It seems that Charles Dickens always loved Christmas. He wrote essays, stories, and scenes in his novels dealing with various aspects of the holiday from early in his career until shortly before his death. But in 1843, he did something different—he created a philosophy of Christmas in what would become his most enduring and popular single work, the novella A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote this tale in just six weeks, beginning in September, and presented it to the world on December 19. By Christmas Eve, the first edition of six thousand copies had sold out.
Just a few paragraphs into the story, Scrooge’s nephew Freddie remarks that to him Christmas has always been
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.
Dickens described this idea as the “Carol Philosophy” of Christmas, and to many of us it continues to sum up the way we feel about the holiday season. The philosophy played out in the life of Charles Dickens, through both his continued literary attention to Christmas and his concern for social reform. But how did the Carol Philosophy resonate in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge after that fateful Christmas of 1843? At the end of Stave IV of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge vows to “honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” So perhaps it is fitting to turn to the Scrooge of 1863 for a little lesson on keeping Christmas.
Scrooge was alive, to begin with. There could be no doubt whatever about that—alive and kicking. Not that I know why that particular verb should exemplify life; for Scrooge’s part it might better be said that he was alive and singing, or alive and laughing, or alive and generally making a nuisance of himself.
Yes, though Scrooge had approached, then reached, and finally surpassed the age at which most of us, in particular his former partner, Jacob Marley, like Hamlet and his unhappy clan, “shuffle off this mortal coil,” he nonetheless lived on, with no noticeable diminution of energy, or ecstasy, or enthusiasm. Cratchit knew this well. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and Cratchit had been partners for nigh on twenty years and in all that time Cratchit, though he had watched as the lines of age had waged their admittedly only modestly successful assault on Scrooge’s visage, had noted no decrease in his partner’s liveliness. Which brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Scrooge was as alive as ever—some might say more alive.
Oh, but he was an openhanded benefactor, Scrooge! A generous, charitable, jolly, gleeful, munificent old fool, yielding as a feather pillow that welcomed the weariest soul to its downy breast. The light within him melted his hardened features, reddened his nose, puffed out his cheeks, loosened his gait (as well as his purse strings), made his eyes sparkle and his lips glow, and bubbled forth in his dulcet voice. A tuneful rhyme was ever in his throat, and his frosty eyebrows fooled no one. He carried his own warmth always about him; he could thaw ice blocks with his presence as easily at Christmastide as in the dog days of summer.
External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge—no summer swelter could dissuade his glee nor winter weather chill his cheery countenance. No breeze that swayed the grasses of spring was gentler than he, no falling snow more soft and soothing, no rain more apt to nurture. And like the rain and snow and hail and sleet and beating sun combined, like our own relentless English weather, Scrooge never stopped, never altered that perfect disposition—not to please himself, and certainly not to please those inhabitants of London on whom his constant kindnesses had grown wearisome from years of use.
Nobody ever stopped in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Mr. Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” For they knew that come he would, and bring gifts to the children he would, and press a coin into each of their outstretched hands he would, and sing a pleasant song he would, and such unrelenting happiness would he bring that the household would find it difficult to bear. No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, for a ten-pound note would end their careers. No children asked him what was the o’clock, having no time to spare for stories and songs and tossing upon the knee. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him, and when they saw him coming on, they would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; for where would such dogs be once Scrooge laid eyes upon their masters—Scrooge, who would gladly lead a blind man to Dover, if that were his destination? No, the dogs would wag their tails and hide their masters until Scrooge had passed, their employment ensured for another day.
But what did Scrooge care? There was always another blind man or beggar or child just round the corner, always room in the crowded paths of life for his bottomless well of human sympathy.
Once upon a time—of all the days in the year, that longest day when shadows in the narrowest alleys do not lengthen until well past the hour when men like Scrooge have taken their evening meal—old Scrooge whistled his way down a narrow street of Westminster. It was hot, sultry, sweaty weather and the shimmer on the Thames was enough to cloud the mind of the most clear-thinking man. The city clocks had just gone three, but the sun seemed disinclined to rest in its glaring pursuit of those souls who slogged along the paving stones. The heat came pouring in at every chink and keyhole and spared no one, from the lowliest clerk to the wealthiest miser who ever captained a countinghouse.
In a government office in Whitehall, labouring to keep a certain column of numbers from encroaching upon another, similar column and thus bringing down the empire, sat Scrooge’s nephew, Freddie, and as he had left his door standing open, in the vain hope that some stirring of the air might bring a hint of relief from the stifling heat, he had not the turn of the handle to warn him of his uncle’s approach.
“A Merry Christmas, nephew! God save you!” cried Scrooge in a cheerful voice.
“Christmas?” replied the startled nephew. “I’ve no time now for Christmas, uncle.”
Scrooge inexplicably wore a muffler wound round his ruddy neck, and this he now unwound in a leisurely fashion, as if it were one and the same to him whether it adorned him or not. His eyes sparkled as he endured the impatient stare of his nephew.
“No time for Christmas!” said Scrooge. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”
“I do,” said Freddie. “Merry Christmas on the longest day of summer? What right have you to be merry, when all around you are working? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” replied Scrooge gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose?”
“Not this again, uncle,” said Freddie.
“I’m poor because I choose to be, because I take more pleasure in giving away my gold than in hoarding it to pay for my meagre needs,” answered Scrooge, ignoring his nephew. “And so I say again, Merry Christmas.”