Dickens & Christmas

One of the most famous Christmastime stories is by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Several different movie versions of the story were produced over the years, and now it is a standard and still  a favorite at this time of year.  Set in Victorian England, “a long, long time ago,” it seems almost like a fairy tale, and its happy ending makes people feel good and “somehow” it feels right for Christmas. For some it simply is part of the “sap crap” surrounding Christmastime.  However, there are disturbing elements in the story–disturbing in a good way–things that should awaken us, not lull us into a sentimental slumber.

Dickens calls his story, A Christmas Carol, and this signals to us that the story is a mythopoetic presentation; it is a kind of “carol,” announcing, celebrating, rejoicing–but what?  The story is not really about Christmas; it is “located” within the context of Christmas.  What it really is about is the transformation of a man’s heart, and Dickens wants us to connect it with the meaning and message of Christmas.

The story begins by presenting us with the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is Christmas Eve in London.  Scrooge is a person who has spiritually and humanly lost his way–he is more a child of the new Industrial Revolution and the unfettered capitalism of his day, rather than a child of God.   He lives only to make money; only that “which fattens the purse” will he entertain.  This is the social milieu Dickens was living in,  and a lot of his art aimed to bring to light “man’s inhumanity to man” which the prevailing social system enhanced.  The underlying philosophy of the economy was that self-interest is beneficial for all of society, or in the memorable words of Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, “Greed is good.”  One does not just sell a product or a service but sells it at the highest price possible because the accumulation of wealth has become an end in itself and intrinsic to self-identity.  Why stop at being a millionaire when you can be a billionaire.  You are what you own.  Homo Consumerus has arrived.   The New Testament, among various texts, tells us that the accumulation of wealth can be a real problem in our relationship to God, but what Dickens is emphasizing is that this leads to a distortion and concealment of our true relationship to “our neighbor.”  It leads to an atomized view of society where you just have this collection of isolated individuals each acting for their self-interest irregardless of how that affects others(or today we would say the environment also).

Dickens presents Scrooge as very unhappy, a real grouch, and his unhappiness runs very deep. Dickens describes his condition:  “But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone…squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching…. Hard and sharp as flint…secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features….” Scrooge’s isolation and lack of fellow-feeling is most obvious by its contrast with what is present in other characters that Dickens brings on the stage right at the outset of the story.  There is his nephew who comes to visit him at his office and wish him a Merry Christmas.  Scrooge is totally dismissive. He sarcastically asks what profit is there in “keeping Christmas,” and the nephew answers that Christmas is “the only time I know of….when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”  Incidentally, what the nephew is referring to is much more deeply presented in Russian spirituality,  and they have a word for it: umilenie, which translates literally as a “melting of the heart” or “tender compassion,” but which means a oneness of heart.

Then there is his bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit, to whom Scrooge is barely able to give Christmas day off and whom he generally mistreats as a throw-away worker.  Then there are the two gentlemen who come to the office–they are collecting alms for the poor and destitute.  Scrooge dismisses them sarcastically and without hesitation.  He comes home late after work, and there begins the real story of his transformation.  First he is visited by the ghost of his old partner Marley.  Marley appears all bound in chains:  “You are fettered,” said Scrooge trembling…..  “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.  “I made it link by link….”  And then the ghost tells Scrooge that Scrooge himself is “bound in chains that he has made of his own free will.”  Scrooge is frightened but also puzzled–what is this all about, you were a good business man, Marley!   “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “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.”

Then Scrooge is visited by three ghosts or spirits.  First comes the Ghost of Christmas Past, which takes him into his own past to relive both the joys and pains of his past, to open up his heart, to see where things went wrong.  This is the only way to true repentance.  The past is the key to making progress into the future.  Then came the Ghost of Christmas Present, and here Scrooge is taken to see what is going on right under his nose as it were.  He sees the life of his poor worker, Bob Crachit, and his poor family and their crippled little boy Tim, and he sees the lives of those who are poor in London that Christmas Eve.  His heart has already been opened up and now he is more vulnerable to recovering his “connectedness” to his fellow human beings.  Finally comes the Ghost of Christmas Future, and here Dickens is a master spiritual teacher–the reality of death pervades this whole episode, and one might ask how does this belong in a Christmas setting, which is all about birth and new beginnings.  Actually Dickens is in harmony with all the great spiritual traditions in that facing the reality of one’s death in a very concrete way is the great motivator and provider of the energy needed for a transformation of heart.  From this point on Scrooge will live his life with a sense of care for all people but especially those who are already present in his life.  He is no longer motivated by self-interest, but the dynamic of his life will now be an outpouring of self for the benefit of all. This means the using of his resources for the benefit of all and not exploitation. This transformation is both the true celebration of Christmas and the true meaning of Christmas, and from a Christian standpoint it is the Mystery of the Incarnation which opens the door to this transformation.

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