Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Reflections on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"--New Year's newsletter article

Firstly, I hope everyone had a great celebration of Christmas this year, and that you remembered to be thankful for God’s many gifts as the year 2017 draws to its conclusion, and 2018 is just beginning. This Christmas season I developed a special fascination for the story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. It’s a perennial classic, ever since 1843, when Dicken’s wrote it in a flurry of inspiration, just before Christmas—reviving his slumping writing career and inspiring new attitudes about Christmas even in himself. But I didn’t realize it has been adapted into cartoon or film well over 20 times. Vaguely remembering several versions I’d seen in childhood, and the iconic images of Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserliness and later transformation to hilarious generosity (note—the Greek word for “cheerful giver” is hilarity), I decided to read the original work and watch several of the best rated versions.

I haven’t managed to see the latest film, but presently in theaters is a different twist on the story, titled: “The Man Who Invented Christmas”, which is about the author Dickens and his inspiration to write the story. While the title (and the title of the book it’s based on), make an overly exaggerated claim—apparently Dickens’ novel did have an enormous influence in reviving and expanding the celebration of Christmas. According to one site, for nearly 200 years prior to the 1843 publication, the celebration of Christmas had severely languished in Puritan England, and there was almost no joy or festivity, Christmas carols, and Christmas trees were unknown. (They were however, popular in Germany, which is credited with inventing the Christmas tree—and Luther with first lighting it). However, after the immediate popularity of “A Christmas Carol”, traditions like Christmas trees, roast turkeys, Christmas cards, and even a Christmas carol-writing renaissance all followed in England and also America. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also played a part in reintroducing and re-legitimizing the celebration of Christmas among the English.

Layer upon these facts that Dickens was already acutely aware of the crushing poverty and abuse that existed in London, and was quite vocal about it. He had just given a speech about society’s responsibility to educate and care for the poor, who, in Dickens’ words, were forced to walk a path “of jagged flints and stones, laid down by brutal ignorance.” Another part of his inspiration is that Dickens spent long hours at night walking the London streets, sometimes as far as 20 miles of walking. In addition to the poor, suffering child Tiny Tim, depicted in the story, there are also two orphans shown to Ebenezer Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Present, who he calls “Ignorance” and “Want.” They are ragged, famished, and “wolfish”, where they should have had their features fill with “graceful youth.”

The story itself is also held together by a strong Christian worldview (even if Dickens was critical of Christians in his other works, as I’ve read), and the idea that the truth and beauty of Jesus’ birth should transform even the stoniest of hearts. Though the references to Scripture and the Gospel are brief, they are crucial to the story, and I’ll list a few examples. Perhaps familiar from most film adaptations, is the appeal of the two gentlemen for a charitable gift from Scrooge for the poor. Scrooge sardonically inquires about the prisons and workhouses and whether they were still in operation. They reply in defense and appeal that these institutions “scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude” and they appeal for charity to buy meat and drink and means of warmth for the poor, because at Christmas “Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” Still, Scrooge is immovable.

Also, the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley relays regrets of countless missed opportunities in life for Christian charity to work “kindly in its little sphere” and lamenting that in life he always walked through “crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise[d] them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode[.] Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” Then Scrooge gets a parting glimpse at miserable ghosts who “sought to interfere for good in human matters, and had lost the power forever.” While the Bible never conceives of or allows for the idea of wandering ghosts, as presented in the story, it’s clear that Dickens’ point is to inspire individual charity, generosity, and general involvement for the good of others while we have opportunity here in this life, and that this is a distinctly Christian spirit to do so.

Though not a direct reference to Scripture, one of the searching moments for Scrooge in the story is when the Spirit of Christmas Past conducts him to the scene of his ex-fiancĂ©e breaking off their engagement because she has witnessed the idol of Gain has consumed and transformed Scrooge, causing all of his “nobler aspirations” to “fall off one by one.” Scrooge’s idolatry of Greed, and the rebuke he receives from her, is also underpinned by a Biblical worldview.

Another tender moment is when Bob Cratchit (Scrooge’s clerk) comes home from church on Christmas Day, carrying Tiny Tim on his church. When asked about how Tiny Tim behaved, Bob replies, “As good as gold”… and then shares how Tim had explained that he “hoped the  people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made the lame beggars walk and blind men see.” This obvious reference to Christ and his miracles also stands out as a powerful statement. The Spirit of Christmas Present also bestows a special blessing so that even and especially the poorest homes, like the Cratchits’, are filled with joy and thankfulness on Christmas. This scene also becomes the moment for the Spirit to quote Scrooge’s heartless words, wishing that the poor would just die and “decrease the surplus population.” Quoting those words back to Scrooge haunts him with his coldness, and he is “overcome with penitence and grief”. The Spirit demands that Scrooge consider What and Where the surplus is, and begs him to consider whether he will indeed decide “what men shall live and what men shall die.”

Later in the story there is a passing mention of being children at Christmas, for “its mighty Founder was a child himself.” And the conclusion of the story wraps up with the remarkable transformation of Scrooge into a generous, compassionate, and caring man, who helps to elevate the status of his employee Bob and the family and shows manifest joy to all around him as he truly learns to “keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” And Dicken’s ends the carol: “May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God Bless Us Every One!”

While the mentions of Christ are subtle, and perhaps the festivities and traditions that were popularized through the book were not all specifically Christian—we do know and can agree with Dickens that the birth of Christ is well celebrated with joy, thankfulness, generosity, and a childlike spirit of humility and faith. It’s an inspiring story of transformation, and as the persistence of Scrooge’s nephew shows, love and good cheer may thaw even the coldest of hearts! May true CHRISTmas joy continued to transform and warm your hearts! 

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