‘Tis the Season – to Try a Little Dickens!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

“Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” – William M. Thackeray on A Christmas Carol

It seems an appropriate time to reshare my thoughts on this well-known story, mainly because it’s an opportunity to talk about a book by one of my favorite authors. I know Dickens isn’t for everyone; he can be rather wordy, and many of his novels are REALLY long (like, 600+ pages). His stories always have complex plot lines with lots of characters and interesting twists, and he has created some of the most interesting and memorable characters in all of literature, Ebenezer Scrooge being one of them. For those who aren’t familiar with Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and his works, his purpose for writing most of his novels was to expose the evils he observed in society, with the goal of promoting social reform. Dickens believed that social reform must begin with the individual, and that problems such as unemployment and poverty would be largely eliminated if those who claimed to be Christians would practice their faith in their business dealings. His best known novels include: David Copperfield, Great ExpectationsOliver Twist, and his only historical novel (and my personal favorite), A Tale of Two Cities.

Unlike his other more realistic novels, A Christmas Carol (1843) can be read like an allegory with a moral or lesson to be learned. The characters symbolize ideas and attitudes familiar in the real world. The three men, Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Scrooge’s nephew Fred, can be seen to represent three classes or statuses of people in society. Scrooge, with his “Bah! Humbug!” represents the materialism, greed, and apathy of the wealthy towards the rest of humanity. Bob Cratchit personifies the lower working class — those who suffer under the “Scrooges” of the world. Fred, who appears to be poor but probably better off than Cratchit, serves to remind readers of the joy and good cheer associated with the Christmas season.

One of the most obvious lessons the story teaches is that a person doesn’t need to be rich in order to be happy. Throughout the story we see various poor individuals and families who are evidently content and happy because they enjoy the love of friends or family. At the beginning of the story, when Scrooge’s nephew Fred comes into his office, Scrooge mocks Fred’s holiday greeting:

“Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Fred obviously knows that wealth isn’t required to be happy, and his response is meant to make that point to his uncle, who apparently believes that it is.

Scrooge prides himself on being a “man of business.” On Christmas Eve, when Scrooge is asked to make a donation to help the needy, he responds by asking if the prisons, workhouses, and government-funded Poor Law unions were not still in operation. Then he continues,

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there…If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population…It’s not my business. It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.”

Charles Dickens has nothing against being a business man or being rich, but he does believe that those who are rich have a responsibility to those who don’t. He condemns the indifference and cold-hearted selfishness of the wealthy, and those who use government programs as a lame excuse for not helping people in need. He seems to be saying that it is the responsibility of the individual, not the government, to help the disadvantaged of society. Every person, regardless of his status in life, has it within his power to bring happiness to the lives of others. It doesn’t have to cost a lot – just a smile or simple word of kindness can go a long way. But those who have more, have the ability and power to do more good than those who have little. That reminds me of the verse in the Bible that says, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

Jacob Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge. Original illustration by John Leech (1843). (Image credit: Wikipedia)

When Scrooge’s deceased business partner, Marley, appears to him that night, he tells Scrooge,

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!…At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!

One of the main  themes in the story is idea of the brotherhood of man – that we are all connected and the chief business of mankind is to love and help his fellow man. With the visits of three Ghosts, Scrooge is shown that his priorities have been out of whack. The Ghosts represent three perspectives of life, with Christmas being the vehicle or window through which these perspectives are viewed.

The Ghost of Christmas Past represents memory, both good and bad. This Spirit shows Scrooge scenes of his childhood and the happy times he enjoyed, and he recalls people he once cared for. This section serves as a reminder to the reader that while there are people and events whose memories should be treasured, there may also be regretful choices that affect our life and can never be changed.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge scenes that embody the spirit of Christmas.  Scrooge’s nephew Fred describes Christmas as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of 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 other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” But these attitudes shouldn’t be limited to Christmastime; they can be lived out and demonstrated every day, throughout the year in our dealings with people. To make this point, before departing the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two children:

Ignorance and Want, woodcut — from A Christmas...
Ignorance and Want, woodcut — from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They were a boy and 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 shrivelled 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. The Spirit explains: “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.”

Dickens had a great concern for the welfare and condition of the children in English society, especially regarding poverty and education, and he uses this scene to bring these issues to the attention of the reader. He believed that much of society’s evils could be remedied if education were improved and made more readily available.

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Original illustration by John Leech (1843). (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come represents the fear of death and judgment for one’s deeds. Scrooge is given a sneak peek at where the path he is currently on will ultimately lead, unless some changes are made.

