Posts Tagged Scrooge

Bah! Humbug!

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 24th 2018.

This is the time of year when it’s not hard to find one of a number of traditional holiday movies on the television, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Frosty the Snowman, from A Christmas Story to Die Hard.  Another that you’ll find is A Christmas Carol, which, like The Grinch, has been adapted in various ways, from the Patrick Stewart’s theatrical production to Mickey’s Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge McDuck, from the modern version with Bill Murray as a cynical and selfish television executive to the 3D animation and its Scrooge flying through the air in a rather short night gown that has scarred all our memories forever.

Given all of these adaptations, we’re familiar with the basics of Charles Dickens’ novella, which was first published in 1843.

[Summary of the story…]

There has been much debate as to whether A Christmas Carol is a Christian allegory or if it’s a fully secular story.  Much like The Grinch, it’s about someone with a mean, cold heart discovering the true meaning of Christmas.  As one person has put it, “A Christmas Carol is the heartwarming tale of how rich people must be supernaturally terrorized into sharing.”  And yet, while Dickens’ novella mentions Christmas some ninety times, it does not mention Jesus even once.

This is somewhat curious, because it’s not that Dickens himself was not religious.  He was christened and reared in the Church of England, and he was at least a nominal Anglican for most of his life.  Thanks to some experiences early in his life, he developed an aversion to evangelical zeal, doctrinal debates and sectarianism in general, and he turned to Unitarianism for a while during his thirties.  Though he went back to the Church of England later on, he continued to associated with Unitarians for the rest of his life. At the time, though, Unitarianism in England — as well as here in the United States — was very much a Christian faith, so that’s not the reason why Dickens chose not to mention Jesus even once.

Even if A Christmas Carol is not explicitly religious, it nonetheless portrays values taught by Jesus: changing indifference into love, changing selfishness into generosity, amplifying the spirit of hope in humanity.  Some might argue that these are also humanistic values — and, for that matter, the redemption of someone described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” is pretty Universalist — but maybe that’s because Dickens was aiming for an important distinction.

After all, what matters about Christmas, as exemplified by those values, is the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus.  For A Christmas Carol, The Grinch and other stories lifting up the true meaning of Christmas to center Jesus would make them feed into the narratives of a religion about Jesus; by centering Christian, humanistic values, on the other hand, they are demonstrating the religion of Jesus.  And that’s much more powerful and will serve the world much better.

Now there is something in A Christmas Carol that has always bothered me.  After the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has shown Scrooge scenes from a Christmas in the future, it takes him at last to

A churchyard.  Here, then; the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground.  It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite.  A worthy place!

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One.  [Scrooge] advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question.  Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

“Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge.  “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards [the grave], trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge.

It is at this point that Scrooge gives up his defiance to Christmas past and present, making a promise to honor Christmas in his heart and to try to keep it all the year.  He says he will learn the lessons offered by the three ghosts that have visited him, if only it will change what is written on that gravestone.

What’s bothered me is that this scene is portrayed in the various movies as if it’s Scrooge simply seeing his own grave that changes him, that finally thaws his heart.  It’s as if he never thought he would die, but now seeing the evidence of his own mortality, he promises to change his ways as if that means he won’t die.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Death is as much a theme of the story as poverty and selfishness are.  After all, A Christmas Carol begins with this very paragraph:

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

And then Dickens goes on for another couple of pages about Marley being dead, in one of his apparent tangents that feeds the myth that he was paid to write by the word.  Furthermore, part of Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come involved witnessing the Cratchit family as they grieve the death of Tiny Tim. For all that Scrooge was miserly and mean and greedy and inconsiderate, he was hardly stupid, so I don’t see why he would have harbored any illusions regarding his own mortality.

Rather, and this is a point to which I don’t believe the various movies have done justice, seeing his own grave forces Scrooge to realize he’s not leaving anything of any value behind.  For all the wealth that he accumulated during his lifetime, there’s nobody to mourn him. The only people who feel emotion over his death are a couple who are happy that they now have more time to put their finances in order.  And it is clear that Tiny Tim, a young boy whose short life had been defined by illness and poverty, leaves behind a much greater legacy than Scrooge. This stark realization is what makes him finally vow to change his ways, not so that he can somehow prevent his death someday, but so that when he does die, there will be people who mourn him because they love him, people who will be inspired by his example, people who will find meaning in their lives thanks to his legacy.  This is when Scrooge realizes the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s another part of the story that is usually overlooked in its movie adaptations.  The Ghost of Christmas Present is often portrayed as a larger-than-life figure of plenty, more Father Christmas in his origins as a Green-Man-type god of nature than a sanitized Santa Claus.  And yet, toward the end of this spirit’s time with Scrooge, the miser notices two small figures lurking in the folds of the ghost’s robes.

“They were a boy and girl.  [Jaundiced], meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.  Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.  Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

“Scrooge started back, appalled.  Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them.  “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.  This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.  “Slander those who tell it ye!  Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.  And bide the end!”

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol with a moral in mind, and it’s not as simply as “selfishness is bad and generosity is good”.  Though born into a middle-class family, he experienced poverty as a child, and it gave him, according to one biographer, a “deep personal and social outrage” that heavily influenced his outlook on life and his writing.  But whereas Scrooge’s attempts to ensure that he never suffered turned inward, making him a miser, Dickens’ developed a social conscience, particularly a concern for children whose families were affected by the working conditions resulting from the industrial revolution.

In the same year he wrote A Christmas Carol, his anger was fueled not only by witnessing the appallingly unhealthy and unsafe conditions experienced by tin miners, but also by the fact that those mining the tin were children.  He saw further suffering at one of London’s schools for illiterate and half-starved homeless children, and he joined efforts to change these conditions. In a speech that year, Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, but he soon realized that he would be most effective in reaching the most people not with pamphlets and essays but with a heartfelt story about the social effects of poverty and injustice.

In this scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the spirit is not so much making its point about Ignorance and Want to Scrooge, who, at this point, still doesn’t get it, but to the reader, both then and now.  Certainly children are no longer made to work down mines or sent up chimneys, but childhood poverty is very much a problem in our society, and public education as a means to lift up individuals and families is under attack.

The moral of A Christmas Carol is still very much relevant today, not simply the tale of a mean and selfish man who is frightened into changing his behavior, but a warning to society at large that treating children so badly is hypocrisy — indeed, nothing short of evil — when our society spends more time and effort claiming Christian values than it does actually putting them into practice.

As Dickens wrote in the surprising brief preface to the novella, “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” As we prepare to enjoy this Christmas with friends, family and loved ones, as we celebrate the season in whatever ways fill us with joy, may this favorite story of transformation and redemption continue to haunt all of our houses.

May it be so.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: