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Our Favorite Christmas Carol?
What Is Your Favorite Christmas Carol?
If you were to ask
people “What is your favorite Christmas carol?” you’d get a wide variety
of answers. Many would offer up “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World.”
Folks who count all Christmas songs as carols might mention “Winter
Wonderland” or “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts roasting . . .). In fact,
these two were the most popular holiday songs in the last decade, according to ASCAP. So far this year, “Sleigh Ride” is leading the pack.
when I refer to “our favorite Christmas carol,” I’m thinking of a
different genre. I want to talk about, not holiday hymns and songs, but a
book known as A Christmas Carol. Of course, I’m speaking of the
holiday classic by Charles Dickens. If you were to add up the sum total
of human love for this book, it might just be the most beloved of all
Christmas carols. It is surely the most popular of all Christmas
stories, save for the one that is found in the pages of the New
Testament. (The cover of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, released in December 1843).
A Christmas Carol Many Times Over
I have read A Christmas Carol
probably ten times, ever since I began doing so as a yearly holiday
tradition. I have listened to a recorded version of the book about three
times. I have watched cinematic renditions of the story at least ten
times, ranging from the sublime 1951 version starring Alastair Sim to
the ridiculous Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol from 1962. Moreover, I
have seen live dramatic presentations of this story at least a dozen
times, including the Christianized version that was presented every year
at the church where I grew up as well as the always outstanding
performance at the Glendale Centre Theatre
(which is still offering its winsome drama, now in its 46th year). In
fact, this week I’ll be playing the role of Marley’s ghost in a
shortened dramatic version at my work Christmas party. I hope there will
be more of grave than gravy in me.
When you add up the numbers, I have read or watched or listened to A Christmas Carol
at least thirty five times, and counting. No other work of fiction even
comes close to this number in my whole life experience, except,
perhaps, for reading Goodnight Moon to my children when they were young. Yet, even after thirty-five exposures, I still love A Christmas Carol. Indeed, I may very well appreciate it more now than ever.
Why Is A Christmas Carol So Beloved?
Well, there are several obvious features of A Christmas Carol
that augment its easy likability. First of all, it is short. You can
read it in less than two hours. When Dickens himself used to do public,
oral readings of the book (as he often did), he’d take only three hours
or so. In truth, A Christmas Carol really isn’t a novel. It’s more of a novella, or, as Dickens himself labels it, “Ghost Story of Christmas.”
Second, A Christmas Carol
is about Christmas, obviously enough. This is a popular subject, even
in today’s increasingly secular world. It’s hard to imagine that An Ephiphany Carol or even A New Year’s Eve Carol would capture our imaginations as much as A Christmas Carol. Yet, Dickens wrote four other Christmas books that are rarely read. This fact suggests that A Christmas Carol’s popularity has to do with more than just its happy theme.
Third, A Christmas Carol
features the literary elements that make Dickens such a delightful
author. It’s filled with mouthwatering descriptions of luscious food and
drink. It’s got lots of suspense and lots of humor. The characters are
truly memorable, even ones that have very few lines. Who doesn’t
remember Tiny Tim and his iconic “God bless us, everyone!”? And, of
course, A Christmas Carol is a salient example of Dickens’s
inimitable narrative style, a kind of “I’m-your-friend” storytelling
that draws the reader into the tale and features utterly enjoyable,
ironic, lush descriptions.
All of this contributes to the popularity of A Christmas Carol,
to be sure. But none of what I’ve suggested accounts for the
unprecedented popularity of Dickens’s little story. This, I believe,
results from the narrative core of the story, the changed soul of
Ebenezer Scrooge. Above all, we delight in watching an ice-cold, stony
heart become warm and tender. As we observe the transformation in
Scrooge, we just may feel a bit of it ourselves.
Christmas According to Dickens
Today’s post is the first part of a blog series I’m calling Christmas According to Dickens.
Since beginning my blog in December 2003, I have occasionally touched
on this topic before. Now it’s time for another go. In the days ahead,
I’ll give some background on Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol,
including some truly surprising details that are unknown to most
people. Then I’ll move into the center of this series, an exploration of
Scrooge’s miraculous transformation. I’ll be seeking to answer the
question: Why did Scrooge change? Finally, I’ll offer some thoughts
about what you and I can learn from the example of Ebenezer Scrooge.
I’m doing this series partly because I’m fascinated by the subject, also because I love A Christmas Carol and admire its author. Dickens is probably my favorite writer, or at least he ranks in the top three. I will be reading A Christmas Carol
not as a scholar of English literature (which I am not, at any rate),
but as a faithful enthusiast and also a Christian. Along the way, I’ll
offer some pastoral reflections on the story, touching upon ways that
Dickens encourages us in our life of faith. Though he was not an
orthodox Christian, Dickens was a believer in God whose work reflected,
in many ways, both a Christian worldview and Christian values. So, while
we ought not to derive our theology from Dickens, we can find much in A Christmas Carol to stir our hearts and inspire our actions.
Resources for A Christmas Carol
I’d like to recommend a couple of resources that will augment your appreciation of A Christmas Carol.
The first is an audio version of the book, performed by Jim Dale.
Dale, who is well known for his inspired reading of the Harry Potter
series, is a master reader. His interpretation of Dickens brings the
story to life. One of my favorite ways of “reading” A Christmas Carol is by listening to Jim Dale.
The second resource is a book that will help you understand every last word in A Christmas Carol. The Annotated Christmas Carol
includes a marvelous introduction and commentary by Michael Patrick
Hearn, a distinguished literary scholar. Now you can appreciate the
nuances and historical connections Dickens incorporated into the book.
Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas?
In 1988 the Sunday Telegraph of London gave Charles Dickens the title of
“The Man Who Invented Christmas.” If you’re not familiar with the
history of Christmas celebrations, this may seem like an enormous
exaggeration. But when you look more closely, the Telegraph’s hyperbole
turns out to be closer to the truth than you might expect. (Photo:
The Context for Writing A Christmas Carol
Christians had been celebrating the birth of Christ for centuries before
Charles Dickens came along. And northern Europeans also had their
winter festivals, both pagan and secular. But, in England at the turn of
the nineteenth century, Christmas had almost vanished from the scene.
There were several reasons for this disappearance. In part, the
continued influence of conservative Reformed Christians-who believed
that people should do only what the Bible commands, and therefore should
not celebrate Christmas, especially given its popular excesses-meant
that for many in England Christmas was not a valid holiday. Now before
you’re too tough on my theological forebears, you should know that some
of the popular Christmas celebrations in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries were a long way from the festive gatherings we associate with
this time of year. They were rather like the worst of office parties,
rife with drunkenness and sexual license, combined with the hooliganism
we see in some extreme celebrations of Halloween. Even many Anglicans
were outraged by what they saw. The Reverence Henry Bourne of Newcastle
lamented that Christmas was “a pretense for Drunkenness, and Rioting,
and Wantonness” (Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, p. 107. If you want the full story of “the man who invented Christmas,” Standiford’s book is an excellent source.)
even though English Christians of a Puritan stripe had actually
outlawed Christmas in the 17th century during their brief flirtation
with political power, their efforts to wipe out the holiday had been
largely unsuccessful. The disappearance of Christmas from English
culture had much more to do with the social impact of industrialization
and urbanization. As large numbers of people left their ancestral
villages to move to the large cities, they also left behind most of
their cultural traditions, such as the celebration of Christmas.
