Most people read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as a sentimental story about Christmas, and people watch the familiar versions of it on TV every Christmas with a kind of rapt attention, because they think it is all about the religious importance of Christmas. But it’s not about religion at all! It’s all about being — or at least becoming – human. Some people would like you to think that this is what Christianity is all about, but Dickens had his doubts.
Take the very beginning of the story. “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” And then he goes on to say: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”
This should remind you of something. Christmas, after all, is about the birth of Jesus, but the birth of Jesus would not have been important if people did not believe that Jesus had died, that he, like Marley, had been as dead as a doornail, although, with Dickens, we may not know of our “own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail.”
This is a hint that the story is about death and resurrection, about redemption. But the redemption that Dickens has in mind is not the old Christian idea of being saved from our sins to live in another world. No, redemption for Dickens is to be reclamation to something that pertains to this life, here and now. And throughout the story we are reminded that we only have this one chance at life. Do it right, now, or the chance of redemption will have passed us by. We have but one life to live. If the story is to have its effect, it must make some change in our own understanding of how it would be best for life to go.
Most people who read the story misunderstand Scrooge, and, unfortunately, he has come down to us as the very epitome of miserliness and greed — as, no doubt, he was. The very name ‘Scrooge’ has taken on the meaning of Dickens’ first description of him:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.
We tend to forget — Dickens’ description is so thoroughly evocative — that he is describing what had been, not what Scrooge was to become: “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” And goodness is not so captivating as a grasping old sinner like Scrooge — as Tolstoy discovered when writing about marriages, or Milton about Satan – a man who could be neither warmed nor frozen by external sources of heat or cold: “No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose.”
But Dickens’ purpose is not to denigrate poor old Scrooge, but to describe the desperate state from which he was redeemed. What the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and To Come manage to do, is to transform Scrooge in a way — Dickens suggests — that the death and resurrection of Jesus had not managed to do for so many of his devotees, represented by the earnest busybodies who appeal to Scrooge, seeking “to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth,” because this time of year “is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt and Abundance rejoices.” That’s why Dickens is so intent on getting us to acknowledge that Marley was dead, to begin with, because the man who turned these pious busybodies down was the man to whom the word ‘liberality’ itself sounded ominous.
The wonder of it is that no one, or at least very few, seems to have noticed that A Christmas Carol is a critique, not only of Christians, but of Christianity. Scrooge was transformed by the ghosts of his own past, present and future. Christians are not transformed by an even greater miracle than this, by the death and resurrection of God’s own son. Of course, Dickens does not point this out, which is doubtless devious of him. But the meaning is there. Everything that takes place in the story takes place in Scrooge’s imagination. He is transformed from within, reflecting on his life as it had been, and his life as it would be. Marley’s account books and cash boxes weigh him down just as the sinfulness of Christians weigh them down. But Scrooge bears them too. He has been working on them for seven full years since Marley died. It is a ponderous chain, as Marley points out. And so Scrooge is able to learn his lesson from Marley and the ghosts, because they are a part of him, but Christians seem only able to manage one day out of the year in which to be generous and to care for their fellow human beings, “when Want is keenly felt.” What? Only then?
And it’s not as though there are no pointers throughout the story. Dickens frequently returns to obviously Christian themes, if not explictly identified as such. For instance, Scrooge accuses the Spirit of Christmas Present of closing places of refuge for the poor every seventh day, something done, Scrooge says, in your name, showing clearly that the ghosts really, in some sense, represent Jesus, in whose name Christmas is celebrated. (Perhaps we could make the case that the three spirits represent the Christian Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.) And the Ghost of Christmas Present replies:
There are some upon this earth of yours … who lay 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 as all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember then, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.
Since I have just been writing about it, I remember here the pope and Bishop Thomas Olmstead, strangers to this Spirit of goodness, as to all his kith and kin, and how poorly, in the way Christians most often characterise Jesus, they reflect the goodness and the gentleness of the Jesus they claim to represent. (Well, at least on some interpretations of Jesus — which is a problem, don’t you think?)
In the end, of course, Scrooge does get the message of the spirits, just as, Dickens implies, Christians have yet to understand, that celebrating Christmas with all its jollity and apparent goodwill is empty, if it does not include human goodness, that deep human understanding that knows people at the heart of their joys and sorrows. Dickens’ famous Christmas story is a protest against the emptiness of Christmas, a festival that celebrates humanity every 25th of December, and then enters a deep sleep of forgetfulness for another year.