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A Christmas Carol

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Friday Book Pick: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


“Marley was dead, to begin with” might be the best opening line of a novel, ever. Journalist, novelist, and social commentator Charles Dickens published over 15 novels and dozens of short stories throughout his writing career and continued his journalistic writing to the very end of his life. The novella A Christmas Carol was the fruit of a mere two months of writing in the fall of 1843, and when it was published it was an instant best-seller.

(In print on 19 December, 1843, it was sold out by Christmas Eve of the same year.)


Year by year, this classic tale never seems to lose its place as a worthy Christmas tradition. It’s usually at my bedside during the Christmas octave. A Christmas Carol is a moving story of conversion. It’s the story of human redemption told through the life an old miser—to the extreme—who manages to make every person in his life miserable, including himself. By divine intervention he receives a frightening dose of self-knowledge and enough perspective to begin to view his life through a broader lens, and the miracle is: he changes.

The famous miser is Ebenezer Scrooge. Right from the first page we encounter Scrooge as a bitter and utterly unlikeable character. “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Dickens artfully paints a vivid picture of Ebenezer Scrooge, whose hardhearted demeanor is even more bitter than the icy winter weather. His inner temperament shows itself in Scrooge’s physical appearance. “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” Scrooge is unabashedly stingy, grossly unkind to others, and generally unhappy.


The famous miser is Ebenezer Scrooge. Right from the first page we encounter Scrooge as a bitter and utterly unlikeable character. “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” Dickens artfully paints a vivid picture of Ebenezer Scrooge, whose hardhearted demeanor is even more bitter than the icy winter weather. His inner temperament shows itself in Scrooge’s physical appearance. “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” Scrooge is unabashedly stingy, grossly unkind to others, and generally unhappy.


When his young enthusiastic nephew enters Scrooge’s counting house to wish his uncle a Merry Christmas, the famous “humbug” is the only answer. To which the nephew responds, "Christmas a humbug, uncle! You don't mean that, I am sure?" "I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough."


And thus, Scrooge’s chief and central wound is exposed. He has fallen for money. Already as a young man, long before this fateful night, began his aspirations for success, his desire to get ahead, and his need to possess more. The ambitious young Ebenezer’s desires were in fact realized, but not without a cost. That’s where the famous Ghosts of A Christmas Carol come in. The role of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and of Christmas Yet to Come is to show Scrooge exactly what had been sacrificed for his idol, Mammon. The price of Scrooge’s choice was all the other loves of his life, all other people, all other interests. Money consumed him. And even with plenty of it at his disposal he lived so frugally that his life style rivalled those in the poorhouse. In every way he was possessed by money, and in no way was he enriched by it.


Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, is “dead as a doornail” at the opening of the story, but death does not prevent Marley from playing an essential role in the story. Visited by Marley on Christmas Eve, and then by “Spirits” of Christmas past, present and future, Scrooge is confronted with death, with life after death, and with tangible evidence of the far-reaching effects of his actions.


The Ghosts do their work skillfully that Christmas Eve night and Scrooge experiences the whole of his life “flash before his eyes,” or at least the significant parts—enough to convince him of the deep and lasting impact his sins have had on the lives of those closest to him.


It is clear that Charles Dickens used his fiction to get a message across. He was promoting altruism and condemning a utilitarian approach to labor. In the journey back through time, Scrooge revisits his own sad childhood Christmases that could have been made merrier had some generous, altruistic adult made them so, and with this realization, his schooling begins. Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal litany of Christmases were not all dour affairs. In his young adulthood he did have a marvelous celebration filled with music, dancing, food and genuine joy. Scrooge revisits this happy Christmas which had been provided by his employer at the time, Mr. Fezziwig, and his wife Mrs. Fezziwig. In the reliving of this festive, lavish occasion provided by employer for employee, the Spirit probes at Scrooge as he criticizes the scene, intimating that Mr. Fezziwig hasn’t even spent such a quantity of money that he should be earning such lavish praise from his employees and apprentices. As proof that something is already happening within the stony, hard heart of Mr. Scrooge, he finds himself defending Mr. Fezziwig to the Spirit. “It isn't [how much money was spent on the party], Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."


By the end of the three supernatural journeys, the mission to thaw the frozen heart of this miserable man is successful. In the final Stave we see the reason for A Christmas Carol’s enduring success. Scrooge reemerges into the present moment after a harrowing glimpse at his own demise. Like a man awaking from a night-terror, Scrooge is utterly beside himself with joy to be alive. He is not in the grave, his headstone is not in place, his belongings are not pillaged…it is not yet over. "‘I don't know what to do!" cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings. ‘I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’" And the story winds down to end with Scrooge’s hard heart broken open by the weight of his sins, his repentance, and his race to make amends. And it is the very thought of making amends that transforms Scrooge into a giddy child: “Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” And amends he did make! The story ends with the miserable miser turned joyful madman granted a second chance. He has learned the key to happiness: Make someone happy, and you’ll be happy too.


Certainly, Dickens was a social commentator. In this tale and in others, he promotes a more personalistic approach to labor and defends the rights of the working poor, especially the rights of children. But above all, A Christmas Carol is a story of conversion—of change, redemption and hope. Stories of conversion will always be needed. Old stories are ever new, fictitious stories ring true, and this is because of grace. The grace of God is real, and it is always at work in the world to draw hearts from self to self-gift. Jesus is not mentioned by name in this famous Christmas lesson. But He is the inspiration and the reason behind it—and behind every other worthy Christmas tradition.


Mother Clare, CFR


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