It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Come December (or November, or October—there’s no accounting for taste), when our townspeople begin to erect, not only trees and lights, but monstrous, inflatable snow globes; when entire radio stations change over to non-stop holiday music, oppressive with a surfeit of sleigh bells; when our august retail institutions flood the market with plastic consumer goods designed to lead well-meaning parents inexorably into a state of barking madness; then, we may be inclined to turn toward Dickens’ seasonal tale, A Christmas Carol (1843), and shake our fist at it for licensing all this superfluous tinsel. For better or worse, Charles Dickens’ story is (and always has been) associated, not with the heart of the Nativity, but with all the extraneous holiday material now marketed to us: roast turkeys, sprigs of holly, ruddy carolers, and so on. We’re all (or at least we all should be) for keeping Christ in Christmas, but must we keep all the Dickensian, Christmasy detritus in Christmas as well?
I want to answer this question (which was formerly my own) by arguing that A Christmas Carol, far from afflicting us with needless superfluity, is actually itself an effort at keeping Christ in Christmas. The novella dramatizes Ebenezer Scrooge’s rediscovery of the Incarnation, palpably present in “the least of these,” a mystery that charges him with wonder and renews his sense of the meaning of time.
To see this, we need first to see that the drama of the tale turns on a single question: is it good that life should continue on earth, or is it not? Put differently, is life to be affirmed with thanksgiving, or bitterly rejected? The answer to this question is not obvious, as we see in the first “stave” of the novella, where the two polar options are embodied in the persons of Scrooge himself, and his nephew, Fred. The former is presented as “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire” (31). He is inhumanly cold, carrying “his own low temperature always about with him,” and he is solitary, having eschewed friendship and marriage, not to speak of procreation (32). He gives no life, nor does he encourage it, but rather hoards the means of living, while paradoxically hating the practice itself. On the contrary, Fred fundamentally affirms life, including even his uncle’s crabbed version of it, and thus he stops by to wish the old man the best: “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” (33). Wherever he appears in the story, Fred joyfully witnesses to the goodness of being alive, and attributes it to the Creator of all. For Fred, Christmas is a time for remembering and blessing that goodness, which cannot be understood “apart from the veneration due to [Christmas’] sacred name and origin” (35). Through the pages of the Carol, Scrooge is brought first to question his habitual negation, and ultimately to second Fred’s Christian affirmation.
He is brought to this point by an encounter with God, mediated through a series of poor and broken humans, and especially children. Remarkably, these lesser ones bless Scrooge in spite of their poverty and suffering, bearing witness to a fount of grace he does not at first understand. The first is the ghost of Marley himself, who comes from some place like Purgatory “to warn” his friend, “that you may have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer” (52). In company with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge meets himself as a needy child and a joyful young man, poor yet grateful for life and friendship. With the Ghost of Christmas Present, he visits the impoverished but lovely Cratchits, and the poor but joyful house of his nephew, as well as other sick-beds, almshouses, hospitals, and jails, beholding their Christmas cheer (106). In the journey he takes with the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge becomes fully aware of the luminous truth at the heart of all these encounters: once more among the Cratchit family, Scrooge beholds them circled around the oldest son Peter, he reading from the Gospel of Mark, “And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them” (123). Of course, the first sad thought is of the loss of Tiny Tim, whose death these future Cratchits have suffered. But the second thought is of the next verse in the Gospel chapter, which would have been supplied by Dickens’ biblically literate readers: “Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me” (Mark 9:36, 37 KJV). In the least of these, Scrooge encounters the humble greatness, the suffering joy, of a God of whom he had grown forgetful. He is renewed, transformed, becoming, as he says, “quite a baby,” for he now sees that “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself” (131, 102).
With this fresh, Christian childlikeness, Scrooge steps forth into a new story, a meaningful history, a re-ordered sense of time. At the start, he was static, cold, without growth, because there was no foundation or governing principle for life, which meant in turn that there was no point. If time is just one damn thing after another, then “Bah! Humbug!” to it. If time, however, is a series of revelations from God, participating in the mystery of the Son’s kenotic Incarnation, then it is ceaselessly meaningful and wondrous, an ever-unfolding vision. Every moment is old and yet new, familiar yet marvelous, connected to what went before, but opening out onto further vistas. Thus, Scrooge proclaims at the story’s end, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future” (128). All time, rightly understood, reveals the point of time, and seeing this, Scrooge awakens to a new sense of purpose: when the last ghost departs, Scrooge realizes that “the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” (130). He will live “Christmas-time” to the full, and live it all the year round. He vows to live a new life of love and generosity, and we are told that “he did it all, and infinitely more” (138). That is, in this finite, newly-impoverished child of a man, the Infinite touches time once again. Henceforth, Scrooge’s time will be structured as it is in a carol or hymn, in staves of joyful response to a God who has broken into human temporality, in the flesh of the poor.
Come Christmas, then, Charles Dickens would have us respond to the silliness and plastic snow-globes of life as children. (If my experience with children is indicative, this will mean wondering at the kitsch, then breaking it beyond repair.) By finding in the impoverished beauty of our world the loving hand—even face—of its Creator, we will learn anew with Scrooge not just the reason for life, but how to live it. “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!”
Dwight Lindley is an associate professor of English.