I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime…as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
Sad isn’t it, when Christmas is the only time of the year that people freely display a spirit of generosity, kindness, mercy and benevolence. Is it too much for us to be merciful and forgiving, kind and generous throughout the rest of the year too? This is the lesson that Ebenezer Scrooge learns in Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a “tight-fisted… squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint …secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Everything about Scrooge is mean and cold, gloomy and melancholy. But on Christmas Eve he is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who brings Scrooge an ominous warning: change or else.
Marley’s ghost appears dragging a heavy chain of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks and ledgers, the very things to which he was chained during his life. It was a chain, though, of his own making. In dedicating his life to the accumulation of wealth, Marley had ignored the true purpose in life of all human beings. Far too late Marley learnt that..
Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!
Following this experience with Marley, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. The Spirit of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of the loneliness of his childhood and all the opportunities he had for joy and happiness that he squandered in the pursuit of wealth. The Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the depth of joy and goodwill of Christmas experienced far and wide, from a bare hut to a remote lighthouse. While Scrooge may be materially rich, in the eyes of those who know him, he is impoverished in spirit. As Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, remarks:
He’s a comical old fellow…and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offenses carry their own punishment,… His wealth is of no use to him. He doesn’t do any good with it. He doesn’t make himself comfortable with it…I am sorry for him:…who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always.
The final apparition, the Spirit of Christmas Future, reveals to Scrooge the end of his own life – plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for – a truly desolate death. The story of his life, though, as revealed by the three spirits, has bought Scrooge to his knees. Recognising the poverty and meanness of his life, Scrooge vows to change, desperately declaring: I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been.
Dickens is a master at depicting the misery of abject poverty and the suffering imposed upon the poor by people just like Scrooge. The third spirit takes Scrooge to a part of the city where Scrooge had never trod, where the poorest of the poor and the most desperate of people lived.
The ways were foul and narrow, the shops and houses wretched, the people half naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offenses of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth and misery.
Prior to this, the second spirit had already warned Scrooge of the consequences of Ignorance and Want, depicted by two children: wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable…Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish. Dickens pulls out all the adjectives to underscore the absolute wretchedness and misery of poverty, and its capacity to render the young into lurking, menacing devils. Time and time again, Scrooge’s words come back to haunt him:
Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?
A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843, just days before Christmas, and yet it is as relevant today, in the 21st century, as it was in the nineteenth. Taken back to his past by the Spirit of Christmas Past, Scrooge notes how the way an employer uses his power can make all the difference to the happiness of his employees. Reminded of the generosity and benevolence of his first boss, Scrooge says:
He has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words & looks, in things so slight & insignificant that it is impossible to add a count ‘em up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.
A Christmas Carol ends with a renewed Scrooge, laughing and crying, glowing with his good intentions and greeting people with “Merry Christmas.” Promising to “honour Christmas …and keep it all the year,” Scrooge is a new man, a good master to his employees and a good friend to all. The change is simply astonishing.
As this year draws to a close and we reflect on the challenges of a year like no other in recent memory, will we have learned the same lessons? Will we look away and say, “Bah! Humbug!” Or will we go forward believing that charity, forbearance, mercy and benevolence are our true calling; that the happiness and welfare of citizens is just as important as the business of trade; and that we can choose to live in the spirit of Christmas each and every day of the year.
Wishing you all a very Merry and Safe Christmas, surrounded by the people you love and enjoying the peace, joy and hope of the Christmas Season.