Ignorance and Want: “…no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade… has monsters half so horrible and dread.”
Leave it to Mr. Dickens to capture the demons of fallen nature and fallen society without taming them. This is a single instance in a multitude why A Christmas Carol is no Hallmark affair to be taken lightly, much less dismissed as tacky and trite. There is nothing tacky about infernal torture, abandoned children, or naked corpses. There is nothing trite about familial devotion, neighborly charity, or a changed heart. This carol prepares its readers not only for Christmas Day, but also for Life in all its dirtiness and dignity; and its song is consequently both brutal and beautiful.
A Christmas Carol has much to do with men, and therefore has much to do with the one thing that all men experience and tend to talk about: the “Genius of Weather.” Nature is prominently featured “brewing on a large scale”—preparing startling spirits for men to imbibe. And Nature prepares them for the draught, too. The chill of winter settles on people struggling soberly in the misanthropic teeth of inclement weather, holding out for better days. There is a thinning of air and a thickening of fog; an icy sting and snap. The very climate of this story bespeaks an urgency towards something; a need to move and arrive. It is, in fact, the frosty climate of Advent that presides over this ghost story, where a strong punch (in both senses of the word) is precisely the ticket.
This holy time “is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” With these words, the two gentlemen collecting funds for the poor in the money-changing hole of Scrooge & Marley, introduce something that is at hand. The longing of Advent for the splendor of Christmas resounds in this statement: the desperate Want of the penitent for the remote Abundance of paradise.
So it begins.
Christmastide dawns dauntingly on pilgrim souls as Fred salutes the Season “as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time… 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.”
(The involuntary applause from the Cratchit corner will prevail over the Humbugs in the end.)
Mr. Dickens’ tale teaches the terrific challenge of Christmas, the goal of Advent—and does so with laughter, outrage, and incredible feeling. Though we might scoff with Scrooge at first, may the humanizing hints of humor save us all in the end, as it did Scrooge. The jokes may even be in poor taste—such as inviting the poor to die if they would rather be dead—so long as they are not poor jokes. Anyone that can tell a good joke is within the reach of salvation, especially when repartee can be held with the walking dead.
A Christmas Carol flies with Scrooge across spiritual plains and the secret chambers of the heart—and we are borne along, sharing the terrors and tears, the Fezziwigs and the Dilbers, the shame and the delight. The remarkable power of this story is that it is able to be about each and every one of us, awakening memories of who we are and why we are. But to live the lesson of examination and transfiguration presented by Mr. Dickens is indeed a lofty test. But as the Staves are sung and we share the journey with Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, the task to unclench any tightfisted hand begins. An inspired passage commences away from the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” whom we all know. Time stands on its head. The materialist mantra “Time is money” is overthrown. We shiver helpless in our bedclothes with Scrooge to face eternity, “where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal.”
The heartrending self-discovery of Scrooge and the desire to undo horrors unearthed is the process of a fruitful Advent, and with Scrooge we all realize a need to purge ourselves before we answer the booming call “Come in! and know me better man,” and discover the jubilant Incarnation of Him Who, as Tiny Tim put it, made lame beggars walk and blind men see.
A Christmas Carol is a preparation, and the process it initiates is not an easy one. Everyone knows in his or her own way that it is a steep path fraught with difficulty. But, as the ghostly mentors of Scrooge held up a mirror to him rigidly, relentlessly, and sometimes reluctantly, so too must we face our own inward conversions and cleansings, looking to don a garment worthy of the Bridegroom’s coming. Alongside of Scrooge, groveling in the shadows of our own tombstones, all are beckoned to declare themselves not the men they were but for the holy intercourses of the Advent season prompted by this wonderful story. Many hearkening to this call, swear to lead a changed life, an altered life that will honor the spirit of Christmas in their hearts, and try to keep it all the year, living in the past, the present, and the future.
The thundering words of St. Paul concur, shaking us as the church bells shook Scrooge from his nightmare: “…it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”
When, suddenly, we begin to see our lives in the warming light of Christmas and watch our fetters melt away into so many insignificant bedposts, may we all laugh together with Ebenezer Scrooge. And though all the world laugh at our merriment, “let them laugh,” Mr. Dickens instructs, for “nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter.” May it then be said of us that we know how to keep Christmas well, and “may that be truly said of us, and all of us!”