Like many Christmas traditions and trappings, a fresh look at them may return luster to a dullness that can build up over time. In fact, from a cultural perspective, such an exercise is part of the whole purpose of Christmas and the approaching New Year.
It’s a time to consider ourselves in a new light and appreciation our blessings. Serving as a means to accomplish this is a story that stands as largely unfamiliar although many claim otherwise: Charles Dickens’s 1843 masterpiece, A Christmas Carol.
This is a story that everyone knows yet few remember for what it truly is: a tale that sings out like a caroler pounding at the door on the night before Christmas. Its purpose is to awaken us to the reality of our life journey and the need to love one another along our way.
A Christmas Carol is a ghost story in which Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable old sinner and tightfisted financier, is haunted on Christmas Eve by his business partner, Jacob Marley, who’s been dead as a doornail for seven years. Scrooge learns from Marley that torments await him in the afterlife for his misspent time.
To sidestep the terrible path that Marley’s ghost treads, Scrooge accepts visitations from three spirits who come to offer him reclamation. They show Scrooge how his misery is self-inflicted and how much happiness he stands to gain by simply making others happy.
From his boyhood memories to his own chilling deathbed, the spirits lead Scrooge on a difficult, merry, and disturbing journey through time and space to prove to him the profound purpose of every human life—one most clearly seen in the humane light of Christmas.
As it turns out, Ebenezer Scrooge has proven a soothsayer of our times, for by and large, Christmas actually is something of a humbug these days. It preaches peace but breeds pressure. The ritual of Walmart has replaced the ritual of the wassail. Santa Claus is not really St. Nicholas. The holidays are not really holy days. Christmas is a lost and long-forgotten mystery in need of a great awakening which is the thundering message of Charles Dickens’s carol.
For this reason, A Christmas Carol is an important voice at Christmas, and unlike the customary Christmas fare, it is anything but warm and fuzzy.
There is nothing warm about the infernal furnaces that stir Jacob Marley’s hair, or the heartbroken young Scrooge abandoned by his father at boarding school over the holidays, or the cold corpse of Tiny Tim surrounded by his family, or the frozen corpse of Ebenezer Scrooge himself alone and unloved with nightshirt and blankets torn away by his cackling charwoman to be sold in a greasy bone shop.
There is nothing fuzzy about neighborly charity or a changed heart—of which this book boasts along with its horrors. And it is at Christmas that people should face these realities for what they are.
Christmas “is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices,” remind the two gentlemen collecting for the poor in Scrooge’s money-changing hole. And the heartbreaking happiness of Christmas resounds in their words bringing in the dawn of Christmas be they as cold as Scrooge or as warm as his nephew.
His nephew salutes the season “as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time … in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
There could hardly be a more beautiful or unique expression of the Christmas spirit and we shouldn’t forget it for that distinction alone.
Scrooge’s self-discovery and desire to retract his selfishness is the fruit of the Christmas season. With Scrooge, all can realize a need to purge before answering The Ghost of Christmas’s booming call, “Come in! and know me better man,” and discover the men and women sharing this earth with us, be they lame or blind. And in the words of Tiny Tim, remember the one “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
The remarkable power of this story is that it is about everyone, awakening memories of who we are and why we are. But to live the lesson of examination and transformation presented by Dickens is a lofty test. We can share the journey with Ebenezer Scrooge by moving away from the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” into a larger world as we helplessly face eternity.
A Christmas Carol is a song of preparation, passage, and praise. It is indeed a Christmas carol, and the process it initiates is not an easy one. But as the ghostly mentors of Scrooge held up a mirror to him, so too must we face our own pasts, presents, and futures.
Many, hearkening to this call, swear to lead a changed life that will honor the spirit of Christmas and try to keep it all the year by living in the past, the present, and the future.
Let the spirits come. Let them wake us from slumber. A Christmas Carol prepares us not only for Christmas Day but also for every day: for Life, in all its ups and downs. And may it inspire every one of us to cry, “God bless us every one!”
I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol