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Roald Dahl and the True Meaning of Christmas

Dr Lucy Russell looks at the parallel’s between Roald Dahl’s famous book Charlie and the Chocolate factory and the true meaning of Christmas

There are certain stories which are associated with Christmas, perhaps most notably Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Growing up, the 1970 musical film version, Scrooge starring Albert Finney, was annual viewing in our house on Christmas Eve. My dad saw it in the cinema when it was first released, and loves it still.

As a child I loved Roald Dahl. My first introduction to his work was also at Christmas, at my grandparents flat, where we shared a box of Quality Street chocolates and watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the 1971 musical film version of Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although it makes no reference to Christmas, the film has somehow become associated with this feast and a part of traditional festive television scheduling.  

The stories of Roald Dahl transport readers to worlds with chocolate rivers and peaches as large as houses. But behind the magical tales of giants, talking foxes and Oompa Loompas, is an author whose personal life didn’t always reflect the values we might hope for from a role model: Kathryn Hughes, in a review for The Guardian of Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock, wrote that, ‘Crashing through life like a big, bad child he [Dahl] managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite.’ Roald Dahl created a number of interesting characters, and was certainly also one himself. Following the death of his eldest daughter, Olivia (from measles encephalitis at age seven), Dahl arranged a meeting with his former headmaster, Geoffrey Fisher (who had previously been Archbishop of Canterbury). It was this meeting which apparently led to Dahl’s rejection of Christianity.

On Christmas Day in 1970 Roald Dahl’s daughters, Ophelia and Lucy, then aged six and five respectively, took holly to their sisters’ grave. Ophelia asked her father why God had let their sister die. Roald admitted that he did not know, and then told her about his meeting with Fisher and how certain he [Fisher] had been that although Olivia was now in heaven, her beloved Rowley (the family dog) would never join her there:

‘His [Fisher’s] whole face closed up,’ recalled Roald. ‘I wanted to ask him how he could be so absolutely sure that other creatures did not get the same special treatment as us, but the look of disapproval that had settled around his mouth stopped me. I sat there wondering if this great and famous churchman really knew what he was talking about and whether he knew anything at all about God or heaven, and if he didn’t, then who in the world did? And from that moment on, my darlings, I’m afraid I began to wonder whether there really was a God or not.’ Roald’s meeting with Fisher took place in 1962, two years before Roald first published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In what must be his most famous book, Roald Dahl gives us the eccentric Mr Willy Wonka, owner of a chocolate factory which produces the most renowned confectionary in the world. Mr Wonka’s decision to open his factory to five lucky children for a day is in fact a considered plan to find the perfect child to take over his factory. What Wonka is searching for is someone honest and worthy to whom he can teach all the secrets of his factory.

As the story unfolds Charlie Bucket proves himself to be that boy. Perhaps the sentiment in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in fact has more to do with Christmas than it first appears.

The story is undoubtedly a moral tale in which Christian themes can be identified. Each of the other golden ticket holders symbolise some sort of excessive lifestyle—Augustus Gloop is greedy, Violet Beauregarde is self-centred and only interested in chewing gum, Veruca Salt is spoiled, and Mike Teavee watches television nonstop. In the course of their tour of the chocolate factory, the obsessions of these children lead them away from Mr Wonka and the main prize. Mr Salt’s wealth can do nothing to prevent his daughter’s disappearance down the rubbish chute after her selfish attempt to steal one of Mr Wonka’s squirrels.

The message of this book must be that there should be moderation and balance in all things, and that those who are honest, kind and work hard will ultimately win the ‘big prize’. Willy Wonka is presented as an omniscient and omnipresent character who is slightly detached from, but watchful of the children on the factory tour, as he searches their characters and they are invited to come to know him.

It may be that Dahl rejected Christianity, but what he presents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a useful reminder for Christians to focus on that which is important rather than being distracted by the things which are not.

This is a message which is especially useful during the season of Advent. We are invited to come to know God, but in the modern world it is easy to become distracted by and obsessive about things which are ultimately unimportant: at this time of year shopping, presents and parties in particular.

Look at the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All except Charlie were too focused on themselves and what they wanted to consider what Willy Wonka was offering. As for Veruca Salt, and her father’s wealth that could not save her from her fate, we know from the parables of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and the Rich Fool (Luke 12: 13-21) that earthly wealth is of no use to us if we do not share it with others.

The message presented in Dahl’s story is in essence one which Pope Francis has been preaching this year to the Church and all its members.  In his homily on the Feast of St Augustine (on 28 August 2013) the Pope warned against spiritual worldliness, ‘Do not let yourself to be swept away by spiritual worldliness and careerism. Spiritual worldliness pushes us to do everything out of self-love, personal interest and careerism.’ He urged his audience not to ‘get comfortable in Christian, priestly, religious and community life,’ but feel ‘the powerful feeling of restlessness for God and His Word,’ which encourages clerics and religious to ‘go out to the flock’ and ‘go out to reach others’.

In his interview with America published on 30 September 2013, the Pope said, ‘The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.’ This is the true meaning of Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation and God’s salvific plan, which we should hold in our hearts and try not to be distracted from as we prepare for and enjoy our celebrations.

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