In an exchange between Ebenezer Scrooge and his nephew Fred in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the former makes a telling observation about this time of year.
“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come around — 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.”
The comment itself is an ironic one. Apart from a moment where the damned character Marley wonders aloud why he did not follow a star to “a poor abode” as the Wise Men did, the reason for the season is curiously absent from the rest of the story. Dickens’ beloved Christmas tale may have belonged to the Christian holiday in name but remained apart from it in substance.
The author had a problematic relationship with orthodox belief. Dickens biographer Edgar Johnson reported that “Dickens did not believe in the virgin birth of Christ and was able to sympathize with the leading features of the Unitarian creed.” Dickens attended the Essex Street Unitarian Chapel and was a close friend of the minister. According to Peter Ackroyd, another biographer, Dickens told a friend that he had unpleasant memories of being dragged by the hair of his head to listen to a fire-and-brimstone Baptist minister.
Of “A Christmas Carol” Johnson wrote: “It should not be imagined that Christmas has for Dickens more than the smallest connection with Christian dogma or theology. For Dickens Christmas is primarily a human, not a supernatural feast.”
Even G.K. Chesterton, who practically worshiped Dickens, wrote: “We must not ask Dickens what Christmas is, for with all his heart and eloquence he does not know. Rather we must ask Christmas what Dickens is — ask how this strange child of Christmas came to be born out of due time.”
The remark is a quintessential Chesterton paradox. He defended it by suggesting that Dickens was inspired to write about the holiday by “that sacred subconsciousness which is called tradition,” which he said had three elements.
The first is the dramatic quality that expresses a type of crisis: Christmas was a change in human history and is echoed in the family’s acting like “it does when a child is actually being born in it.” In “A Christmas Carol,” the crisis causes the tremendous change in Scrooge, “as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting.”
The second element defining Christmas as it was celebrated in the Northern Catholic countries was the contrast of the warmth of the feast with the chill of winter. The bitter cold of the weather in the story is connected to the icy heart of Scrooge.
The third element Chesterton pointed out was of the grotesque or the extravagant. The miser Scrooge not only buys a turkey for the Cratchits so fat it could not be imagined standing on its feet, but he pays for a cab for its delivery. His change is so great that Cratchit wonders if Scrooge should be put in a straight jacket.
Others have more personal takes on the story. John Forster, Dickens’ friend and first biographer, said that the author wanted to write a fairytale like the ones he had read as a child in the Arabian Nights, and he wanted to write himself as the hero of the story.
Certainly, Scrooge is Dickens as he might have been. The sad pictures of the young life of Ebenezer and his failure to get over his insecurity about money echo Dickens’ life. At the time he wrote the story, his wife was expecting his fifth child and they were having financial difficulties.
The Spirits that take Scrooge on a tour of Christmas, Past, Present, and Future, are like the genies from the Arabian Nights. The movies we are all familiar with miss some of the details of the fantasy, including Scrooge’s visits to coal miners, lighthouse keepers and sailors on the ocean on Christmas Day. In the space of a few hours on Christmas Eve, Scrooge sees what is really an alternative universe, moving ahead in time and then back again to change the present.
That is why some say the book is a Christian allegory of redemption. But others wonder about the Christian element. John Ruskin thought Dickens had secularized Christmas — he asked where the shepherds who worshiped the Christ Child were. Certainly, the tale had a social theme that contrasted the inequities and evils of the economic system of his day and the misery of the poor. Dickens could never forget his family’s poverty.
Philosophically, Scrooge, before his conversion, takes a Malthusian approach to the number of the poor. Thomas Malthus (a clergyman, ironically), and obsessed with overpopulation, had said the poor man “has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present quotes Scrooge’s awful remark about “surplus population,” and then says, “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”
Upon re-reading “A Christmas Carol” recently, I was uncomfortable with how Dickens manages to make the spiritual meaning of Christmas a footnote. Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim go to church, but the rest of the family stays at home preparing the feast. There is no mention of the name of Jesus. Scrooge himself attends church on Christmas Day, but Dickens, who spends pages describing the victuals of the celebrations, uses only four words to mention the worship.
The Dickensian approach to Christmas is important for understanding what has happened to the holiday in America and indeed, much of the once-Christian West. But a thought came to me when I came to the last lines of the story, when Tiny Tim observes, “God bless us, every one.” The Holy Spirit had done another act of ventriloquism with Chesterton’s “strange child of Christmas.” The novella is still worth the ride.