written by Brent Dickman, Urbana Seminary Alum and Adjunct Professor
“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “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.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
Truth be told, I imagine that sometimes we all feel a little bit like ol’ Ebeneezer. Perhaps we’ve heard that pop-rendition of a certain Christmas song one too many times on the radio. We tire of all the shopping, consumerism, and crowds. Sometimes all the festivity begins to wear on us. Or maybe it’s all the work that finds its way into December, from final exams to year-end tasks. We’ll struggle against the humbug-spirit. We’ll fight to find some good Christmas cheer – a good deed for a stranger, a dollar for the Salvation Army, our favorite movie, whether Linus or an elf named Buddy, little Kevin or Tiny Tim, a Grinch or a Griswold, or something else. And of course through it all, we stare face to face with the bigger question. What does it all have to do with Christ in the manger anyway?
This question, what does the celebration of Christmas have to do with the Nativity, was in some way, I think, upon the mind of Charles Dickens as he wrote A Christmas Carol. Dickens was a lifelong Christian and his work is not as secular as is often supposed. I have read scholars assert that A Christmas Carol must surely be secular, as it contains no scenes at church, no religious expounding on shepherds or magi, no pontifications on Incarnation or Blessed Virginity. But that, I think, misunderstands Dickens’s intention. His readers knew the story of Christ’s birth. They were looking, like us, for how it applied to their life and how it connected with the “spirit” of every present Christmas.
Like other great Christian writers, Dickens is not a theologian per say, but his work is laced with matters relevant to theology, especially to questions of ethics or to theological aesthetics (specifically in the latter’s concern for what might enable us to choose and live the moral Christian life). Dickens didn’t write religious fiction. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton on the matter, they are prayers, not sermons – prayers offered through his literary imagination on behalf of our imagination (Chesterton 1906, 96).
Imagination is more than make-believe or daydreaming. It guides what thoughts and feelings come to mind as we go about our day. In this way our imagination influences, consciously and unconsciously, the way we live our lives. How do we conceive of, perceive, and understand the significance of what goes on in and around our lives, in this case, of all the Christmas merriment?
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens addresses his literary prayer on behalf of our Christmas imagination. Dickens’s hope is to reveal how the celebration of Christmas might be a means toward a Christian end. I venture to say that we are familiar enough with the tale to identify that end – the It’s-A-Wonderful-Life-related message of the worth of love of neighbor as oneself. It is the idea of Christian charity. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless,” says James, “is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” And we might imagine him adding, “to care for Tiny Tim.” We are familiar with the end, but what of the means?
Scrooge’s transformation is wrought by the ministrations of the Spirits of Christmas. These ghosts awaken memories and reveal moments that change the way he perceives the world. They work upon his imagination so that his heart might be redeemed. Scrooge’s journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past, of Scrooge’s Christmas Past, to be precise, awakens him to something once lost. Dickens tells us as much, as Scrooge gazes upon the first of his many visions – the countryside of his boyhood home:
“The Spirit gazed upon [Scrooge] mildly. Its gentle touch [upon his heart], though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long forgotten.”
As Scrooge visits memories of yesteryear, like the well-known Christmas celebration at Fezziwig’s, he re-imagines those moments of joy and happiness long forgotten. These moments are the so-called secular festivities of the Christmas season. Their significance is a motif recurring often through many of Dickens’s works surrounding Christmas. In The Pickwick Papers, finished just six years prior to Carol, Dickens makes an analogy between the festivities of Christmas with those of a wedding. For both, it is the celebration of the matter that makes clear the meaning. Celebrants are filled with joy and their hearts are opened to see clearly the peace and beauty of lives lived together in relationship, community, friendship, and love. Yet while a particular wedding might fill the hearts of only some with joy, Christmas festivities might do so for many more (Walder 1981, 27-28). The assertion made is a theological one: joy matters.
Joy matters because it makes room in the heart for hope. And if hope for the future is the beauty of a wedding, how much more so it is for Christmas! The ministry of the Ghost of Christmas Present is like the prayer offered by Paul to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rm 15.13). This ministry, this prayer, is at its most evident and pronounced in dialogue not often depicted in adaptions for the screen. If we recognized that there are no scenes at church services in A Christmas Carol, this does not mean that its worshipful intent, its theological thrust, is not still felt. We find Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim not at church, but returning from church. And we hear not from a vicar, but a feeble boy, ready to teach Scrooge how to enter the Kingdom. The lesson is for us, the reader, too:
“And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs. Cratchit….
“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow, he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas-day Who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
Bob’s voice was tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty.”
Scrooge knew Him of whom Tiny Tim spoke. He just hadn’t thought of Him for a while, not in this way. He came to understand. A father’s toast becomes a son’s prayer, and leads Scrooge to repentance, to imagine life in a different way. We know the scene:
Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers and a custard cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily.
Then Bob proposed: “A merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!”
Which all the family re-echoed. “God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.
He sat very close to his father’s side, upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.
“Spirit,” said Scrooge with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
We know the rest of the story too, either from reading the work itself or in its many variations on film, screen, or stage. But, I hope that in some small way, this blog can help you see it with different eyes, with a new imagination. For Scrooge’s transformation is, in truth, a rebirth. As he prances about his room on Christmas morning, filled with such joy, it suddenly occurs to him:
“I don’t know what day of the month it is,” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I have been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.”
A baby? Dickens was no literary slouch; his references to scripture, when he makes them are deliberate, if subtle. He has learned the lesson of Tiny Tim, and now, finally like a little child, he is ready to receive the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt. 18.3, 19.14).
After Scrooge makes provisions for the day, he goes to church and then celebrates the Christmas traditions around him. They are not independent things. Christmas has reawakened his heart to joy and his imagination to hope, so that now, when faced with a plight like the suffering of Tiny Tim, he can hear and respond to the Christian call to stand against it in faith and love.
Dickens entitled his work a Christmas carol, that is to say, a religious hymn for Christmas – the joyous celebration of the Nativity. A few years later, he would write his thoughts on what images that Christmas music springs to his mind. They are memories of Christmas, moments to transform his imagination:
“Known before all the others [i.e. Christmas memories], keeping far apart from all the others, they [gathered] round my [childhood] bed. An angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travellers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure, with a mild and beautiful face, raising a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the water to a ship; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children round; again, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, health to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again, dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
This Christmas, may the God of the Manger fill you with Christmas joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with the hope of the Nativity by the power of the Holy Spirit. God bless us every one! Amen.
All quotes taken from Dickens, Charles. 1843. A Christmas Carol: In Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. London: Chapman & Hall.
Chesterton, G.K. (Gilbert Keith). 1906. Charles Dickens. London: Methuen.
Walder, Dennis. 1981. Dickens and Religion. London: George Allen & Unwin.