Moreover, in the cities, bosses weren’t inclined to encourage a holiday
that meant a day off from work, especially a day of paid vacation.
(Ebenezer Scrooge’s reticence to give Bob Cratchit a holiday on
Christmas wasn’t that unusual in his day.)
Another implication of
big city life in Victorian England was widespread poverty and human
suffering. Although many people worked in factories and offices, wages
were low and living conditions poor. This was an abiding concern for
Charles Dickens, especially in the fall of 1843. Amid his busy writing
career, he was working hard to raise support for institutions that
educated and otherwise helped the urban poor of England (not unlike the
“portly gentlemen” in Stave I of A Christmas Carol).
October 1843, a trip to Manchester poured fuel on the flame of Dickens’s
passion for the poor. As he spoke at the Athenaeum, an institution
devoted to caring for the poor in Manchester, Dickens’s heart was
strangely moved. Moreover, he had stayed with his beloved sister Fan
(the name of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dear sister in A Christmas Carol), who had two young sons, one of whom was frail and sick (not unlike Tiny Tim). So in October, Dickens began to write A Christmas Carol. According to his own testimony, his writing of this short book was rather a spiritual experience.
The Impact of A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol was
published on December 19, 1843. All 6,000 copies of the first edition
were sold by December 22. The book became instantly popular, though the
high cost of printing, including the fine illustrations, limited
Dickens’s profits. Before long, however, vast numbers of people in
England and America knew the story, not only from reading the book, but
also from dramatic presentations and many public readings by Dickens
Because our own celebrations of Christmas have been so
strongly influenced by Dickens, we can easily overlook his special
contributions to our traditions, such as:
â€¢ Christmas as a major holiday. At the time of Dickens, it was relatively ignored by most people.
â€¢ Christmas as a one (or two) day celebration rather than the traditional twelve.
â€¢ Christmas as an occasion for family and close friends to gather for luscious food, singing, dancing, and games. Before A Christmas Carol,
turkey was an uncommon on Christmas tables. After the book, it became
the meat of choice for this holiday (Standiford, 184-185).
â€¢ Christmas as a time for being generous to the poor.
did not so much invent these traditions as he resurrected them and
popularized them. Much of what we assume to be true of Christmas
celebrations today derives from the vision of Dickens, especially as
portrayed in A Christmas Carol.
So close was the
connection between Charles Dickens and Christmas that, when he died in
1870, a young woman who heard of it was aghast. “Dickens dead?” she
exclaimed. “Then will Father Christmas die too?” Well, as it turns out,
Father Christmas didn’t die along with his greatest promoter, Charles
Dickens. The influence of this man, and most of all his masterful
novella, A Christmas Carol guaranteed that Christmas would be kept for generations upon generations.
my next post I’ll focus on one of the essential elements in a Dickens
Christmas, something I believe we all should include in our holiday
The Real Business of Christmas
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.”
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
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!”
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)
sooner had Fred left his uncle alone than “two portly gentlemen,
pleasant to behold” dropped in on Mr. Scrooge. One explained his
“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
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.”
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:
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:
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
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
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
“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”
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
“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
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.
The First “Ebenezer Scrooge”
If I were to tell you that Charles Dickens wrote a story about a
solitary, crotchety old man who despised both people and Christmas until
some supernatural visitors came to him on Christmas Eve and taught him
to have a new perspective on life, you’d probably say, “Yes, of course,
Ebenezer Scrooge.” But if I were to tell you I wasn’t thinking of
Ebenezer Scrooge at all, but rather of Gabriel Grub, you might be a bit
surprised. So go ahead and be surprised, if you wish, because what I’m
saying is true.
Introducing Gabriel Grub, the First “Scrooge”
In 1836, seven years before he wrote A Christmas Carol, Dickens published a short story as Chapter 29 of The Pickwick Papers.
“The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton” relates the strange
experiences of Gabriel Grub, the sexton (caretaker and gravedigger) for a
church in a rural village, and a literary cousin of Ebenezer Scrooge.
According to Dickens, Gabriel Grub was “an ill-conditioned,
cross-grained, surly fellow – a morose and lonely man, who consorted
with nobody but himself.” He had “a deep scowl of malice and ill-humor.”
Sounds like Scrooge, doesn’t he? (Photo: the churchyard of Elmley
Castle Church, Worcestershire, Great Britain)
Christmas Eve, Grub decided to go to the churchyard to dig a grave. As
he walked through the streets of his village, he watched people making
preparations for Christmas parties-parties he wouldn’t even think to
attend, should he have been invited. When he saw children playing games,
Grub amused himself with the thought of “measles, scarlet fever,
thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolations
besides.” If his neighbors offered him a Christmas greeting, Grub
returned “a short, sullen growl,” not “Humbug!” but its preverbal
precursor. When a young lad was singing a Christmas song in the street,
Gabriel Grub cornered the boy and “rapped him over the head with his
lantern five or six times.” As he began digging a grave, Grub cheered
himself with this thought: “A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas box! Ho!
But then Gabriel Grub received a surprise visitor, a
grinning goblin who taunted him with clever dialogue. Soon this goblin
was joined by “a whole troop of goblins” who captured Grub and dragged
him down into the earth. Grub found himself in a cavern with the first
goblin, the “king of goblins,” and his band. They proceeded to show him a
series of scenes that were magically projected in the end of the
cavern. The first scene was of a poor family: many children and their
mother. The children rejoiced when their father joined them. But then
the scene shifted to a bedroom, in which “the fairest and youngest child
lay dying.” “Even as the sexton looked upon him with an interest he had
never felt or known before, the little boy died.” Yet the family had
assurance that their little one was in “happy Heaven.” (The similarity
between this scene and that of Bob Cratchit’s family in A Christmas Carol is striking.)
the magic scene ended, the goblins beat Gabriel Grub, and then showed
him another ghostly video. This sequence of viewings and beatings
happened many times over, and “many a lesson it taught to Gabriel Grub.”
“He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with
lives of labour, were cheerful and happy . . . because they bore within
their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace.” On
the other hand, Gabriel Grub “saw that men like himself, who snarled at
the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the
fair surface of the earth, and setting all the good of the world against
the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and
respectable sort of world after all.” At this point he fell asleep, only
to awake in the churchyard on Christmas morning.
encounter with the goblins, Grub “was an altered man.” Yet “he could not
bear the thought of returning to a place where his repentance would be
scoffed at, and his reformation disbelieved.” So, Gabriel Grub
disappeared from his village for ten years. When he finally returned, he
was “a ragged, contented, rheumatic old man.” The moral of the story,
according to the narrator, was “that if a man turn sulky and drink by
himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the
better for it: let the spirits be never so good.”
Gabriel Grub and Ebenezer Scrooge
the story of Gabriel Grub is like looking at the charcoal sketches of
an artist getting ready to paint a masterpiece. The parallels between
“The Story of the Goblins” and A Christmas Carol are obvious: a
solitary, nasty old man not only refuses to celebrate Christmas, but
also spurns the greetings of those who do, and even tries to hurt a boy
who sings a Christmas carol. On Christmas Eve, this man receives
unexpected supernatural visitors who proceed to show him many scenes of
life, including a moving scene of a poor, loving family whose youngest
child is terribly ill. In the end, the man is changed by this
experience. These are some of the obvious parallels between the story of
Gabriel Grub and that of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Of course there are also many differences between “The Story of the Goblins” and A Christmas Carol.
