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52 Little Lessons from A Christmas Carol
By Bob Welch
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Bob Welch
All rights reserved.
Context clarifies a story
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. — The book's narrator, on the opening page
Of all Charles Dickens's books, A Christmas Carol is his most popular, and — though highbrow critics might disagree — some believe his best. Given its popularity, given that everybody from George C. Scott to The Muppets has starred in one of the more than twenty film versions of it, and given that "Scrooge" and "Bah humbug!" have become staples of the English language, I assume most of you, dear readers, are familiar with the story at some level.
If so, may the Ghost of Reading Future transport you directly to lesson 2. For those who are unfamiliar with the plot or need a refresher course, here's a version that you can read faster than the pre-Ghost Scrooge could scare off a Christmas caroler.
Ebenezer Scrooge sits in his drafty office being mean to people who love Christmas, including his clerk, Bob Cratchit; his nephew, Fred; and two solicitors who stop to seek donations for the poor and leave with nothing but a rebuke.
That night, Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who died seven years earlier. Like Scrooge, Marley was a greedy old coot. The chain-dragging Ghost of Marley tells Scrooge that he'll be visited by three other Ghosts in the wee hours in an attempt to help him avoid the shackles that weigh down Marley. Scrooge goes to bed wondering if he'd just had some bad food for dinner.
The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives and whisks him back to memories of a kinder, gentler, young Scrooge. Scrooge sees his lonely childhood; the boarding school he attended; Fan, his now-deceased, beloved sister; a festive Christmas party thrown by his old boss, Mr. Fezziwig; and his heartthrob, Belle, whom he gives up to follow the money. Belle winds up with a family of her own, her joy racking Scrooge with regret. "Enough!" he says, in essence. "Show over. Get me back to my regularly scheduled so-called life."
Enter the Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows scenes to Scrooge of Christmas joy among the poor and blue-collar crowd. Scrooge and the Spirit visit the home of Bob Cratchit. Bob's young son, Tiny Tim, is ill, Scrooge observes. "I see an empty chair," the Spirit says, "where Tiny Tim once sat." The Spirit and Scrooge visit holiday celebrations at a miners' cottage, at a lighthouse, and on a ship. Then he gives Scrooge a peek at his nephew's Christmas gathering, where Fred speaks of his uncle not with the disdain others do, but with pity. Finally, Scrooge is introduced to two emaciated children, Ignorance and Want, symbols of society's neglect of the poor. Beware of these two, the Spirit warns. When Scrooge shows concern for their welfare, the Ghost heaps guilt on Scrooge by rattling off a statement he'd made when the two solicitors had come to his office seeking money for the poor: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
The third Spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shows Scrooge Christmas Day a year from now. Tiny Tim is dead; with his meager salary, Cratchit apparently couldn't get the boy the care he needed. The Spirit shows Scrooge the aftermath of a "wretched man's" death: businessmen will attend the service only if lunch is served and three people, including the undertaker, stealing the man's possessions while the corpse lies in bed. Finally, the Spirit shows Ebenezer the dead man's tombstone. Surprise, surprise — it's Scrooge!
Sobbing, Scrooge vows to change his ways. And does. He awakens the next morning with a renewed spirit. He asks a young boy outside what day it is and the reply is one of the greatest moments of the book: "To-day! Why, Christmas Day." Scrooge is giddy. Smiling. Laughing. He orders the largest turkey in town for Bob Cratchit's family. He visits his nephew, Fred, who's stunned and thrilled to see him.
The following day Scrooge gives Cratchit a raise and becomes like a "second father" to Tiny Tim. Scrooge emerges as Mr. Christmas. And Dickens closes the story with five words from the little tyke himself: "God bless us every one."
A Christmas Carol is, to some, a ghost story, to others a Christmas fantasy with a comedic twist. Some see it as a time-travel narrative, others as biting social commentary on how the rich look down on the poor. It's actually all four.
And more.CHAPTER 2
Growing wiser means getting uncomfortable
May it haunt [the reader's house] pleasantly. — From the preface to A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens did not write A Christmas Carol simply to entertain us as readers, even if he succeeded grandly in doing so. Beyond entertaining us, Dickens wanted to make us uncomfortable, because it's only after we get a touch uneasy with ourselves that we open ourselves to change.
