It’s no longer the holiday season, but, because I’d been thinking for a while about rereading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, I finally did it today.
Like (I imagine) many people, I supposed I knew the story. I recalled the outlines, of course, and remembered parts vividly. The ominous atmosphere surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has stuck with me best: Scrooge foreseeing the future, including the death of Tiny Tim and a vision of his own grave. I retained the spookiness.
But that’s only ten pages of a fifty-page novella and only one-third of the ghostly visitations. I had forgotten how varied the other experiences are, how joyful some of the visions, and how essentially compassionate the Ghosts. Too many dramatizations on stage and on screen (and in cartoons!) have come between my last reading some decades ago and this one.
Someone recently commented to me that the story really doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, except for the time that it takes place. I didn’t feel I could contradict the person, but I do now. The story is filled with Christmas sounds, smells, sights and family gatherings as we know them and as Dickens largely created them. Here’s Scrooge’s walk in London with the Ghost of Christmas Present:
By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlors, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn, to shut out cold and darkness. There, all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them. . . But if you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high. Blessings on it, how the Ghost exulted!
Aside from sensory and sentimental associations, the lessons of Christmas and of Christianity, in its best sense, imbue the whole novella. Christmas and Christianity, in their ideal manifestation, are about love, generosity, compassion, and redemption. After the Ghosts’ tutelage, Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner,” has transformed into “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.” When people laughed at Scrooge, his “own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.” Dickens is conveying the hope essential to the Christmas story.
Of course, I’m not insisting that A Christmas Carol has to be read as a religious text. It has truths and pleasures for everyone. I will politely object, however, the next time anyone asserts in my presence that it has nothing to do with Christmas.