My Thoughts on Why “A Christmas Carol” is Timeless

A Christmas Carol is a novel I try to read every year during the Holiday season. Given how hectic this period can be, it’s not a goal I always achieve, but this year I managed to find time in-between work and looking for Christmas gifts. While I count A Christmas Carol among my favourite books, I have to admit that I was in my mid-twenties before I actually read it. A sign of its strength as a story, Dickens’ ghostly tale has been parodied countless times in popular culture, from Looney Tunes, The Flintstones, The Muppets, Blackadder, Doctor Who, and The Simpsons to name but a few, meaning many are familiar with the story’s plot, despite having never read the book. I was one of those people until it occurred to me that, as an avid reader, I really ought to visit the source of all these tributes.

Going in, I knew what to expect of the plot, what I wasn’t expecting was the emotional impact it would have on me. I’d seen many, many parodies of it, but most of them failed to prepare me for the heart-warming punch this short story packs. At the time of writing, A Christmas Carol is 177 years old, and yet it still endures in a world that is almost unrecognisable from the world Dickens lived in when he began it. This, I believe, is because the story explores themes that have always been relevant and always will be. We all enjoy the ghosts and festive setting, but it’s the exploration of the human condition that steals the show. Indeed, while we enjoy the story long after its debut, I believe cultures long before Dickens’ time would get just as much from it. Replace the ghosts with Olympic Gods, and I’m sure the people of Ancient Greece would enjoy it just as much as we do today. That’s why it’s a story that has been adapted so many times, because its main themes are universal and, while I don’t mean to dismiss its Christian roots, I think it can be argued this is set dressing, and not essential for the story’s overall message.

While we use the term ‘Scrooge’ as a synonym for those lacking in Festive cheer, it shows Dickens’s skill as a storyteller, and indeed his nuanced view of the human condition, that Scrooge is not presented as a character you should hate. Yes, when we first meet Scrooge, he is greedy, miserly, crass, and at times even cruel but, as we dive deeper into his story, Dickens shows that he is far more complex a character than he first appears. Had Scrooge been a one-dimensional villain, the story would be much shallower for it. It’s not hard to imagine an alternate version where A Christmas Carol tells the story of a corrupt character being punished for their evil ways, serving as a warning to all those who read it, but such a version would be much poorer for it. We may not like to admit it, I certainly don’t, but Scrooge is a character we can relate to. Even in Dickens’ time, Christmas would have been a time of added stress, and it’s somewhat comforting to know that worries such as Can I fit all the in-laws around the table? Have I left it too late to get a decent-sized Turkey? What should I buy the children? And, perhaps most importantly, Can I afford all this? were no doubt concerns people almost two centuries ago shared with us today. The amount of pressure put upon us to properly celebrate the Festive period has greatly increased in the 21st century, at least Bob Cratchit didn’t have Tiny Tim threatening to throw a tantrum if he didn’t get the latest PlayStation or iPhone. So yes, when Scrooge says: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart,” there are, no doubt, many readers who can sympathise a little with his cynicism.

When Dickens shows Scrooge having his ways changed by the three ghosts who visit him (four including Marley), it’s not Scrooge that Dickens is trying to change, it’s his readers. I’m not saying that we’re all as extreme in our prejudice of Christmas and generosity as Scrooge, but we’re all prone to feelings of cynicism, and A Christmas Carol serves as an excellent wake-up call for us all. In Dickens’ day, poverty was rife, so much so that there even existed poorhouses, which were tantamount to prisons in their harsh treatment of workers. Fortunately, in the West at least, poverty isn’t quite as extreme, but it’s still a major issue, one that becomes even more serious when you consider the extreme poverty that still exists globally. When you consider the current state of the world, it’s not hard to feel utterly unable to make any meaningful change. When most of us are work tirelessly to provide for ourselves and our families, while billionaires work tirelessly to avoid paying taxes, it can be tempting to become a Scrooge when faced with the idea of generosity to those less fortunate, especially when it seems like our taxes go towards bailing out bankers, politicians expense scandals, and funding wars. In short, hardening your heart to the world can be a lot more appealing than having to face the ugly truth. In showing Scrooge’s embracing of Christmas, and all the goodwill and generosity that comes with it, Dickens is also reaching out to readers, to remind us that, for all the trouble in the world, it is still better to try to do good than to try and protect yourself with a cold heart. We may not be able to solve the world’s problems as individuals, but if we all made an effort to embrace the spirit of Christmas, or rather, its values of charity, goodwill, and love, wouldn’t the world be a better place? Especially, if like Scrooge, we endeavoured to keep Christmas all year long?

A Christmas Carol may be rooted in Christian themes and traditions, and there are plenty of cultures that don’t celebrate Christmas, but I don’t believe you need to be a Christian to be touched by the story’s message. Indeed, I am not a Christian, but you don’t need to literally believe that the son of God was born in a manger in December to see the Holidays as a period where we should try to fend off the long, dark nights and extend goodwill to those around us. This idea is not exclusive to Christianity, it’s an idea many civilisations have embraced in one way or another, with celebrations that occur during the Winter Solstice, from the Ancient Romans who celebrated Saturnalia throughout December, which included gift-giving and even an event where slaves ate as well as their master, to Yule, which may now be synonymous with Christian Christmas, but was originally the name of the pagan Winter Solstice festival. It seems a bit of goodwill and celebrating during the darkest time of the year is a worldwide phenomenon, and you don’t need to be Christian or even religious to join in the fun. Dickens himself makes this point when Scrooge meets The Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge points out that much harm has been done by those who claim to do God’s will, to which the Spirit replies: “There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” It’s your character, not your faith (or lack of) that defines your quality.

