Charles Dickens’s 1843 Christmas Carol was the beginning of a series of annual “Christmas books” that were very popular gifts in the Victorian era. But while many today treat A Christmas Carol as a child’s holiday story, it is anything but … and it makes many Catholic points.
Some might disagree. Jesus is only obliquely mentioned (e.g., Marley laments why he failed to follow the “blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode”) and religion is worn lightly (e.g., a Christmas service is only mentioned as the place from which Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim return while, otherwise, there’s a whole lot of eating going on). Perhaps, on a superficial level, the explicitly religious is practically absent, but that’s not to say there are not religious lessons to be learned from the Carol. Here are four.
Death Gives Life Its Meaning. Advent is marked by a tension between the historic commemoration of the First Coming and the eschatological expectation of His Second. The Carol, too, has a strong eschatological note. This Christmas story opens not with a “ho-ho-ho” but the frank acknowledgement of a death: “Marley was dead, to begin with.” Lest the reader fail to appreciate the significance of that line, Dickens states clearly: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” And just as many Catholic saints kept a skull to remind them of the end—hodie mihi, cras tibi (Yesterday me, tomorrow you)—so Marley is Scrooge’s memento mori: it is between Scrooge’s encounter with Marley and his face-to-face encounter with his own tombstone, under the gaze of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (who is, as many note, none other than the Grim Reaper), that Scrooge is converted. Some are changed by love (contrition), others by fear (attrition)—but change they do.
Man is Social. Scrooge’s vice is not just his “need” for money; it is even more his lack of need for man. The result has been the progressive erosion of his bonds with his fellow man: his fiancée, his nephew, even his clerk. He concentrates on himself when he pushes others away. But “no man is an island” unless he consciously chooses to isolate himself. A man can choose to do so, but then he must learn the lesson the hard way—lying on a deathbed stripped of its linens, a “fearful place” with “the sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone”—that “it is not good for man to be alone.” And if he does not learn that lesson in this life, he will learn it bitterly in the next: it is an impotent Marley who cries in remorse, “mankind was my business!” In a scene often omitted in dramatic stagings or TV adaptations of the Carol, the damned ghosts whom Marley joins upon taking leave of Scrooge are all crying as they gaze, powerlessly, at scenes of where “they sought to interfere for good in human matters, and had lost [that] power forever.”
Life Demands Respect. Dickens was an enemy of Malthus, the nineteenth-century British thinker who was the intellectual daddy of the population control/“planned parenthood” movement. When the two businessmen who make their way into the “money-changing hole” of Scrooge and Marley, soliciting a Christmas charitable contribution for the despairingly destitute, Scrooge drives them off, declaring “if they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population!” But when Scrooge is moved at the sight of handicapped Tiny Tim and pleads for his life, the Ghost of Christmas Present rebuffs him with his own words and, when Scrooge takes exception, the Spirit reminds him “if man you be in heart, not adamant, [to] forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is.” For the Bible, wisdom is not about book learning, the ability to quote the latest popular cant, but an awareness of one’s dependent relationship with God, which also involves knowing how to treat one’s neighbor. At least Scrooge “hung his head to hear his own words quoted.” Modern man shamelessly offers twenty-first century Tiny Tims “post-birth” abortions or juvenile euthanasia.
Man Always Has a Choice. The way we choose to live makes us into certain kinds of people: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead.” But Scrooge also expresses faith in man’s ever-standing invitation to conversion: “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” Scrooge’s journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him and us how much choices shape who we are. Some of those choices were not his, e.g., an indifferent, almost abusive father. Some were, e.g., his decision for “the idol that has displaced” Belle. I especially like the conversation between Scrooge and the Ghost written into the 1984 Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott (in my opinion the best adult adaptation of Dickens’s tale). As they watch the young Scrooge watching Belle walk away, the old Scrooge comments: “I almost went after her.” “‘Almost’ carries no weight,” the Spirit replies, “especially in matters of the heart.” Father George Rutler once observed that the problem with hell is that its denizens only speak in the subjunctive.
Justice and Mercy Meet. Marley suffers because of the man he made himself into: “I wear the chain I forged in life” and now fetters him eternally. The same fate threatens Scrooge, whose chain was “as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago.” But that turn of justice is not something external, imposed by an angry God: it is rather that we reap what we have sown. The women justify theft of Scrooge’s deathbed curtains by his life: “Every person has a right to take care of themselves. He always did.” If he took care of himself, why can’t she? And if neglect breeds ignorance, despair, and death, then Tiny Tim’s fate is not imposed but ineluctable: “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.” But if they are changed, if “courses be departed from,” things can be different. God lets us have what we want: we need to be sure it’s indeed really what we want.
Kids love the “spirits” and thrills of A Christmas Carol, a story with an easily dislikable villain and a happy ending, a blend of Christmas and Halloween. One can reduce the Carol to that cartoon level. But there’s a greater richness in the story where, through the intervention of the supernatural, a man takes stock of himself and rises a new creature. It that sense, it’s a blend of Christmas and Easter.