There is a common theme in most Christmas stories of a man who is too cynical, or depressed, or crotchety (sometimes even evil) to participate in the spirit of Christmas, and who, because of some event or insight, has his eyes opened to the wonder of the world.
We all know this cast of characters: The suicidal George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, whose despondency is dispelled when an angel shows him how different the lives of those around him would have been without him; Doris Walker, the mother in Miracle on 34th Street, whose life is reenchanted by a department store Santa Claus who turns out the be the real thing; and, of course, the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, whose heart (formerly two sizes too small) grows three sizes, once he realizes that Christmas isn’t only about material gifts.
They are stories in which light breaks in on a dark existence, in which the dormant imagination is jollied awake by some person or event, or where hope casts out despair.
We tend to forget, however, where this theme originated, who it was who invented the spirit of modern Christmas. It was, of course, Charles Dickens. These others are the mere descendants of Scrooge.
In this first of the great Christmas stories, we are introduced to Scrooge:
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. A frosty rime was in his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
He is the concentrated form of the type we see in other characters in Dickens—Gradgrind, Bounderby, Fagan, Tom Dombey—characters whose imaginations have been deadened through a death, a loss, or simply through some sentence they have read out to themselves that has taken away their own freedom to see the world as it is.
The therapy that Dickens prescribes for Scrooge is simply to show him his life: what it was, is, and might be.
But the first thing Dickens does is to simply throw someone into Scrooge’s life who articulates to him what he at that point is incapable of seeing. His cheerful nephew visits his office, and, after Scrooge questions what good celebrating Christmas has ever done him or anyone else, his nephew responds with a lecture on his bad attitude:
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited. I dare say,” returned the nephew: “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belong to it can be apart from that–as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, 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 to another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
But it is a simple admonition which Scrooge fails to heed. Scrooge’s problem cannot be solved by his nephew’s reason. An attitude is not amenable to reason. An attitude can only be changed by changing someone’s perspective on the same reality he has always seen. There is nothing wrong with Scrooge’s reason; it is his imagination that needs to change, and so the author begins to change it.
In fact, on the very first page, Dickens telegraphs the way Scrooge will be dealt with in the story. He says that Marley was “as dead as a doornail,” and then to explain his metaphor, he remarks that “the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile.” Why?
Because the simile is just one of a number of metaphorical devices that shows us, rather than trying to explain to us, how things are. Scrooge must see that he is wrong. And so, as soon as he leaves his office, he begins seeing things. The fog covers the bell in the ancient church tower, that is always “peeping slyly down at Scrooge.” The “Genius of the Weather” sits “in mournful meditation on the threshold” of his yard. The knocker on his door—and then the Biblical engravings on his fireplace—take the form of Marley’s face.
Dickens, like many older writers, knew the power of metaphor to reveal a thing to us by appeal to something else. “Odd,” said the poet Richard Wilbur, “that a thing is most like itself when likened.”
And then come the ghosts—of Marley, and of Christmas past, present, and future. Now it is not only things that seem to come alive, but Time itself. If the ghost of his former business partner, enchained by the follies of his materialistic life, are not enough for Scrooge to see the error of his ways, then looking up on the events of his own life—as they have been, and are, and will be—will be necessary.
And so he is shown his life as it used to be and how it could have been different, his life as he is currently leading it, and his life as it could be if he does not change. And more than his life. Through the visions shown him by the ghosts, he sees the beauty he has forsaken, the love that he has refused.
And he sees the lives of those whom his own has affected, and how, despite his miserliness, they are still happy, despite their sorrows. To him, Bob Cratchit’s family has been an abstraction. Cratchit is not a person, he is an employee, and his family—a wife and children—are distant ciphers related to an office assistant by the accidents of consanguinity. That is all.
But the ghosts have no use for abstractions, and they force Scrooge to see things and people for what they really are. They show him whom he has known by the hearing of his ear. But now his eye seeth them. He even refers to Cratchit for the first time by his first name.
And when Scrooge sees the pitiful Tiny Tim, he asks the ghost what is to become of him, and, as if to force the reality of his own influence of others on him, he is told that it depends on him.
It is amazing how little the ghosts actually say. The events speak for themselves. They bypass Scrooge’s cynical rationality and assault his soul directly. They say little except to comment upon Scrooge’s own reactions, calling Scrooge’s attention to the reaction of the heart he had forgotten he had.
Scrooge, like the statues in another story with a more explicit Christmas theme, C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is brought back to life again. His humanity is returned to him. He has been given the grace of an opportunity to lead his life as he should have all along.
A Christmas Carol is not written as an explicitly Christian tale, although there are several acknowledgments in the story of the real reason for Christmas. But the message, whether Dickens knew it or not, is entirely Christian: a tale of unwarranted grace, given freely and undeservedly, and hanging upon our own willingness to accept it.