Diving into the character of Scrooge himself, we quickly discover that he is far more nuanced than a cartoon villain. Yes, at first he seems cruel for cruelty’s sake, and we may easily despise him at first, but as the story develops, we soon discover that Scrooge wasn’t born with a lump of coal where his heart should be. As The Ghost of Christmas Past shows us, Scrooge spent many years as a lonely schoolboy who spent most of his Christmases left alone at his boarding school. His reprieve arrives only when his sister comes one year to take him home for Christmas, claiming “Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven!” Though we later learn his sister died young. Fast-forwarding to Scrooge as a young man, we see him attending a 19th-century office party hosted by Mr. Fezziwig, whom Scrooge served as an apprentice. Here he meets Belle, whom he falls in love with, but we soon learn she later terminates their engagement as he becomes more and more obsessed with his money, saying: “You fear the world too much … 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 …” Scrooge has no one great reason to become the miser he is at the start of the book, indeed, he has enjoyed a better life than many, but the wounds he has received and his fear of poverty slowly but surely set him on a downward spiral into greed and meanness. Like Scrooge, many of us in the West live well compared to those in chronic poverty, but as we age and receive our share of harsh lessons and emotional scars, it can be easy for us to find our hearts hardening and our fears growing.

Scrooge isn’t miserly for its own sake, he’s miserly because he is aware of the potential brutality of life, and seeks to protect himself with his wealth. It is noted several times in the novel that Scrooge doesn’t even enjoy his wealth, living in a sort of self-imposed poverty, refusing even to properly light his own house, as “darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked that.” This is perfectly illustrated when The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge the wretched children hiding beneath his robes, Ignorance and Want. These children are the victims of their poverty, which turns them into ignorant, wanting creatures more akin to beasts than happy children. “They are man’s,” says the Spirit, and warns Scrooge to be especially wary of Ignorance as “…that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” These children represent the sins mankind’s worse traits create, and that we engage in an endless cycle when we allow our fear, want, and of course, ignorance, to go unchecked. While (hopefully) most of us aren’t as extreme as Scrooge when it comes to generosity, we can all sympathise with the fear that comes with a lack of money. We all seek to avoid a future where we’re not able to put food on the table or a roof over our heads, especially those with children, so it’s not hard to see why Scrooge’s fear of a life without money transforms him into the person he is at the start. It’s hard to embrace goodwill and generosity when you feel like you’re treading water trying to get by, and that’s a feeling that can be hard to shake even when you’re financially stable, especially if poverty is something you’ve experienced before.

As we come to the end of the novel, Scrooge is shown the consequences he will face should he fail to change his ways. No one will mourn his passing, Tiny Tim will die, and Scrooge will spend an eternity in chains longer than Marley’s. This is where we get to the final, but perhaps most important part of Scrooge’s journey, his redemption. As previously stated, Dickens could have gone with an ending that showed the character being punished for his bad deeds while the Cratchit’s are rewarded for their decency, plenty of popular old tales and fables end this way, including many religious ones, but A Christmas Carol would fail miserably were it to follow suit. Its message depends upon Scrooge changing his ways and being given a fresh start, it’s vital he be given this rather than be condemned for his past deeds. This is the final lesson Dickens has for inspiring the spirit of Christmas in his readers. We are all only human, we’ve all said and done things we regret, that we wish we could take back. We’ve all reacted to sincerity and goodness with cynicism and derision, in short, we’ve all been a Scrooge at some point in our lives. Shame is an uncomfortable thing to bear, and along with fear and regret it can make us even more of a Scrooge, but A Christmas Carol tells us with joy that it is never too late to make amends, after all, Scrooge has spent decades being mean. If it’s not too late for him, then it’s certainly not too late for us. We may feel we’re too old, too set in our ways, or even that we don’t deserve to strive for that sort of happiness, but Dickens tells us that Scrooge is worthy of redemption, and so are we, we just have to go for it.

I am a cynic by nature, anyone who knows me personally would agree, and I’m not saying that reading A Christmas Carol will cure that completely. However, the reason I try to read it once a year isn’t just because it’s a great read at Christmas, but because it serves as an excellent reminder that cynicism won’t protect you from the pitfalls of life, and really only serves to rob you of the good times you might miss if you’re too busy sneering at them. It’s a reminder that we are all “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys,” and that we should try to empathise and help one another as best we can. Extend a helping hand to those below you, try to better your small corner of the world, and try to embrace life with an open heart, who knows, maybe we’ll all feel a little more at ease. Of course, there will always be those who say “Bah, humbug” to the idea of hope, goodwill, generosity, love, kindness, Christmas, and the Holidays in general, BUT we shouldn’t mind them. As Dickens ends his story: “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.”

That, to me, is why A Christmas Carol endures so long after it’s publication, and will continue to endure for as long as there are people around to enjoy it. It’s not just an excellent story, it’s also an excellent reminder to us all to weather the harshness of the world without losing our light and goodwill towards each other, and the same is true of the Holiday season, as Scrooge’s Nephew, Fred says: “…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!” We won’t always achieve this endeavour, but reading of Scrooge’s eventful Christmas is an excellent way to get into the Holiday spirit and remind ourselves to at least try.

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