A Dickensian Christmas Songs of Praise


A Dickensian Christmas

Aled Jones presents Victorian-style carolling from Kent as he explores the life and faith of Charles Dickens, who was born two centuries ago.


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Season's greetings to you all.

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I'm travelling as the Victorians would have done

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on the London to Dover express driven by John here - expertly.

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And we're stepping back in time to celebrate a writer

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who many believe invented our traditional Christmas.

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His story of Scrooge has become a family favourite

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since it was written back in 1843.

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And we're gearing ourselves up to the 200th anniversary of his birth.

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Who am I talking about? It is, of course, Charles Dickens.

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On this week's Songs Of Praise...

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We're Christmas Carolling, Dickinson style.

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We'll be hearing from his great-great-grandson.

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And finding out more about the writer's faith

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and passion for social justice.

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One of the most important messages of all Dickens' work

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is his frustration with social injustice.

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His Christianity was of a very practical kind.

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He was a great performer - a celebrity, a star on the road.

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Dickens' legacy is the love of humanity,

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which is the keynote of all his works.

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We've come to Kent to the area around Rochester.

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It's a place Dickens knew and loved.

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The happiest years of his childhood

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was spent just down the road in Chatham.

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Many of the buildings here in Rochester were mentioned in his novels.

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He referred to this area as the birthplace of his fancy and imagination.

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As a boy, he and his father would go walking.

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And it was on one of these occasions that they came across Gad's Hill Place.

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His father told him, if he worked hard enough,

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he might one day afford the house.

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Dickens never forgot this. Years later, he did buy it.

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He spent the last ten years of his life there.

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I'm not sure if Dickens ever visited the church we're off to,

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but he certainly would have known it.

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We're heading to St George's Church in Gravesend. Do you stop there?

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Yes, come on-board.

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Thanking you.

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BELLS RING

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Members of the congregation are gathered, dressed as they would've been in Dickens' day.

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Everyone has made a huge effort,

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bringing our Dickensian Christmas to life.

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And we begin with a joyous Advent hymn

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I'm sure the man himself would recognise - Hark, The Glad Sound!

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On public view here at Eastgate House in Rochester

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is Dickens' Swiss chalet. It was originally in his garden at Gad's Hill Place.

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It was given to him as a Christmas present,

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and it actually arrived as a flat-pack.

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Imagine that! Most days, he'd be up there writing away.

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I think it's fair to say that it was his best Christmas present ever.

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I think one of the reasons that Dickens wrote about Christmas a lot

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was that it was a time of year that he really loved.

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His parents had been very fun-loving people

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and Christmas in their household was presumably very happy -

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they were very sociable, they loved parties.

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When Dickens got married to his wife, Catherine Hogarth,

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from the beginning, Christmas was a real celebration in their family.

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There was an increasing interest during the 19th century

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in Christmas traditions.

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Lots of candles and jollity and celebration.

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But what Dickens did through A Christmas Carol in particular

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was to bring the idea of Christian charity as an enormous part

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of what should be happening at Christmas.

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A Christmas Carol was written in 1843,

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the first edition sold out within days.

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In A Christmas Carol,

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the Cratchit family is the ideal Christmas family scene.

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The Cratchits themselves are, as Dickens see it, the perfect family.

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They don't have much money but they have a lot of love

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and they're very considerate to each other.

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People often read A Christmas Carol and see Scrooge saying to Bob Cratchit,

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"You'll want the whole day off tomorrow, I suppose?"

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Bob Cratchit says, "Oh, if it's quite convenient." It's NOT convenient.

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One of the messages he was getting over with the novel was that

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employers really had to think about this.

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It should be automatic that people had Christmas Day off - it was

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a day of prayer, of celebration - a day to be with family.

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-Hello, everyone!

-Hello!

-Mrs Cratchit.

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A lot of people made quite a secular Bible of A Christmas Carol

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and kept it on a little shelf and read it every Christmas,

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because of its strong teachings of humanity

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and celebrating Christmas in the true sense.

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In many of his books, Dickens creates an image of Christmas,

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which remains familiar to us today.

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Perhaps what he did was to introduce almost a cult of celebrating Christmas.

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His first real treatment of Christmas came in Sketches By Boz.

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There's a wonderful essay called A Christmas Dinner.

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That just about describes everything

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and this is really the prototype of the happy Christmases

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that we then see at Dingley Dell

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in The Pickwick Papers and with the Cratchits.

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The ideas of carol singers, the idea of family meals -

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all these things that Dickens wrote about.

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Decorating your homes with holly and ivy.

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Merry Christmas!

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One of the most important things that Dickens says

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in his description of the Cratchit family Christmas

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is that they were pleased with one another and contented with the time.

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Merry Christmas, my dears! God bless us.

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I think Dickens was a very simple and a very sincere Christian.

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He had a great faith in the teachings of the New Testament.

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It was much to do with love, it was much to do with service

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it was much to do with good works.