While Scrooge is watching scenes of the future, he overhears a few men discussing another man who has recently died. One man comments, “It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral, for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it.” The men then consider volunteering to go, but only if lunch was provided. We are told that Scrooge “knew these men, also, perfectly. They were men of business: very wealthy, and of great importance. He had made a point always of standing well in their esteem: in a business point of view, that is; strictly in a business point of view.” Of course, Scrooge learns that the men are speaking of his death, and he also learns that apparently no one mourns him; in fact, some people are actually glad or relieved that he is dead. He realizes that in his preoccupation with being a man of business, he had lost his emotional connection with his fellow man.

Towards the end of his experience, Scrooge says to the last Spirit, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

Scrooge’s reaction and decision to reform convey another one of the story’s main themes: As long as you are alive there is still an opportunity to change your ways. However, some actions and choices have lasting consequences which cannot be reversed. For example, while Scrooge is able to mend his relationship with his nephew and to become a better boss, he will never get back the woman he once loved but lost due to his greed and self-centeredness.

After his ordeal with the three Ghosts, Scrooge vows to make the changes necessary in order to alter his destiny. He exclaims, “I will honour 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.” The memories of the past along with the fear of coming judgment give him a more healthy perspective of the present day in which he is living and motivate him to invest in the lives of others.

A Christmas Carol clearly teaches some moral lessons and promotes Christian principles, such as charity and forgiveness, but be careful not to read too much theology into it or you will find yourself moving away from the truth of the Gospel as taught in Scripture. Dickens’ story does not emphasize the religious meaning associated with Christmas – the birth of Christ – although he doesn’t completely ignore it. When Fred praises the good of Christmas, he prefaces his praise with the qualifying statement, “apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that.” So Dickens acknowledges that “Christ is the Reason for the Season,” if you will. But Dickens’ Christmas is not a solemn religious holy day observed by church attendance, but a holiday celebrated with parties and feasting, singing and dancing, and general goodwill. Recall in the first scene Marley’s reference to the Wise Men who followed the star to find the Christ child. What is it that Marley regrets — that he didn’t worship Christ as a King, like the Wise Men did? No, his focus is on the fact that the Wise Men helped a poor child, but he failed to look around and identify someone in need that he could have helped.

Regarding the moral redemption of Scrooge, he is shown by the Ghosts how he has failed his fellowman and is given an opportunity to reform himself. I can see some people interpreting this to say, “It’s never to late to repent and be saved.” I remember seeing a version of A Christmas Carol put on as a church play which interpreted the story as a salvation message. I think it is definitely a stretch to say that Scrooge is “saved” in the story, and that is not the message Dickens was trying to communicate. It’s true that in the beginning Scrooge is either unaware of or simply doesn’t care about his selfish, sinful ways, and probably never would have if the Spirits had not visited him and revealed it to him. Likewise, unless the Spirit of God intervenes and reveals a person’s sin to him, he will continue in darkness and remain in his lost condition. But there is more to repentance than a person merely deciding for himself, “I’ve been a bad person; I’m going to be good from now on.” While Scrooge exhibits remorse and regret for his neglect of people, and even repents by changing his ways, what he lacks is repentance for his sin against a holy God. There is no mention of Christ’s death, the only way of obtaining forgiveness for sin. But as I said, Dickens did not intend for his story to deliver a Gospel message, but a message of individual responsibility and social reform.

Although A Christmas Carol is quite different than his other works, reading it is a good way to “get your feet wet” with Dickens, since it’s really the shortest of all his novels. It will give you a little sampling of his writing style, use of language, and use of characterization to get you “warmed up” to tackle another, larger one. But if you never do read another book by Dickens, at least you can say you’ve read one, and at the same time you can enjoy a good Christmas tale with a positive message. By the way, Dickens also wrote other short Christmas stories, of which The Cricket on the Hearth is the best known.

I’m sure everyone is aware that A Christmas Carol has been adapted into many film, musical, and play adaptations, the oldest being 1935 British production of Scrooge and the MGM film in 1938. Some of the different actors who have played Ebenezer Scrooge include: Alistair Sim (1951), Albert Finney (Scrooge, 1970), George C. Scott (1984), Bill Murray (Scrooged, 1988), Patrick Stewart (1999), and Kelsey Grammar (CC: The Musical, 2004). There have also been animated versions, including Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), A Flintstone’s Christmas Carol (1994), a 1997 version with Tim Curry voicing Scrooge, the Disney computer-animated A Christmas Carol (2009) with Jim Carrey as the voice of Scrooge, and who can forget The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) with Michael Caine playing the role of Scrooge?

Have you read Dickens’ Christmas Carol? What do you think the moral of the story is? Which is your favorite movie version? After reading the book together, why not check out a few of these and watch them together as a family?

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3 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season – to Try a Little Dickens!

  1. I have watched A Christmas Carol (The George C Scott Version). I was raised on it. I watch it with my family every Christmas Season. Favorite Christmas movie along with my favorite Dickens story.

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