One of the most striking differences emerges when we compare
conclusions. Whereas Gabriel Grub slunk away out of fear that the
townspeople would laugh at him, Ebenezer Scrooge resolved to live a
changed life. After the Ghost of Christmas Future revealed to Scrooge
his own sorry death, Scrooge exclaimed: “I will honour Christmas in my
heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the
Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within
me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” And so he did.
in light of the tale of Gabriel Grub, who ran away from town for fear
of people’s laughing scorn, let’s read once again from the conclusion to
A Christmas Carol. Scrooge had just promised to Bob Cratchit
that he would raise his salary and help his struggling family. After
this Dickens writes:
Scrooge was better than his word. He
did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he
was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and
as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city,
town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the
alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he
was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for
good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the
outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought
it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as
have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and
that was quite enough for him.
Both in “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” and in A Christmas Carol,
Dickens recognizes that people will laugh when a person is transformed
from bad to good. Yet, whereas fear of this response kept Gabriel Grub
in bondage, Scrooge was able to transcend it. “His own heart laughed:
and that was quite enough for him.” Just as Gabriel Grub recognized that
people must have happiness in their hearts, and that this helps them
overcome life’s difficulties, so it was with Ebenezer Scrooge.
the differences between Grub and Scrooge suggest a tantalizing
question: Why did Ebenezer Scrooge change? And why did he change so
thoroughly that he didn’t even mind if people were to laugh at him? To
these questions I’ll return in my next post in this series.
“Ebenezer Scrooge” – The Meaning of the Name
What Made Scrooge Scrooge?
If you call somebody a Scrooge today, everybody will know what you mean.
You’re implying that someone is miserly, grumpy, and selfish,
especially but not only during Christmastime.
Soon I want to
examine what made Ebenezer Scrooge change from being, well, Scrooge, to
being a generous man who loved both people and Christmas. But before I
get to this, I want to consider what turned the human being named
Ebenezer Scrooge into the archetypal mean-spirited miser.
realize this question is more of a 21st century question than a 19th
century question. It’s only been in recent times that we’ve become
fascinated, one might say, obsessed by psychological causes of behavior.
Yet, even though Charles Dickens didn’t supply a lengthy biography of
Scrooge, we can nevertheless discover some of what made him the man he
became. This knowledge may also help us to understand what unmade and
Scrooge’s Difficult Childhood
Most of what formed the soul of Ebenezer Scrooge appears in Stave 2 of A Christmas Carol,
when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge images of his past
experiences. Our very first view of the younger Scrooge comes as he sits
alone in his boarding school on Christmas Eve. He is “a solitary child,
neglected by his friends.” Seeing his young, abandoned self, the grown
up Scrooge sobs with a peculiar kind of empathy. The only joy in this
lonely boy’s life comes from fantasy books. (Photo: The first page of
the original edition of A Christmas Carol.)
next scene from Scrooge’s past begins, once again, when he is abandoned
by the other boys who had gone home for Christmas. But this time
Ebenezer receives a surprise visit from his sister, Fan. She brings the
good news that Ebenezer will be coming home for Christmas, and even
beyond that. Here’s a bit of the dialogue:
‘Home, little Fan?’ returned the boy.
said the child, brimful of glee. ‘Home, for good and all. Home, for
ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s
like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to
bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home;
and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And
you’re to be a man!’ said the child, opening her eyes,’and are never to
come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Christmas long,
and have the merriest time in all the world.’
In this short paragraph, we learn some crucial facts about Ebenezer Scrooge’s sorry childhood:
â€¢ He had been sent away from home to a boarding school.
â€¢ His father used to be cruel.
â€¢ He had previously been left alone at school for Christmas.
â€¢ His mother was dead (implied, since she isn’t mentioned at all).
bits of data begin to explain why Scrooge became Scrooge. But the next
scene in Scrooge’s past shows that he hadn’t been completely corrupted
by his difficult childhood. In this scene, he is serving as an
apprentice for a fun-loving, generous man named Fezziwig. Ebenezer
appears to have thrived under Fezziwig’s tutelage, and also been close
to his fellow apprentice, Dick Wilkins. We have no hint of the selfish,
Christmas-hating man whom Scrooge became.
Scrooge’s Young Adulthood
something happened after Scrooge’s apprenticeship under Fezziwig that
changed his heart for the worse. We learn about this from the next scene
in Scrooge’s past. There his fiancÃ©e informs Ebenezer that she is to
break their engagement. Why? Because “another idol has displaced me,”
she explains. And this idol is “a golden one,” which Dickens calls
“Gain” and we would call “Greed.” The dialogue continues:
says,] “There is nothing on which [the world] is so hard as poverty;
and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the
pursuit of wealth!”
“You fear the world too much,” she answered,
gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond
the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations
fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have
Scrooge has become the tight-fisted,
hard-as-nails man who cares only about financial gain. What has driven
him to this? Partly it’s his recognition of how difficult poverty is.
This came for Scrooge, as it did for Charles Dickens, from his own
bitter experience. And it has led him to be consumed, not just by
materialism, but also by fear. He is so afraid of poverty’s lash that he
has abandoned his “nobler aspirations,” including the desire to marry
the woman he loves and who had once loved him.
No doubt the
rejection Scrooge experienced from his fiancÃ©e hardened his heart still
further. Love itself was to be scorned, which is exactly what Scrooge
had done in the Stave 1, when his nephew admitted to marrying because he
fell in love: “‘Because you fell in love!’ growled Scrooge, as if that
were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry
The hard-hearted, grasping Scrooge found strength and
solace in the social philosophy of his day, which thought of the poor
as deserving their sorry fate, and even as being a threat to the
well-being of the world. When, in Stave 1, Scrooge rejects the request
of the two “portly gentlemen” for a charitable gift for the poor, he
suggests that the poor might die “and decrease the surplus population.”
Here Scrooge echoes the views of the influential economist Thomas
Malthus, whose theories would have allowed a man like Scrooge to defend
his greed and lack of compassion for the poor.
What Made Scrooge Scrooge?
what made Scrooge Scrooge? You start with an unhappy childhood: mother
dead; cruel father; sent away from home to overly strict boarding
schools; no friends among classmates; only solace in books; the only
student not going home for Christmas. Then you throw in a strong fear of
poverty along with a growing love for the safety represented by
material gain. Add the rejection of a fiancÃ©e. And top it off with
popular philosophy that praises acquisitiveness and derides the poor as
deserving of their condition. What have you got? Scrooge! Scrooge: whose
heart has been squeezed by the impact of a sorry life and his own sorry
choices. Scrooge: who squeezes his hand around the only thing that
gives him meaning and security in life . . . money.
So if this
explains, at least in part, how Scrooge became Scrooge, now the question
is: What caused Scrooge to change? To this question I will turn in my
next post in this series.
Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave I
As A Christmas Carol begins, Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most
unlikable characters in all of literature. Here, once again, is the full
version of Charles Dickens’s classic description:
But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a 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 on 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.
love that description? Now there’s a man in need of an attitude
adjustment, or, indeed, a life adjustment. And that’s exactly what
happened to Ebenezer Scrooge, and in less than 100 pages! By the end of
the story, here’s the new Scrooge:
Scrooge was better
than his word [to Bob Cratchit concerning help for his family]. He did
it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a
second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good
a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or
borough, in the good old world. . . . [A]nd it was always said of him,
that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the
What in the world can explain such a transformation? Why was Scrooge able to change? How did it happen?
might begin by saying that nothing in this world can account for the
transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. He needed, and indeed, received
supernatural assistance. The change in Scrooge is a direct result of the
impact of four ghosts upon him, the spirit of his departed colleague
Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. The
metamorphosis of a man like Ebenezer Scrooge requires other-worldly
influence. In this regard, Ebenezer Scrooge is like his literary
forefather Gabriel Grub (see my post entitled “The First Ebenezer
Scrooge”), though Scrooge was haunted by ghosts rather than goblins.
And, unlike poor Grub, Scrooge didn’t get physically pummeled into
submission. The ghosts worked on Scrooge’s heart, not his body.
wasn’t the mere fact of ghostly visitors that changed Scrooge, however,
as if he had been scared into repentance. Rather, it was what he
experienced with the spirits that made all the difference. Indeed, the
ghosts weren’t really necessary for Scrooge’s transformation. It could
have all been just a dream with the same result, although would have
been much less fun.
The Impact of the Spirit of Jacob Marley
Before Scrooge is
visited by Jacob Marley, he shows not the slightest bit of kindness or
tenderness. His heart is hard. His focus is utterly self-centered. He
has nothing to offer others but scorn and an occasional “Humbug!” Inhis
interaction with Marley’s ghost, however, Scrooge first shows the
tiniest morsel of positive feeling to anyone.
When the ghost of
Jacob Marley visits Scrooge, he at first doubts the veracity of his
visitor. In one of my favorite lines from A Christmas Carol, Scrooge
argues that his vision is probably “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of
mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s
more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Yet with loud
cries and a horrifying change of appearance, Marley’s ghost prevails
upon Scrooge’s good sense, who finally believes that the ghost is real.
first response to this recognition is fear and trembling. His fear
grows when he learns that he is destined to wear even heavier
post-mortem chains than the onerous ones that Marley himself is forced
to carry. “Speak comfort to me, Jacob,” Scrooge begs, in his first real
demonstration of some sort of human vulnerability. Yet Marley can offer
no real comfort. (Photo: “Marley’s Ghost” by John Leech, from the first
edition of A Christmas Carol).
we catch a glimpse of a speck of tenderness in Ebenezer Scrooge, though
it is completely self-centered. He desires comfort because he is
terrified to learn about the Hell that awaits him after death. Thus, the
frozen heart of Scrooge begins to thaw just a smidgen, even if his
feeling is still egocentric.
As Marley continues, he explains
that he has come to warn Scrooge so that he might escape Marley’s dire
fate, “a chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.” To this Scrooge
responds, “You were always a good friend to me, . . . Thank’ee.” Here is
the first bit of tenderheartedness directed by Scrooge to someone other
What begins to thaw the frosty heart of Ebenezer
Scrooge? It’s the fact that Marley has acted to help Scrooge. It’s
Marley’s gift of undeserved kindness that first touches Scrooge’s soul.
Undeserved kindness. Theologians
call this grace. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Marley
extended grace to his former partner. In no way did Marley owe Scrooge
anything. And there’s no reason to believe that Marley stood to gain
anything for himself in helping Scrooge, other than, perhaps, the sense
of having made a positive difference in Scrooge’s life (and afterlife).
Moreover, in no way whatsoever had Scrooge done anything to deserve
Marley’s help. Marley’s intervention was simply an act of grace. In
fact, it was a demonstration of what theologians call prevenient grace.
grace is, simply, grace that comes before anything we do. Prevenient
grace takes the initiative. It gets the ball of transformation rolling.
The fact that God’s grace is prevenient makes all the difference in the
world. It means that we cannot do anything to earn God’s favor, nor must
we. It means that God’s favor is given first, and everything we do for
good is in some measure a response to that prevenient grace.
Dickens was not an enthusiastic Christian-his own faith seemed to be
more of a romantic, deistic, Unitarian variety-his anthropology bore
much in common with his evangelical contemporaries (of whom he was not
particularly fond). According to both Dickens and the evangelicals,
human transformation comes as a result of grace, grace that is
communicated through a supernatural agent. Of course in the Christian
case, grace comes from God, not a human ghost, and is delivered through
the Holy Spirit, not the spirit of a dead colleague. Jacob Marley
doesn’t appear in Scripture when I last checked. So when it comes to
theology, A Christmas Carol isn’t especially Christian. But Dickens’s
understanding of human nature is surprisingly similar to the Christian
perspective in some ways. We change in response to grace, with the help
of a supernatural spirit.
Though Scrooge’s initial experience of
grace softens his stony heart just a bit, it hardly transforms it. This
arduous task remains for the spirits of Christmas past, present, and
future. To their work I’ll return in my next post in this series.
Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave II
In my last post, I began to examine A Christmas Carol to discover
why Ebenezer Scrooge changed so dramatically. I showed that we see the
tiniest hint of his transformation in his interaction with the ghost of
Jacob Marley, whose graciousness to Scrooge elicited a morsel of
gratitude from the old miser. Yet Marley’s impact would be most keenly
felt, not in his visit, but in his sending three other spirits to
The Impact of the Ghost of Christmas Past
The Ghost of
Christmas Past is a strange apparition who explains the purpose of his
visit as Scrooge’s “welfare,” or, indeed, his “reclamation.” This
process begins with an easily overlooked but crucial interchange between
Scrooge and the Spirit. When the Spirit clasps Scrooge’s arm and begins
to lead him towards the window, Scrooge resists, saying, “I am a
mortal, and liable to fall.” Notice carefully the spirit’s response:
“‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon
his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!’” The Spirit
touches, not just Scrooge’s arm, but also his heart. And Scrooge would
be upheld, not only in his supernatural travels, but also in the opening
of his tightly-shut heart.
Then the Spirit magically transports
Scrooge to the place where he spent his boyhood. The sights and sounds
of his youth begin to soften Scrooge’s heart. Yet the Spirit has only
started his transforming effort. Next Scrooge sees his fellow students
merrily on their way to celebrate Christmas. The school is deserted, all
except for one boy, “a solitary child, neglected by his friends.” It is
Scrooge, of course, left alone with nothing to cheer him but the
characters from his beloved books. The old man weeps bitter tears for
the child he once was. For the first time in a long time he feels
compassion for someone else, even if that “someone else” is really just
an earlier version of himself. Yet, as he feels for himself as a boy,
Scrooge also shows the first glimmer of care for another human being as
well: “There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night,”
he explains to the ghost. “I should like to have given him something.”