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He had very, very severe criticism

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and often very satirical treatment to make of people

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who held to extremely narrow religious positions.

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You think of Mrs Clenham in Bleak House with her very vengeful Christianity -

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you've got the complete contrast there.

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The kind of people Dickens wanted to get at was those who went to church on Sunday,

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but walked past starving children on the streets on their way home and didn't pay any attention to them.

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He did feel that a lot of organised religion had lost its way -

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it wasn't teaching the Bible, it wasn't teaching what

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he felt was the Christian message, which was to treat others

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as you'd have them treat you, or to help the poor and the meek.

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In 1846, when he started to consider it important to give

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some kind of clear statement of religious teaching for his children,

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he wrote a work which later became known as The Life Of Our Lord.

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It's a very, very sweet book. It's really lovely, actually.

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He's got little asides to his children, saying things like,

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"I think you've seen a camel, but if you haven't, let me know

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"and I'll take you to see one - we have them at the zoo."

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He explains what a locust is and writes about the plague of locusts

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and talks about the Bible in general.

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It does re-state the teachings of Christ,

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it does re-state the story of the Gospels.

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The Good News message of the Gospel.

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These were things which were central to him

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and important for him to pass on to his children.

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Everybody ought to know about it...

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It wasn't published until 1934. The reason being that Dickens didn't want anyone else to see it -

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this was just a private thing for him and his family.

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It wasn't published until the last of Dickens's children had died.

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"You can never think what a good place Heaven is without knowing..."

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It gives an insight into Dickens's own religious beliefs,

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which was that kindness is the most important thing.

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He says to his children, when you are grown up, be kind to people.

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It's a really nice way on looking at the Bible without making it

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really full of hellfire and brimstone - but looking at the good messages in there.

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Towards the end of his career,

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Dickens made almost 500 public readings of his work.

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He toured the length and breadth of Britain as well as America.

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Wherever he went, audiences flocked to see him.

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The performances were incredibly theatrical and dramatic

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and absolutely engaged his audiences in the passion

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and excitement of the stories, which of course they all knew

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so well from the original novels.

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Dickens had loved the theatre from childhood.

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He adored the sense of... Well, play acting.

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As a young man, he really almost became an actor. He had an audition

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booked at the Covent Garden theatre... He missed it -

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he was suffering from flu on the day, but it was generally reckoned that if

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he had had that audition, that would have been his career, as an actor.

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So really the readings enabled him to come back to that first love of his.

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Gerald is now following in his great-great grandfather's footsteps.

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"Don't be cross, Uncle," said the nephew.

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"What else can I be?", returned the uncle.

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'Someone came to me with the idea of recreating a reading of A Christmas Carol.'

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I started working through the script

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and putting all my own characters and voices and expressions into it.

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I was rather proud - I thought I'd done this rather well.

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After I'd done it, I went and did a little research into Dickens

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and found that I was just recreating exactly what he had done

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with all the voices and expressions and everything!

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"As the good, old city knew..."

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'He has created each and every one of his characters so precisely

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'and he would perform them first in a mirror to himself.

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'And he would watch and listen to the character as it came back to him

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'and then he would go and write it down.'

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Part of his success absolutely is that ability to include his readers

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in the scene. Suddenly he describes a scene and you are there.

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If it's a winter scene, you're shivering - if it's a summer scene, you're hot. And it...

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Even today, an image of Dickens's Christmas is a wonderful snowscape with carol singers

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and stagecoaches and you're there, right in the middle of the snow.

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# God rest you merry gentlemen

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# Let nothing you dismay

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# For Jesus Christ our saviour was born upon this day

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# To save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

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# Comfort and joy

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

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# From God, our Heavenly Father a blessed angel came

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# And unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same

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# How that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

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# Comfort and joy

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

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# But when to Bethlehem they came where our dear saviour lay

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# They found Him in a manger Where oxen feed on hay

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# His mother Mary kneeling unto the Lord did pray

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

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# Comfort and joy

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

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# Now to the Lord sing praises All you within this place

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# And with true love and brotherhood Each other now embrace

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# This holy tide of Christmas All others doth deface

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy

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# Comfort and joy

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# Oh, tidings of comfort and joy. #

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All of Dickens's novels engage with important social issues.

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Dickens had a good deal of exposure to social inequality as a child.

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When he moved to London in the 1820s,

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very soon after their arrival,

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his family found themselves descending into

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an ever-worsening spiral of debt, and difficulty - the consequence

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of which was that his father was sent to the Marshalsea Prison.

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He was living in London on his own for several months -

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walking along the streets of London late at night on his way back

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from seeing his family at the prison.

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He would pass terrible scenes. London was a really frightening place -

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there was a lot of social deprivation, a lot of poverty and a lot of crime.

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In order to supplement the family's difficulties with finance,

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he was found a job working at Warren's Blacking

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at Hungerford Stairs near the River Thames,

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pasting labels on pots of shoe blacking.

