The Christmas Season, like other holidays we celebrate, has its share of stories. Many have become so popular that cable television stations show them in 24-hour marathons. When I was growing up (I’m 65), it was the “Golden Age of Television.” Despite the number of channels that could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that they concluded their broadcast day in the wee hours, I could anticipate with certainty specific holiday movies: Ben-Hur every Easter and A Christmas Carol every Christmas.
For me, Christmas is intimately associated with the Charles Dickens classic, especially the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim as the miserly curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge. My parents, brother, sisters, and I wouldn’t dream of missing A Christmas Carol; it just wouldn’t be Christmas without watching Scrooge embrace the Christmas spirit, albeit only after visitations by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet-to-come. Oh yes, and his deceased business-partner Jacob Marley played a part in Scrooge’s Christmas Eve spiritual metamorphosis. (My brother, in fact, was Marley’s ghost in a school play, and I can still hear him on stage bemoaning, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard.”)
Over the years, I’ve come to really appreciate Dickens’s 30,000-word novella. With every reading I discover more of his literary genius and his spiritual message.
Clearly the most gripping part of the book’s plot is the influence of ghosts on the protagonist Scrooge. In fact, the book’s subtitle is “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” The author doesn’t lay claim to this literary device; instead he credits William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Dickens writes, “If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night.” This explains his choice for an opening line, “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
Dickens was a man with religious conviction and a social conscience. His Christian faith is evident throughout A Christmas Carol. He reminds us that besides the feasting and merriment, Christmas is a religious holiday: “But soon the steeples called good people all to church and chapel.” That Christmas brings out the child in all of us is also clearly expressed: “For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”
Dickens witnessed the human suffering brought about by England’s Industrial Revolution. He was sensitive to the gulf that existed between the haves and the have-nots, between the prosperous few and the masses just eking out a living. In A Christmas Carol, these two classes are exemplified by the wealthy Scrooge and his impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit. Dickens was doubtless aware of fellow Englishman Thomas Malthus’s dire prediction of overpopulation (our ability to breed exceeds our ability to feed), evident in Scrooge’s words he later regrets, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
The continued popularity of a Dickens novel, such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or A Tale of Two Cities, is testimony to his ability to tell a wonderful character-driven story. A Christmas Carol tops the list of his best-known works. It has never been out of print since its publication in 1843.
Although it’s a story I turn to every Christmas, its message―the “Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere”—is worth keeping the whole year round. Scrooge came to personify the Christian spirit. The author writes, “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.”
Returning to A Christmas Carol and my childhood, I related in particular to Bob Cratchit’s crippled son Tiny Tim. I had gotten polio in 1954, according to my parents just when I was learning to take my first tentative steps as a bipedal human, and then I couldn’t stand or walk. After two operations, lengthy hospital stays, and years of physical therapy, I got my stride back. I’m okay now; I just walk with a little limp. I think it lends distinction to my gate―perhaps a little like Captain Ahab, but that’s another story. There was a time, however, when I would be watching A Christmas Carol and glance over at my own crutches in the corner of the room. I admired Timothy Cratchit’s unwavering faith, and continue to delight in his having the final word: “God bless us, every one!”