Ironically, Scrooge had almost given that boy something – a rap with his
On some Christmas Eve following the time of his isolation
in the school, the young Scrooge receives a visit from Fan, his beloved
sister. (Dickens himself had a sister named Fanny.) Fan informs
Ebenezer that he can come home for Christmas. (Years later Fan dies,
leaving behind a child-the nephew Fred whom Scrooge had so badly
mistreated only hours before.) (Photo: “Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball” by John
Leech, from the first edition of A Christmas Carol.)
this tender family scene, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to
the warehouse of Old Fezziwig, to whom Scrooge had once been
apprenticed. The mere sight of his generous old master brings joy to
Scrooge’s heart. Then, as he witnesses a grand Christmas party, “Scrooge
had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the
scene. . . .” When the Ghost challenges Fezziwig’s actions, Scrooge
defends his generosity. And, once again, this begins to be translated
into a desire to be generous in his own life: “I should like to be able
to say a word or two to my clerk just now,” Scrooge says.
next scene is not a happy one for Scrooge. He watches as his fiancÃ©e,
Belle, breaks their engagement, recognizing that Ebenezer loves money
far more than he loves her. Then the Ghost shows Scrooge one more scene,
in which a Belle is much older, with a husband and daughter. Their
family love stands in stark contrast to Scrooge’s own miserly
loneliness. At this, Scrooge begs to be removed. “I cannot bear it!” he
How Do the Events of Stave II Transform Scrooge?
all of this help to transform the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge? His journey
starts at a most curious place, with Scrooge looking upon himself as a
lonely child. It’s as if Dickens realizes that even hard-hearted people
might have the tiniest soft spot for themselves and their own suffering.
One might almost be tempted to say that Scrooge is acting out a sort of
psychological Golden Rule, loving himself so that he might love others
as well. From a psychotherapeutic angle, Scrooge is getting in touch
with his inner child.
The vision of the Fezziwigs’ party not only
lures Scrooge into a bit of vicarious celebration, but also it forces
him to reexamine his own values. Mr. Fezziwig, whom the old Scrooge
continues to hold in high regard, saw fit to spend a bit of money for
the sake of others. “The happiness he gives,” Scrooge insists, “is quite
as great as if it cost a fortune.” There’s more to life than money, the
old miser begins to realize for the first time in a long time.
Ghost of Christmas past, beyond conjuring up within Scrooge feelings of
nostalgia and celebration, helps him see-and feel-the harsh contrast
between love and loneliness. Love figures prominently in his boyhood
encounter with his sister Fan. Remembering her love for him-and his for
her-makes Scrooge’s grouchy rejection of Fan’s son Fred all the more
grievous. Moreover, the scenes featuring Belle press into Scrooge’s
heart the lack of love in his own life. Where Scrooge had once felt
genuine love (from and for Fan, from and for Belle), he had chosen to
cut himself off from this love, whether with his former fiancÃ©e, or with
Fred. He realizes he has made poor choices for his life, and he starts
to wish for something better.
It’s interesting to me that Scrooge
doesn’t reject all of this as a bunch of maudlin nonsense. What, I
wonder, gives him the ability to see, really to see, his life as it
truly was? And what gives him the ability to feel emotions that had for
so long been absent from his heart? Yes, seeing himself as a hurting
young boy might very well have opened Scrooge’s heart a bit. But this
might not have happened were in not for the earlier intervention of the
Spirit, when he touched Scrooge’s heart and promised that he would be
“upheld” in more than just their other-worldly travel.
What can transform a stony heart?
For Charles Dickens, the answer has several layers. Nostalgia for the
past seems to help. Looking afresh at one’s life makes a difference.
Supernatural assistance contributes. But, at the core, love changes
people. Love, not of the romantic sort, but of the compassionate,
self-giving variety, transforms hearts. When Scrooge witnesses the love
of his sister Fan and his master Fezziwig, something happens inside of
him. And when he sees how he spurned the love of his former fiancÃ©e and
how happy she is with a loving husband and daughter, Scrooge realizes
how much he has lost be shutting his heart to love.
again, Dickens’s anthropology is virtually Christian. Christians believe
that ultimate transformation in life comes as we experience God’s love
for us given through Jesus Christ. Over a century before Charles Dickens
wrote A Christmas Carol, another Englishman had something to say
about the power of love to transform one’s life. Consider how these
words of hymn writer Isaac Watts express something like what happened to
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride. . . .
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
the Christian, the deepest and most transforming kind of love is
celebrated, not at Christmas, but on Good Friday. Christmas is what
makes Good Friday possible, as the Son of God chooses to love by
enduring the cross.
Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave III
When we last left Ebenezer Scrooge, he had just finished being visited
by the first of three Christmas Spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past. He
fell into bed, exhausted. At the beginning of Stave III, Scrooge
awakes, ready for the visit of the next of the three Spirits. This
visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Present, a giant being who exudes the
extravagant joy of Christmas (picture Hagrid in a Santa Suit having just
eaten way too many Christmas cookies). Though at first hesitant to look
at this Spirit, soon Scrooge shows how his heart has begun to change:
“Spirit,” said Scrooge submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went
forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working
now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”
(“The Ghost of Christmas Present” by John Leech from the first edition
of A Christmas Carol.)
his older brother, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Ebenezer
Scrooge many scenes of Christmas. Here Dickens is at his “Dickensiest”
in lavish descriptions of food and festivity, all of which accentuate
the joyfulness of Christmas. At first an observer of such delights, in
time Scrooge begins to participate in the Christmas games as if he were
actually present in the celebrations. He does this most of all as he
watches the Christmas party of his nephew, Fred, who, in spite of having
been mistreated by his uncle the day before, nevertheless wishes
Scrooge a Merry Christmas.
What has turned Scrooge into a man
who delights in Christmas parties? His observation of genuine
celebration leads, it seems, to an openhearted desire to become an
enthusiastic celebrator. Dickens believes that festivity, especially of
the pure-hearted variety, is contagious.
The Impact of the Crachit Family
Yet what touches Scrooge’s
heart in Stave III isn’t merely his looking upon numerous Christmas
parties. One scene in particular has special impact upon his soul. It
comes as he observes the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Though this
family has little in the way of money, they abound in love and joy. The
center of their passion is Tiny Tim, the Cratchit’s sickly little boy,
who walked with a crutch and was supported by “an iron frame.” This
sweet boy may have a crippled body, but his heart is bigger and stronger
than most. He’s the one, after all, who offers the generous wish: “God
bless us every one!”
Viewing Tiny Tim in his weakened state, Scrooge asks the Spirit “if Tiny Tim will live.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future,” the Spirit responds, “the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
which the Spirit quotes Scrooges own words from Stave 1: “If he be like
to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Confronted in this way, “Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words
quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.”
at this point in the story, Bob Cratchit offers a toast to Mr. Scrooge,
“the Founder of the Feast.” Even though his family is none too happy to
drink to Mr. Scrooge’s health, they dutifully follow their father’s
lead. Thus compacted into a minute’s worth of action, Scrooge feels
compassion for Tiny Tim, learns that he will die unless something
unexpected happens, is confronted by his former hard-heartedness,
repents profoundly, and then witnesses the extraordinary grace of his
mistreated clerk, Bob Cratchit. Now that’s a formula for personal
Dickens uses Tiny Tim, perhaps more than any
other character, to warm the icy heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. This
reflects Dickens’s own experience of being touched by children,
especially their suffering. I noted earlier in this series that the
first sign of tenderness in Scrooge comes as he observes his own
childhood loneliness. This prepares him to be compassionate with other
children. Dickens once wrote to a friend, “Certainly there is nothing
more touching than the suffering of a child, nothing more overwhelming” (Annotated Christmas Carol, p. 97).