Oh, sure, you can defend the book as a social and political commentary wherein the author's target is a cold-hearted British government that neglects the poor — worse, discriminates against them, middle-class property owners not even allowed to vote until the passage of the Great Reform Bill in 1832. Certainly Dickens wanted to rally the public to action regarding the poor; he had known the pangs of poverty himself as a child and, in books such as Nicholas Nickelby and Oliver Twist, exudes a deep sensitivity to the less fortunate.
That said, he wanted us, as individual readers, to squirm a bit when we contrast our lives with a higher standard. "I have always striven in my writings, to express veneration for the life and lessons of my Savior," Dickens said. And one of those lessons is to love others as Jesus loved us — no small challenge.
Even if Dickens's intent was aimed at government reform, doesn't that begin with individual reform? "Everybody thinks of changing humanity," writes author Leo Tolstoy, "but nobody thinks of changing himself."
Dickens wants us, as individuals, to confront our own Ghosts. He wants us to feel the chill of regret if necessary and, like Scrooge, to make changes in how we live. All, of course, while maintaining proper Dickens Christmas cheer, with a bounty of food. And with a subtle but unmistakable seasoning of humor.
"I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me," reads his preface. "May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it."
Dickens is no spoilsport who has come to rain on our Christmas parades. He's more like a good-hearted, well-humored pastor who wants to tickle our funny bones while, at the same time, challenging our souls. (Though he might chafe at the pastor metaphor; Dickens is all about street-level spirituality, unencumbered by people in authority.)
As the story unfolds, it's obvious that Dickens has sprinkled it with humor as a means to an end: to force ourselves, as he forced Scrooge, to confront any rattling chains we might have in our life closets.
His prelude suggests he wants — dare we say, has great expectations for — his story to marinate in our souls long after we've read it. He wants not only to entertain but to teach. He wants to offer not only a story but also a sermon: a fanciful moral wrapped in dark paper but crowned with a festive Christmas bow.
The word haunt, taken literally, may connote physical ghosts. But haunt also means "to visit frequently," "to have a disquieting or harmful effect on," "to reappear continually in." In other words, the story sticks with us after we're through reading it. And it disquiets us in the best of ways, much as the Holy Spirit disquiets us when it's necessary for us to make changes in our lives.
"A Christmas Carol is designed not to make us think or see or know, but to make us feel," writes Norrie Epstein in The Friendly Dickens. "For Dickens, the power of the imagination expressed through fiction is like the Ghosts, an agent of regeneration."
I suggest that this design to feel is not to produce some tem- porary emotional high, but to create a spark that might lead to flames of action: changing how we look at the world, changing how we act in the world, and ultimately changing how we will be remembered in the world. In short, Dickens is shooting for nothing less than spiritual or moral revival in those of us who read his story.
Robert Lewis Stevenson was so inspired by A Christmas Carol and a second Dickens Christmas offering, The Chimes, that he wrote, "I have cried my eyes out. I want to go out and comfort someone — I shall give money."
Isaac Newton's first law of motion suggests that everything continues in a state of rest unless it is compelled to change by forces impressed upon it. A Christmas Carol is just such a force, gently impressed upon us as if the author is saying, "Get up off that couch that I might politely bother you."
I say as much to the university journalism students I teach: if they're not feeling uncomfortable from time to time, they're not growing as journalists. Just as resistance against something is the basis for making an athlete better — lifting weights, swimming in a pool, running up a hill — so can literature make us uncomfortable ... and better.
Dickens's idea was that readers should be transformed into the image of the One whose inspiration was foundational to his life and to his stories. Second Corinthians 3:18 talks of "being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory."
Isn't that what happens to Scrooge? And shouldn't that be what's happening to us as we hone our lives for God's glory? If so, let us, with good Christmas cheer, get on with learning the story at a deeper level. Let's get on with understanding what life lessons A Christmas Carol might offer and get on with this business of being "pleasantly haunted."CHAPTER 3
It's not about you
Solitary as an oyster. — The narrator, on Scrooge
Ebenezer Scrooge proudly wears his distaste for anything beyond money like a suit of armor. We aren't privy to his innermost thoughts or fears, but outwardly, he seems perfectly content in his total discontentedness, happily unhappy that the only one who matters on this earth is named Ebenezer Scrooge.
