store Santa for their missing mother. It turns out that their mother had been swept up and interred by immigration authorities leaving her kids orphaned. 

Little did I know when I wrote this five years ago, that my plot would be so prophetic. I didn't come close to imagining the Trump Administration's crimes against refugee children  starting when he came to power a year later. That was the stuff of Gotham City supervillians. 

Dickens intended each of his Christmas stories as "a blow for the poor," according to biographer John Forster. But he would have had to invent a Gotham City supervillian to come up with what Trump did to thousands of children (even nursing infants) in his administration's charge: summarily ripping them from their parents and putting them in cages, admittedly to deter central American refugees from seeking asylum in the United States.

By the way: As of this writing more than 500 of these children remain orphaned in U.S. detention due to Trump officials' inability or unwillingness to find their parents as ordered by federal judge. (The American Civil Liberties Union - not Trump's government - still carries the brunt of finding and reuniting these families and representing them in court, which is why I have been donating Milagro royalties - such as they are - to the ACLU.)

President Elect Biden has promised an end to this shameful chapter in American history in the coming months, although it may not be possible to ever reunite all of the thousands of officially abducted children, much less heal the physical and psychological traumas inflicted upon them. 

Santa arrived early this year with the November 3rd defeat of Trump and the December arrival of anti-COVID-19 vaccines. We're all wishing for a boring 2021, once they take out the garbage at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20. Of course, challenges and struggle will continue. America starts the new year in Dickensian conditions - thousands in food lines, millions jobless and facing evictions, a runaway pandemic death toll. Meanwhile, Trump's congressional allies withhold aid - in other words keep making "American great again." 

Scene from "The Haunted Man," 1848

Dickens' "The Chimes" is anything but a sentimental Christmas story. It deals with the question of whether the human race is worth saving. Dickens tells from the story of an impoverished porter - i.e. the street messengers popular in Victorian London - his daughter and one of his powerful clients intent upon cutting off already deficient government doles to the poor. 

In the biblical tradition, is the poorest of characters - the grubby, limping runner Toby - not the richest - who hears the redeeming message of the chimes. Sound familiar? Dickens tells this story in prose as ironic, dark and lyrical as anything in "Bleak House." 

To wit: Toby "... found himself face to face with his own child. and looking close into her eyes ... Bright eyes they were. Eyes that would bear a world of looking in, before their depth was fathomed. Dark eyes that reflected back the eyes which searched them... "

Once again today, we writers ponder the deeper questions, and depths of depravity that challenge the best of us. Scrooge cared little for Tiny Tim, but it's hard to imagine him setting up child concentration camps to terrorize migrants. We'll need something more that a "return to normal" to remove this level of corruption in the coming year. 

Please Santa - and you state's attorneys general out there: How about some accountability with that lump of coal in Trump's stocking? How about stuffing Trump's 2021 Christmas goose with grand jury investigations to go with scoldings by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future?

Beyond my reach, but for my part, by the time the jolly elf comes around again I hope to follow Dickens' example and write at least one more Christmas story - four more if I can manage it and get the elves to help. A joyful season to all, dear readers! Ho ho ho - jingle bells and to all a good night!


Umberto Tosi's books include Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com)


Jan Needle said…
You put it so beautifully, Umberto. Thanks.
Peter Leyland said…
I think you express the collective anger of many of us Umberto, an anger which as you say was expressed by Dickens about his own world so many years ago. Wishing you a great Xmas and hope you write that story.
Bill Kirton said…
We're living through such appalling times, Umberto. It's crucial that voices such as yours keep on being heard. Thank you.
Sandra Horn said…
You're a wonderful man, Umberto! Thank you.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto,

I love your wish for tRump. What a blight he's been and continues to be, even one month following election day.

With talk of him potentially pardoning himself and his criminal family ... my prediction is 2021 won't be boring. Hopefully, Jan. 20, 2021 will be a day your country can breathe a little easier.

Best of the holidays to you and your family,


Aliciasammons said…
As you so insightful reflect, Trump’s America is truly Dickensian. “ America starts the new year in Dickensian conditions - thousands in food lines, millions jobless and facing evictions, a runaway pandemic death toll. Meanwhile, Trump's congressional allies withhold aid - in other words keep making "American great again." The Biden Administration will have its work cut out to remedy the ills Trump and his enablers have caused. Here’s hoping, like the vaccine against Covid, the cure for the Trump plague is coming soon
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you all - Jan, Peter, Bill, Sandra, Eden and Alicia for your generous and thoughtful comments. Happy holidays!
Susan Price said…
Umberto, you make a great Father Christmas!
Griselda Heppel said…
You are so right about Dickens. The heartless separation of children and parents in detention camps is exactly the kind of thing he'd write a Christmas book about. Not necessarily as a political attack ie he might not have denounced detaining illegal immigrants per se, but the cruelty and inhumanity of tearing children from their parents. How prescient your Milagro on 34th Street was.

Trotty's dream sequence in The Chimes is one of the most harrowing pieces of Dickens I've ever read, dealing with prostitution, homelessness, despair and suicide. Inspiration came from the tragic case of Mary Furley, a destitute woman sentenced to death in 1844 for a suicide attempt in which her daughter drowned. Dickens took part in the huge outcry and her sentence was commuted to transportation. Sorry if this is all unnecessary information - my book club read The Chimes last Christmas and I was fascinated! As you say, anything but a sentimental story.

Wonderful post! And you win the prize for best Department Store Santa ever.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks, Susan, as well, and Griselda, for the true-life footnote about Dickens and The Chimes, ie., the case of Mary Furley, still tragic in the telling today!
Ragondine said…
Eh bien, cher ami, vous n'y allez pas avec le dos de la cuillère comme on dit chez nous ! Ca tape dur ! Et c'est fichtrement intéressant et instructif. Mais nous partageons aussi les dysfonctionnements de votre pays, malheureusement, et nous ne pouvons pas nous targuer d'être des modèles... Il ne reste qu'à nous souhaiter de faire un peu mieux au cours de l'année qui vient.... Bisous à tous et à chacun !

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