Except for the Bible, there isn’t a book I’ve read as many times as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Again except for those found in the Bible, there isn’t a story I’m more familiar with than that of the mean-spirited, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who repents one year during the holidays and ever after knows “how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” And I’ve not only read A Christmas Carol, I’ve watched countless movie and theatre adaptations of the book. Some are great, some merely good, others are best forgotten; some are faithful to a fault, some are updated retellings (I love Bill Murray’s Scrooged), others twist and play with the central idea (none better than Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, about Ebenezer Blackadder who, at the beginning of the movie, is the kindliest man in England). As good as some of them are, though, none of the adaptations can hold even a nineteenth-century candle to the original.
A Christmas Carol begins with a bit of dark humour, an insistence on the unquestionably dead nature of the main character’s friend and partner, Jacob Marley. About this morbid insistence, the narrator tells us that the dark atmosphere is a prelude to something brighter: “[Marley's deadness] must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”
The story he relates is now so familiar to most people that a summary may seem unnecessary. It’s not really a religious story (the novel itself declares as much: Christmas, Scrooge’s nephew says, “apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that” is “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.”) Dickens’s Christianity was more concerned with the moral virtues of the faith than it was with historical or eschatological truths. His great Christmas novel follows form: it is a story not about the Incarnation of the Son of God as a flesh and blood creature, but about charity, forgiveness, love, and kindness.
For me, as for most Christians I hope, Christmas has more than just personal significance. It has cosmic significance, since the world is never again the same after the Incarnation. Because, in that miracle of Christmas, “the immaterial becomes incarnate, the Word is made flesh, the invisible makes itself seen, the intangible can be touched, the timeless has a beginning, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man,” to quote St. Gregory the Theologian. But that doesn’t mean the Incarnation doesn’t have personal significance as well, and Christmas is as good a time as any, and perhaps better than most, to examine one’s life and goad oneself into demonstrating more of the kind of self-sacrificing love that led to the miraculous event we remember and celebrate on December 25th.
Scrooge certainly needs some goading. He feels unhappy about giving his clerk a paid day off, and finds the argument that it’s only once a year “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” He likes darkness, because darkness is cheap. For the poor who would rather die than go to the prisons or workhouses that Scrooge supports, he thinks they “better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge gets the goading he so desperately needs through four visiting Ghosts, Marley’s as a start, and then the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. At first he refuses to believe Marley’s Ghost is actually visiting him, but takes it as a hallucination brought on by stomach problems (“there’s more of gravy than of grave about you,” he tells the Ghost.) Soon, though, the scenes the Ghosts show him begin to play on Scrooge’s shut-up heart and crack it open by degrees.
Scrooge starts the story thinking Christmas a humbug, but by the end he recognizes that he’s the humbug. He repents and becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” No matter how many times I’ve read that story, I find it difficult not to be moved by it, not to allow Scrooge’s conversion to inspire me to likewise open my shut-up heart.
Dickens, of course, knew this well: “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.” This short novel starts off dark as any disease, but ends with as much laughter and good-humour as any book I know, which is why, year after year, I look forward to being haunted by Scrooge’s Ghost at Christmastime.