He lives his life in a rut well rusted by time, bitterness, and regret, like a shipwreck encrusted with barnacles that have clung to it so stubbornly long that they have become part of the vessel itself.
Then comes that wild and crazy Christmas Eve/Christmas morning when Jacob Marley and the three Spirits — sounds like some sixties rock band — expose him for the lonely, needy, desperate man he really is.
Until then, Scrooge is the poster boy for unhappy people who grumble their way through life, believing that they benefit by walling themselves off from others. That it is all about them. Dickens, of course, sees Scrooge for who he really is: a dead man walking. He is cold. He is tight-fisted. He is "self-contained." In the opening stave, or chapter — literally, a stanza in a poem or song — we learn Scrooge has never bothered to paint out the name of his long-dead partner, Marley, on the sign of his business's door and is known to answer to Scrooge or Marley. "It was all the same to him," writes the narrator.
The subtle message: Though obviously redeemable — that, after all, is the point of the book — Scrooge is Marley without the physical chains. He's impervious to weather; "no warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him." He's impervious to feelings; "solitary as an oyster." He's impervious to people. And he is named, apparently, from the slang word scrooge: to crowd or squeeze, the star of our show being "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"
Nobody dares to greet him on the street. Beggars ignore him. Children fear him. Even dogs sense he's bad news. "When they saw him coming, [dogs] would tug their owners into door-ways and up courts," the narrator tells us.
Scrooge, meanwhile, is seemingly content that others return his coldness with a coldness of their own. "What did Scrooge care?" writes the narrator. "It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance."
He obsesses with the trivial — the cost of a chunk or two of coal to bring warmth to his office and to his employee, Bob Cratchit — and ignores the profound: People. God. The suffering and joy of others.
"Man's sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of strange disorder," writes Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French religious philosopher.
So what are the "greatest things"? When a Pharisee asks Jesus that question — specifically, what are the most important commandments? — Jesus doesn't roll out a list of dos and don'ts. Instead, he says, with a touch of my paraphrasing: "You want to know what's important? Relationships. With God. And with people." Specifically: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matthew 22:37–39).
Why doesn't Scrooge see this? Because ignorance is bliss, or so he thinks. The first step in making a life change is aware- ness. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," says Proverbs 1:7, "but fools despise wisdom and instruction." Thus, if we remain unaware of our deficiencies, if we dare not look in the mirror, if we busy ourselves with Pascal's "little things," then we never have to come face-to-face with our true fear: the real us.
The irony, of course, is that until we do so, it doesn't matter who we pretend is staring back at us in that mirror. As long as we think life is about only that person and nobody else, we're destined to slowly suffocate in worship of self. So day after day, we, like Scrooge, keep pretending we're fully alive when, in fact, we may only be breathing.CHAPTER 4
Misery loves company
Can you? Can you sit down? — Scrooge, to the Ghost of Jacob Marley
As the story begins, Scrooge encounters four men — Cratchit, Fred, and two alms-for-the-poor solicitors — and he dismisses them with an iciness as brittle as the Christmas Eve weather outside.
Why? Because each reminds Scrooge of what he is not, leaving him two options: to face his deficiencies and do something about them, or to rationalize that the problem couldn't possibly be him so it must be them. These others include Fred, his insufferably upbeat nephew who wears his Christmas Spirit loud and proud; the two men raising money for the poor with far too much compassion for Scrooge's taste; and Cratchit, Scrooge's clerk, who bothers his boss because he wants to take off Christmas Day. Grumbles Scrooge, "I pay a day's wages for no work."
What Scrooge is really saying is this: If I'm going to be miserable, then I want the people around me to be just as miserable. No, make that more miserable.
It's a wonder discontent people such as Scrooge hire such content people as Cratchit, because it places them in an uncomfortable position. It constantly reminds them of their own discontentedness. Virtue is a light that frightens those who live in darkness.
I remember the moment I first realized as much. I think of it as my light-on-the-cockroach moment. I was a sophomore in high school, a time when belonging was important and our safe haven was cliques. My jock-oriented circle was having a party at the house of a friend whose parents were out of town for the weekend. We purposely didn't tell one particular person about it because, well, he wasn't deemed cool enough.
Excerpted from 52 Little Lessons from A Christmas Carol by Bob Welch. Copyright © 2015 Bob Welch. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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