Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

In Monday’s post I began to explain the impact of Charles Dickens, especially through A Christmas Carol, upon our celebrations of Christmas. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to describe him, in the words of the London Sunday Telegraph, as “the man who invented Christmas.”

Dickens’s influence on our Christmas traditions is keenly felt today in many ways, even though we may not be aware of it. In this post I want to offer one salient example that flows from the pages of A Christmas Carol into our lives today.

Business in Stave One of A Christmas Carol

Early in the first stave (chapter), Ebenezer Scrooge receives an unwelcome Christmas Eve visit from his nephew. When his Uncle Scrooge questions the value of Christmas, Fred responds:

“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 belonging 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 not 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!”

Even apart from its religious significance, Fred sees Christmas as worthwhile because it is a time of unusual generosity. Of course Scrooge doesn’t buy into this one bit. (Photo: The two “portly gentlemen” from a stage production of A Christmas Carol in Omaha, Nebraska)

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No sooner had Fred left his uncle alone than “two portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold” dropped in on Mr. Scrooge. One explained his business thus:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

When Scrooge was unmoved, the man explained, “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” Of course Scrooge wants nothing to do with their efforts to make provision for the poor, exclaiming: “It’s not my business. . . . It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

But some ghostly interference in Scrooge’s life changed his opinion on the matter of his business, especially at Christmastime. When visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, the ghost lamented his failure to have lived his life well by caring for others. Scrooge attempted to reassure him by saying, “But you were always a good man of business,” to which the ghost responded:

“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 Marley’s ghost added an extra note about Christmas:

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”

Notice that if Jacob Marley had imitated the Wise Men, he wouldn’t have been led to worship the Christ child, but rather to be generous to the poor. This, rather than the religious meaning of Christmas, is central to Dickens’s vision of the holiday.

Business in Stave Five of A Christmas Carol

As Scrooge is visited by Marley and his coterie of ghosts, Scrooge’s heart softens towards all people, especially the poor. Thus when his transformation is complete in Stave 5, the very first thing Scrooge does is to purchase a giant turkey for the family of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit. Then, as he is walking about on Christmas morning, he runs into the same portly gentlemen who had the unfortunate experience of meeting Scrooge the previous day. Yet, now, things are quite different. Scrooge approaches them, offers them Christmas greetings, and then whispers something in the ear of one of the men, presumably revealing how much he will contribute to their effort to help the poor. Here’s the following dialogue:

“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”

“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favour?”

“My dear sir,” said the other, shaking hands with him. “I don’t know what to say to such munificence-“

“Don’t say anything please,” retorted Scrooge. “Come and see me. Will you come and see me?”

The primary and most obvious proof of Scrooge’s transformation in the end of A Christmas Carol is not simply his delight in Christmas, nor his attendance at church, nor even his joining his nephew’s Christmas party. Rather, the proof that Scrooge is a changed man is seen in his exceptional generosity, both with the Cratchit family in particular and with all needy people in general.

So when Dickens concludes that Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well,” he means more than that he abolished “Bah! Humbug!” in favor of “Merry Christmas!” Ebenezer Scrooge kept Christmas well by becoming “as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” This goodness is seen especially in his generosity both at Christmas and throughout the year. He learned the truth that eluded Jacob Marley in this life, namely: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.” These became the business of Ebenezer Scrooge, even as they are now central to the business of Christmas.


P.S. If you’re like me, you get inundated at this time of year with requests for charitable contributions. This tradition actually can be traced back to the impact of Charles Dickens, especially through A Christmas Carol. If you find yourself like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Stave Five, with a desire to be generous in this season, let me offer a bit of benevolent counsel.

First, if you are a Christian, I would encourage you to support the work of your church. You can be quite sure your church needs it, and you can also know with confidence how your giving will be used.

Second, like Charles Dickens, I think it’s right for those of us who have been blessed financially to share with the poor. There are, of course, many ways to do this. For many years, I have found it helpful to support the work of World Vision. This ministry has a long track record of faithfulness and wisdom in caring for human need throughout the world. Plus, their website makes it easy for you to give to special needs.

Third, I’d encourage to support ministries that are close to your heart. For my wife and me, this means giving special gifts to people we know who are faithful in their various ministries and causes. We are also pleased to support the work
of Foundations for Laity Renewal, the parent organization of Laity Lodge, where I work. In past years we’ve given to the youth camp scholarship fund. This year, we’re excited to support the development of a new family camp facility.

May you follow the lead of Charles Dickens and the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge by sharing with others in this Christmas season!

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