The Strange Ending of Stave III
Dickens’ conviction about
the suffering of children no doubt explains the bizarre and unexpected
conclusion to Stave III. As the Ghost of Christmas Present nears the end
of his mission to save Scrooge, he reveals two children hiding beneath
his robe. They are “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.”
Who are these emaciated beings? “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is
Want.” Their presence calls forth compassion from Scrooge, who asks,
“Have they no refuge or resource?” Once again the spirit hurls Scrooge’s
own words back in his face: “Are there no prisons? Are there no
workhouses?” And with this, the Ghost of Christmas Past disappears along
with his pitiful children.
So what in Stave III contributes to
the transformation of Scrooge’s heart? I’ll answer this question in my
next post and add some theological reflections.
Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave III (Part 2)
In yesterday’s post, I began considering what in Stave III contributes
to the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart. I summarized the
events of Stave 3, focusing especially on Scrooge’s response to children
in need: Tiny Tim of the Cratchit family and the two wretched children
who hide under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Today I want
to offer some conclusions and reflections on the events of Stave III.
What in Stave III Contributes to the Transformation of Scrooge?
in this stave contributes to the transformation of Scrooge’s heart?
Partly, it’s the observation of Christmas celebrations, especially those
of common folk, most of all the poor, who, in spite of their material
deprivation, enjoy the jovial spirit of Christmas. (Photo: John Leech’s
drawing of Want and Ignorance in the first edition of A Christmas Carol.)
even more powerful than this observation is Scrooge’s vision of
children who suffer (Tiny Tim and the two children who hide under the
robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Want and Ignorance). Like
Dickens, Scrooge finds himself moved by the plight of a child in need.
Yet the Spirit of Christmas Present doesn’t merely allow Scrooge’s heart
to be touched by childhood pain. He also confronts Scrooge twice with
his own words of scorn for the poor. In response to the first of these,
Scrooge repents with much sadness. We don’t know of how he responds to
the second confrontation, however, because the Ghost of Christmas Yet to
Come Makes his appearance before Dickens can relate Scrooge’s feelings.
Stave III, Scrooge also witnesses people whom he has treated poorly
extending grace to him. His nephew, Fred, and his clerk, Bob, both drink
to Scrooge on Christmas and wish him well. The scene at Fred’s party
ends this way:
“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
to the old man, whatever he is!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “He wouldn’t
take it from me, but may he have it, nevertheless. Uncle Scrooge!”
Scrooge had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart, that he
would have pledged the unconscious company in return, and thanked them
in an inaudible speech, if the Ghost had given him time.
Grace is invading Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart.
Sometimes I think Dickens has too
much confidence in the power of celebration to thaw Scrooge’s heart.
Yet, I have seen this sort of thing happen. For example, during my
tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, perhaps the
strangest worship service of the year occurred on the Sunday following
our Vacation Bible School week. In our Sunday worship services, worship
leaders dressed in costume and led children’s songs with lots of hand
motions. The children were exuberant in their worship and predictably
wiggly and noisy during times of prayer and Scripture reading. The
“sermon” was a dramatic sketch in which I and a couple of my colleagues
are dressed up as wacky characters who inevitably discovered the truth
of the Gospel in spite of our silliness.
loved VBS Sunday. No surprise here. But what about the grown ups? When
we first did VBS Sunday this way, I was afraid that some of our more
sedate and refined adults would be upset. Was I ever wrong! They loved
it just as much as the children, in some ways even more. There was
something about the unsophisticated celebrations of children that
allowed even very grown up people to rejoice, sometimes even clapping
their hands or joining the children in their hand motions during songs.
So, given the right circumstances, I do think that celebration,
especially that of children, can be contagious. (Photo: My partners and I
are VBS pirates. Arrrrgh!)
I also agree with Dickens that the
suffering of children, perhaps even more than their celebration, can
open hearts in a unique way. Consider, for example, the case of African
children orphaned because of AIDS. Their tragedy has touched the hearts
of millions, even people who might have been reticent to care about the
HIV/AIDS crisis because of its association with sexual immorality.
Moreover, World Vision
and other charitable organizations have found that people will give
generously to help hungry children even when they might be less inclined
to help equally hungry adults. If you go to World Vision’s website,
you’ll find pictures of struggling children, along with ways to
contribute to their well-being. When I visited the website today, a
giant headline on the page read: “SPONSORING A CHILD is the greatest
give you can give this Christmas.” But you won’t find any pictures of
adults in similar distress. This is not an accident. Partly it reflects
World Vision’s laudable focus on children. It also reflects a realistic
judgment of what moves people to give. I’m not criticizing World Vision
for this, please understand. In fact, my family and I regularly
contribute to World Vision. If you are looking for a place to make a
special year-end gift, I can think of no better one. My point is simply
that children in need can open the hearts of people like nobody or
Dickens is right to realize that compassion alone
won’t change people’s hearts, however. The Ghost of Christmas Present
rightly confronts Scrooge with his own hard-heartedness, that which
Christians call sin. Scrooge needs, not just an infusion of kindness,
but a complete change of heart. And this requires repentance and
Once again, I see Dickens’s understanding of human
nature to be much in accord with Christian anthropology. Christians
believe that the transformation of human beings requires repentance. In
fact, we believe that a Spirit, in this case, the Holy Spirit of God,
brings conviction of sin so that we might turn to God (see John
The complete transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t
happen at the end of Stave III, however. More is still needed. To this I
will turn in my next post in this series.
Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave IV
The final Spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the “Ghost of Christmas
Yet To Come” or simply the “Ghost of the Future.” This silent Spirit,
shrouded in black, takes the mythic form of death. Not surprisingly, the
visions it reveals to Scrooge also focus upon death and its meaning.
largest portion of Stave 4, which is shorter than Staves 2 and 3,
describes various reactions to the death of some unknown figure. At
first, several men of business talk about this man’s death with curious
indifference. Then Scrooge observes three people who robbed the dead man
and are selling their booty in creepy part of town. Of course the
reader guesses that the deceased victim is none other than Scrooge
himself, but this doesn’t occur to Scrooge at this stage in the story,
or, at any rate, he is unwilling to acknowledge what he senses. In fact,
when he stands next to the covered body of the dead man, Scrooge is
unable to lift the covering and discover whose body lies beneath it. He
just can’t bring himself to face his own mortality.
touching scene in Stave 4 involves the Cratchit family, minus Tiny Tim,
who has just died. Their shared grief is almost tangible as they try
nevertheless to enjoy a bit of Christmas cheer. Even so, Bob Cratchit
breaks down with sadness, crying out “My little child!” Before Scrooge
leaves the Cratchits, the family members resolve never to forget Tiny
Tim, whom the narrator addresses: “Spirit of Tiny Tim, they childish
essence was from God.” (Photo: “The Last of the Spirits.” Illustration
by John Leech in the first edition of A Christmas Carol.)
the final scene of this stave, Scrooge demands that the Spirit reveal
the identity of the mysterious dead man. Soon Scrooge stands in a
deserted graveyard, directed by the Spirit’s pointing finger to a
neglected grave, the stone of which reads “Ebenezer Scrooge.” The
horrified Scrooge realizes the sum total of his life, which amounts to
zero (or less). He will die unloved and unnoticed, unless he chooses a
different course of living from that moment on.
