Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Enduring Legacy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

I read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol each December. As a testament to resurrection, the tale is a fitting archetype for the season. The Christmas story is about a child who resurrects mankind from his lowly state and opens the door to a better life on earth and in heaven. For Scrooge, Marley is the instrument of his resurrection, but Tiny Tim figures prominently as well.

Ebenezer Scrooge, we learn, endured loneliness for years at school. Still he had a kind-hearted, generous sister and a gregarious, giving mentor, Old Fezziwig. Scrooge could have drawn from them and kept Christmas in his heart, but he did not. A love of gold imprisoned Scrooge’s heart. He was stony and judgmental, proclaiming “Humbug!” when approached to give for charity or release his clerk for Christmas.

The ghost of Marley, Scrooge’s former partner, offers Scrooge a last chance. As Beatrice interceded for Dante, Marley intervenes so that Scrooge may escape the ravages of hell. Marley directs three more ghosts to unlock Scrooge’s stony heart.

The first ghost evokes feelings of regret by showing Scrooge his Christmases past. One year includes Old Fezziwig’s holiday gifts, and Scrooge feels a pang. He wishes he had spoken more kindly to his clerk; Fezziwig made all, from the lowest to the high, feel appreciated, especially at his Christmas party. Scrooge recognizes his own omission in that regard--a first step in becoming human once more.

The second ghost previews the present for Scrooge, a Christmas Day when shops close, and Scrooge, ever the businessman, accuses the ghost of harming mankind by requiring that on the seventh day and for Christmas, all must rest. He reasons that such a scriptural mandate prevents those who should work from putting bread upon their tables. The Spirit is sharp in his retort:

“There are some upon this earth of yours . . . who claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us, and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us” (Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Weathervane Books, 1977. 79-80).

Thus admonishing Scrooge not to presume he understands, the ghost shows Scrooge a celebration in honor of Christmas in his clerk’s home where Scrooge bears witness to the Cratchit’s efforts to be cheerful in spite of the poor health of one child, Tiny Tim, and in spite of their meager means. Scrooge also sees them struggle with their own spirituality in thinking about him. They resent him and his hard heart, but strive to overcome, to be charitable.

Scrooge also witnesses his nephew’s compassion for Scrooge himself. The young man, whom Scrooge had refused to visit, notes that the gold Scrooge seeks brings him no joy. He simply hoards it, lives a meager existence, and will profit not at all from it in life or death. The experience moves Scrooge, especially because the nephew’s guests still drink to Scrooge’s health in spite of Scrooge’s “Humbug!” upon them.

The final ghost presents the future to Scrooge. He sees that he is neither mourned nor honored in death. He understands that his life has meant little to others, and he resolves to redeem himself. He becomes a prime example for the Christmas spirit. He learns to love his fellow man even if there is no reciprocity--just as his nephew does. He understands that Ignorance, Want and Doom are mortal enemies for all mankind when he glimpses starving figures under the second ghost's cloak. Scrooge resolves to rescue as many as possible from those enemies. His first stop is, of course, his clerk’s home. Tiny Tim Cratchit thrives because Scrooge’s hard heart thaws. Saving Tim is, of course, an invaluable gift to the Cratchits and to Scrooge himself for Tim’s heart is good, his powers of forgiveness pure.

Reading Challenge:

Read or re-read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Writing Challenge:

Write a letter to Ebenezer Scrooge about the meaning of Christmas.