The State of Aloha
Strapped for cash and with his wife expecting their fifth child, the man was desperate. He decided to write a story to sell for Christmas. It took Charles Dickens six weeks to write one of the most beloved and perhaps the greatest of all Christmas stories of all time — and it has nothing to do with Bethlehem, a star or three kings bearing gifts.
Its full title “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” was first published in 1843. The story has never gone out of print. In the 177 Christmases since that great story was published, it has been adapted hundreds of times. The parable of the miserable and cruel Ebenezer Scrooge is timeless.
It is also my favorite Christmas story, and every year I enjoy watching some version of it or reading the original. This year, one part stands out prominently. It’s right the middle of the story after Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present leave the home of Bob Cratchit, his poorly paid and neglected employee, and his meager but joyous Christmas dinner.
They find themselves “upon a bleak and desert moor.” The spirit shows Scrooge the families of miners huddled in a gloomy and dark hovel. The family cheerfully celebrates the holiday singing songs and gathering around a fire.
From there, they speed off to a lonely and dreary lighthouse where two men sat at table “wishing each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog.” From there they went to a faraway ship where the crew spoke of fond Christmases past and shared some kind of festivity as they longed for loved ones at home.
The story is set in the 1840s — in the early part of Victorian England. The British economy depended on laborers in dismal and gloomy places mining the earth for coal and on lonely ships crossing the seas to distant parts of the empire. It was also a time when the employers, the wealthy and the government did not feel obligated to look out for employees, the poor and underprivileged.
Dickens shows us another view. He wrote these scenes in a time when child labor, prisons for debtors and inhumane treatment of the unfortunate were disturbingly common. It would take another century before British people demanded that the government create a welfare state ensuring the basics like food, shelter and warmth.
It’s too bad that this part usually doesn’t make it into the many different adaptations. This year I can’t help but think of our own Christmas present.
It has been a rough year. The coronavirus has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands of people in this country. On top of that, it has destroyed Hawaii’s economy. The coming state budget will include massive cuts, possible layoffs and a severe diminishment in services. People will be expected to do more with less help from government.
If we adapted the story to the present day, I’m sure the spirit would show Scrooge a hospital. Patients, nurses, doctors and staff are overworked, exhausted and in constant fear of being infected. Yet intensive care units, the scene of crisis and overwhelming tragedy this year, still find a way to celebrate.
If they came to Maui, they might drop in on the many out-of-work employees scraping by but still finding time to make things merry at home.
We have homeless families living in inoperable vans, trucks and vehicles patched together with tarps and tents on the side of the road. Even here among those who live in the open air and without a home, Scrooge would find strings of Christmas lights illuminating the kiawe trees in the breeze.
The inmates housed in Maui’s only jail have endured a lot this year, too. The new protocols put in place due to the pandemic have isolated them from families and loved ones even more than normal. And yet, many of my clients still do not hesitate to wish me a Merry Christmas from their cells. Surely Scrooge could visit their humble holiday celebration.
And, of course, the spirit would show Scrooge the many families taking precautions and visiting remotely through webcams, microphones and telephones instead of gathering at home.
These scenes helped redeem Scrooge. Maybe that’s why the old Victorian story has endured. It still serves as a powerful reminder that we are all in this together whether we like it or not and we must extend a hand to those in need.
The story ends with Scrooge a changed man. He became a mindful employer and a good friend who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Let us do the same. Merry Christmas, Maui.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”