This is exactly
what Scrooge resolves to do, even though the Spirit refuses to assure
him that his life is redeemable: “Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at
its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I
must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past
all hope? . . . I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it
all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The
Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the
lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on
Yet the Spirit doesn’t speak, and, as Scrooge attempts to hold him, the Spirit turns into a bedpost, Scrooge’s own bedpost.
One might wonder why Dickens associates the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come with death. Michael Hearn, in The Annotated Christmas Carol, cites something Dickens wrote eight years after A Christmas Carol was first published:
all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon
Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us.
City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together
at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the
promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, they people who are dear to
us!” (Hearn, p. 126)
Dickens seems to have experienced
Christmas in the way many others do, as a time for remembering loved
ones who have died. Therefore Christmas itself can lead to the
remembrance of death. What appears to have altered Scrooge’s character,
however, is not merely the fact of his mortality, but also the fact that
his sad death accentuates the worthlessness of his life. The
revelations of the Spirit make clear to Scrooge the emptiness of his
life as seen from a post mortem perspective.
it seems to me, does have a way of refocusing our vision, helping us
see what matters most in life. I’ve frequently had this experience as I
participate in memorial services, something I have done quite often as a
pastor. Considering the death of someone else and the things said about
that person after death cause me to examine the value of my own life.
When my days on this earth have passed, will I have lived my life to the
fullest? What will people say about me when my life has passed?
confronting one’s own mortality can, indeed, lead to personal
transformation. I think of people I’ve known who have had serious
cancer, and who, in the aftermath, have decided to live with new
priorities. Yet Christians believe that moving from death to life isn’t
something we can will into existence, but requires the regenerating work
of God. Indeed, we all need a Spirit, not a Christmas Spirit, but the
Holy Spirit of God, to give us new life.
Finally, the theme of
“death within Christmas” is also central to Christian theology. Though
we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we remember that his birth
was a precursor to his death on the cross. It’s common to interpret the
gift of myrrh as a symbolic foretaste of Christ’s death, since myrrh
was used for embalming (see John 19:39). So, from a Christian point of
view, the presence of death in A Christmas Carol makes sense.
Evidence of Scrooge’s Changed Life: Stave V
When we left Ebenezer Scrooge in my last post of this series, he had
come to the end of the visits by the Spirits of Christmas past, present,
and future. In response to these visits, he promised to be a changed
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep
it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.
The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the
lessons that they teach.”
Stave V, the final section of A Christmas Carol, reveals that Scrooge wasn’t lying or exaggerating. He was indeed a new man.
first evidence of his transformation is his giddy enjoyment of life.
He’s almost crazy with joy, especially when he finds out that it’s
Christmas day. This stands in stark contrast to the gruff negativity of
the former Scrooge.
Apart from silly excitement, what is the
first evidence Dickens supplies of Scrooge’s renewal? Generosity, of
course. Charity. Given what we’ve seen earlier in this series, namely
Dickens’s association of Christmas with helping the poor, we are not
surprised that the new Scrooge jumps at the chance to help the family of
his clerk, Bob Cratchit, by sending them a giant turkey for their
Christmas dinner. Calling this “charity” doesn’t quite get the feel of
Scrooge’s action, however. “Playful charity” might be a better
description, since he intends to surprise the Cratchits and not even
reveal his identity as their patron.
Soon, however, Scrooge’s
benevolence takes a more serious and costly turn. As he’s walking the
streets, wishing everyone he sees a “Merry Christmas,” Scrooge spies the
two “portly gentlemen” who had visited him the previous day, seeking
his help for the poor. That was not a pleasant encounter, of course,
since Scrooge dismissed the men without the tiniest gift. But the new
Scrooge not only greets the two gentlemen warmly, but also offers a
surprisingly large financial gift.
The next evidence of Scrooge’s
transformation is easily lost if one reads too quickly. It’s not often
picked up in dramatic presentations of A Christmas Carol, though
it figures prominently in the 1999 film starring Patrick Stewart as
Scrooge. Dickens writes simply, “He went to church.” Since we don’t have
more to go on than this, we shouldn’t imagine that Scrooge has
experienced some sort of religious conversion. Yet Dickens hints that,
in some way or another, Scrooge has a new interest in God, or at least
in religious observance at Christmas time.
Scrooge visits his nephew Fred, asking to join him and his wife for
Christmas dinner. Together they experience, in Dickens’s inimitable
description: “Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity,
The last scene in A Christmas Carol
mirrors the opening scene, with Scrooge in his office. He hopes to
catch Bob Cratchit coming in late, and his wish is fulfilled. Scrooge
uses this opportunity to scare poor Bob half to death with his newfound
generosity and Christmas joy. He promises to raise Bob’s salary and help
his family. (Photo: John Leech’s illustration from the first edition of
A Christmas Carol. Scrooge and Bob Cratchit enjoy some “smoking bishop” as they discuss Cratchit’s job and family.)
The closing paragraphs of A Christmas Carol
explain that “Scrooge was better than his word.” He became like a
second father to Tiny Tim. Moreover, he “became as good a friend, as
good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any
other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Yes, from
then on Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well,” but his
transformation wasn’t limited to one day or one season. Rather, he
fulfilled his promise “keep Christmas all year,” both in his joviality
and in his generosity.
So what evidence do we have of Scrooge’s
transformation? Most simply, we see joy, generosity, and childlike
playfulness. Earlier in this series I explained how central children
were to Dickens’ heart, especially his heart for the poor. The suffering
of children touched him more than any other suffering. At the end of A Christmas Carol,
Dickens shows that if people allow their hearts to be transformed by
children, not only will they care for needy children, but also they will
become childlike. Even Scrooge’s generosity has an innocent, playful
dimension as he surprises both Bob Cratchit and the portly gentlemen.
more, I’m impressed with the extent to which Dickens’ understanding of
human life is similar to my own Christian point of view. Transformation,
for Dickens and for the Christian, has both internal and external
aspects. It’s a matter both of feeling and of action. The new Scrooge
feels new. But he also takes tangible steps to act in new ways in the
world, principally through financial generosity and general kindness.
This is the sort of thing that happens when a person is transformed, not
by Christmas Spirits, but by the Spirit of God.
Though I don’t
want to be a humbug sort of person, I should say that we have no
evidence that Scrooge made any attempt to right the social wrongs of his
day apart from his commitment to private generosity. We don’t see
Scrooge becoming a crusader for the right of the poor to, say, a decent
education. Of course we don’t see much of anything about Scrooge’s
transformed life. I’m simply pointing out that Scrooge’s generosity,
however laudatory, is not explicitly tied to any effort to help the poor
in more structural ways. His transformation may have changed his
private relationships, but it may also have left his politics intact.
do think Dickens is right in his notion that a softened heart is a
childlike heart. Jesus himself says that one must become like a child in
order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Though I’m pretty sure he wasn’t
thinking of playfulness at Christmas, Jesus rightly saw that a life
renewed by God has an essential childlike aspect to it. The more our
hearts are touched by the Spirit of God, the more we are able to be like
children: trusting, free, expressive, spontaneous, enthusiastic,
joyful. I’d like to be this sort of person, even more in 2011 than I was
in 2010. I don’t need any ghostly visitors, however. Yet I do need to
pay more attention to the third member of the Trinity, the one we used
to call the Holy Ghost. The Spirit of God is able to do in reality what
the Spirits of Christmas were able to do in fiction, and much, much
What Changed Ebenezer Scrooge? What Changes Us?
