When Charles Dickens took to his desk and began writing "A Christmas Carol" in October 1843, he set in motion more than a great story about the meaning of charity in a world teeming with inequity and need. He also began an annual tradition - a kind-hearted call for introspection - that transcended politics, philosophy and divergent religious beliefs. The greater themes of "A Christmas Carol" reverberate from Victorian England to modern America and, as ever, arrive right on time for a holiday that is generally overwhelmed by commercialism and conspicuous consumption.
By now, we all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, as stingy as he is shriveled, and how he becomes a man transformed after being visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Along the way, we meet the loyal employee Bob Cratchit, the good-hearted boss Fezziwig and the disabled son Tiny Tim.
The boy is no sympathetic prop in Dickens' deft hand. It is Tiny Tim who reminds us that this seemingly secular story is really about the true meaning of Christian charity in a world that most often prizes money over mankind.
Late in the story, Mrs. Cratchit asks her husband how Tiny Tim had behaved upon returning to their house, and Bob replies, "As good as gold, and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
Along the way, Scrooge learns a frightening lesson from the Ghost of Christmas Present, and we are all reminded that there's a terrible price to pay for neglecting the interests of the poor. From beneath his great robes the ghost reveals the orphaned children of man: "They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread."
Appalled, Scrooge asks, "Spirit, are they yours?"
"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!"
Scrooge, of course, cannot deny it. He can only attempt to change his life and make amends before it's too late.
The tale is riddled with such priceless moments and filled with reminders about the real meaning of charity in an often-uncharitable world. Times were hard in Victorian England. Times are hard today.
But despite high unemployment, high rates of bankruptcy and our worst-in-the-nation home foreclosure rate, Southern Nevadans never cease to astound us with their big hearts, good cheer, and generosity. At a time they couldn't be blamed for looking inward and closing their doors, Las Vegas from all walks of life have reached out to their fellow man. Whether it's canned food drives and toy collections, coats and blankets for the homeless, or cash for overdue rent payments for complete strangers, Las Vegans of all faiths and philosophies keep coming through for each other.
It should warm our hearts and hearths to know that tough times have not calloused our spirits. On the contrary.
More than ever we have shown our collective strength as a community that is not down and out, but on its feet and striving toward brighter days in 2013.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Smith