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For a little boy who had dreamt of being a learned

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and distinguished man, it was the death of all his hopes

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to become a little labouring hind with all these common men and boys.

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He had a very unhappy time.

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And I think this never quite left him.

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This was what really came into his fiction, his journalism.

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The fact that he wanted to do something

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about these people living in terrible circumstances.

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Dickens's principal social concern was with the way in which

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society treats its children, because the children are the future.

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He said, "I'm going to write a book that will deliver

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"a hammer-blow in favour of the poor man's child".

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What Dickens does a great deal with A Christmas Carol

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is to talk about how his readers should behave,

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and two of the most important characters are not only Scrooge

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and the ghosts who visit him, but two children named Ignorance and Want.

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The Spirit Of Christmas Present says to Scrooge to beware them both,

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they're both frightening figures.

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But most of all, beware this boy - the boy is Ignorance -

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because if nothing is done to improve the prospects

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of the child, if nothing is done to educate the next generation,

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then the prospects facing all of us are alarming indeed.

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But his main message was to get across to people that Christmas

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wasn't the only time of year

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when people needed to be kind to the poor - but it was a very good start.

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# Hear my prayer

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# Oh, Heavenly Father

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# Ere I lay me down to sleep

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# Bid Thy angels, pure and holy

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# Round my bed their vigil keep

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# Keep me through this night of peril

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# Underneath its boundless shade

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# Take me to Thy rest, I pray Thee

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# When my pilgrimage is made

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# Guide and guard me with Thy blessing

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# Till the angels bid me home. #

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of Dickens's novel Great Expectations.

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Once again, it was the area around the River Medway in Kent

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that inspired him.

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The story remains one of Charles Dickens's most dramatised works.

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A new BBC adaptation is set to hit our screens this Christmas.

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One of its stars is Gillian Anderson, who plays Miss Haversham.

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In this day and age, when everything is in your face,

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it's fascinating to see that the same themes ran back then

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and the fact that part of what Dickens was interested in

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is the impact of society on human beings.

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Ray Winstone plays Magwitch.

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I think it's a story that can be told again and again

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and it's relevant to any time it's told in, you know?

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What's different with it? Hopefully not too much, because the story was such a great story anyway.

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Because it was so well written, if you go too far off the text,

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I think you'd probably be making a different story.

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That was all right, wasn't it?

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Charles Dickens was working on his final novel -

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood -

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when he was taken ill and collapsed at his home, Gad's Hill Place.

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He died 24 hours later,

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on the 9th of June, 1870.

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He was 58-years-old.

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Dickens left instructions that he was to be buried very simply

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here in Rochester Cathedral, but his final wish wasn't granted.

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The Dean and Chapter of Rochester's Cathedral actually started

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to dig a grave for him there,

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but then the call came out from the Times and Queen Victoria

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that the correct place for Dickens,

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the genius of Dickens, was Poets' Corner, in Westminster Abbey.

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And so that is where he is buried.

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His body was moved to Westminster Abbey

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and following a private service, as news spread about his death,

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thousands arrived to pay tributes.

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There's a story of a little girl in London who said,

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"Charles Dickens, dead?

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"Will Father Christmas die, too?"

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He wanted his work to provide his legacy

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and it has proved a lasting memorial.

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He remains a master of the language.

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He remains someone who can create for us experiences, people,

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circumstances, of which we have had no direct personal experience.

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But in which we can participate through the words of someone

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who can write as skilfully as he can.

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In his will, Dickens wrote...

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"I commit my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ.

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"And I exhort my dear children humbly to try to guide themselves

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"by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit.

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"And to put no faith in any man's narrow construction of its letter, here or there."

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Perhaps the lasting appeal of the book A Christmas Carol

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lies in the fact that we see that the miserable miser Scrooge

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is not beyond redemption after all.

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It's a heart-warming tale full of hope, just like the Christmas story,

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where the birth of Jesus brings us the good news that change is possible.

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And as Bob Cratchit says in A Christmas Carol,

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"A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears - God bless us".

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God bless us, everyone.

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Jesus Christ,

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light of the world,

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shine on us as we prepare to celebrate again

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the coming of your birth.

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Help us to follow your example of gentleness, peace and mercy.

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To love our neighbours as ourselves

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and as we are so often reminded by the words of Charles Dickens,

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to try to do the right in everything.

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And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,

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be among us and remain with us now and always.

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-Amen.

-ALL: Amen.

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Next week, sumptuous carols by candlelight,

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as Pam introduces the story of the first Christmas,

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as told by the people of Stratford-upon-Avon.

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And Joe McElderry sings some favourite festive songs.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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Aled Jones presents Victorian-style carolling from Kent as he explores the life and faith of Charles Dickens, who was born two centuries ago. Includes contributions from the writer's great-great-grandson and Rochester Cathedral choir.


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