I’m finally ready to answer the question that has guided most of this series on A Christmas Carol: Why did Ebenezer Scrooge change? Today I want to sum up what we’ve discovered and make some connections to our own experience.
Transformation begins when something interrupts our ordinary experience.
at least a couple dozen years, Ebenezer Scrooge had been a committed
grouch, miser, and Christmas-hater. But then something interrupted his
otherwise ordinary experience. In his case, the interruption was
supernatural: the spirit of Jacob Marley and the three Spirits of
Christmas past, present, and future. These Spirits forced Scrooge out of
his rut and propelled him along a life-changing path. (Photo: An
autographed manuscript of A Christmas Carol. From the Morgan Library and Museum.)
seen this sort of thing happen time and again in life. People are going
along their merry way when all of a sudden something causes them to
veer off their established path. Sometimes it’s an unexpected blessing: a
new job, a new love, a new friend. Often, perhaps most commonly, the
catalyst for change is something unwelcome, at least at first, such as
cancer, marital conflict, or being laid off.
Transformation comes through pain.
Ebenezer Scrooge’s momentous night, he frequently felt pain: the pain
of having been a lonely boy, the pain of his broken engagement, the pain
of suffering children, the pain of his own wasted life. This pain was
essential to Scrooge’s transformation in a number of ways. For one
thing, it warmed his frozen heart, helping him to feel things had had
not felt for ages. Yet pain also caused Scrooge to desire a different
life, a life filled with the joys of living.
In my pastoral
experience, people are rarely interested in renewal when they’re happy
with their lives. When everything’s great, they’re understandably
pleased to stay on their familiar course. But if that course leads to
suffering, then they’re all of a sudden interested in God.
unfortunately, that pain-driven interest is short-lived. I think of a
couple who had been irregularly involved in my church in Irvine. When
they first started attending many years ago, it was because their
marriage was on the rocks. But when God helped them find healing, they
were happy to return to life apart from Christian community. Then,
several years later, the husband had severe heart problems, ones that
might have been fatal. Once more, he and his wife were eagerly involved
in church. But when the surgery was successful and life got back to
normal, this couple stopped showing up at church. I fully expect that
they’ll return to church when the next crisis hits, but not in the
meanwhile. Pain alone doesn’t forge lasting change in people, however,
though it surely can help.
Transformation comes through children.
is changed because he sees children in a new light, joining in their
celebration and pitying their suffering. The latter was especially
significant for Charles Dickens, who himself felt compassion for the
plight of poor children, in part because he himself had once been in
Children do have way of thawing icy hearts. I’ve
seen this especially in men who are trapped in their inexpressive
machismo until they become fathers. All of a sudden tenderness flows
from their hearts, as if by magic. Or, to cite another example, I think
of how the presence of children can bring joy to senior adults in a
Of course it doesn’t always work this way.
Sometimes cranky people are made even crankier by the noisy gladness of
children. So there’s no guarantee that exposure to children will work
positive change in people. Usually, more is required.
I’ll talk about that “more,” as I finish this discussion of
transformation and wrap up this series on Christmas according to
What Changed Ebenezer Scrooge? What Changes Us? (Part 2)
Yesterday, I began to gather together the strands of this series and
weave some conclusions about what transforms us. I suggested that:
â€¢ Transformation begins when something interrupts our ordinary experience.
â€¢ Transformation comes through pain.
â€¢ Transformation comes through children.
Today I want to add to further reflections on what changes us.
Transformation is a result of seeing with a fresh perspective.
As I explained earlier in this series, seven years before he wrote A Christmas Carol,
Dickens wrote a short story about a grouchy man who is changed through
his interaction with goblins on Christmas Eve. Part of what altered
Gabriel Grub was the beating he took from the goblins. They literally
knocked some sense into him. Scrooge, on the contrary, experiences no
physical pummeling from the Spirits who visit him. They work their
wonders simply by showing Scrooge scenes of Christmas past, present, and
future. This enables Scrooge to see life from a fresh perspective, and
as a result, he resolves to become a changed man.
Part of what
Scrooge saw wasn’t new. In fact, some of it was his own past. Yet he was
seeing from the perspective of an outsider, and this altered his
vision. Part of what Scrooge saw was new to him. For example, prior to
his travels with the Ghost of Christmas Present he had never observed
the Cratchit family’s Christmas celebrations, so joyful even though so
It seems clear that Dickens believed in the transforming power of fresh perspective. He wrote A Christmas Carol
not only because he needed additional income, but also and especially
because he wanted people to experience the joy of Christmas, and
especially the joy that comes from generosity, both in giving and in
receiving. Dickens hoped that his little book would function in the
lives of his readers much as the Spirits functioned in the life of
Ebenezer Scrooge. There is ample evidence that his hopes have been
fulfilled thousands if not millions of times over since 1843.
also witnessed the power of a fresh perspective to change lives. For
example, during my tenure as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church,
several hundred members went to a small community in northern Mexico
called El NiÃ±o in order to assist the poor who live there. When they
returned, they often saw life differently and acted differently too.
They saw in a new way, for example, how richly blessed they were
financially. Many resolved to live more simply and to give away more
than they had before in order to help the poor.
Transformation requires supernatural help.
no question that Ebenezer Scrooge needed supernatural assistance in
order to change his ways. Apart from Jacob Marley’s intervention,
Scrooge would have continued to forge for himself a hellishly-long chain
which he’d be forced to drag about for eternity. Yet because the Spirit
of his former partner interrupted Scrooge and sent the three Christmas
Spirits, Scrooge’s life was renewed.
I’m not enough of an expert
on Dickens to know whether he would agree with the claim that
transformation requires supernatural help. Though he was a theist of
sorts, Dickens didn’t share many of my Christian convictions. He may
have believed that literature, unaided by spirits of any kind, was
powerful enough to effect change in the Ebenezer Scrooges of this world.
Nevertheless, I believe that profound, lasting human transformation
does indeed require supernatural assistance, namely that of the Holy
The good news for those of us who are in need of
transformation, and to some extent that means all of us, is that God’s
Spirit is in the renewal and reformation business. According to the New
Testament, the Holy Spirit “gives life,” offers “renewal,” and leads us
into “new life” (2 Cor 3:6; Titus 3:5; Rom 7:6). The Spirit draws us to
confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:3) and then empowers us to live in a
whole new way (Rom 8). The Spirit of God also helps us see with fresh
perspective, opening our minds and touching our hearts. And, unlike the
Spirits in A Christmas Carol, this Spirit doesn’t disappear when
Christmas is over. Though I’m quite sure it wasn’t Dickens’ intended
purpose, my reading of A Christmas Carol produces in me an
enhanced desire and a more fervent resolve to live this life less by my
own strength and more by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, my own
“Scroogishness” might be transformed, by God’s grace.