Christmas according to Dickens; A Christmas Carol; Ebeneezer Scrooge; A Christmas Carol and Christianity
A Resource by Mark D. Roberts

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Christmas According to Dickens














Christmas According to Dickens

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

Table of Contents 2006
Part 1 My Favorite Book
Part 2 The Man Who Invented Christmas
Part 3 The Real Business of Christmas
Part 4 The First Ebenezer Scrooge
Part 5 What Made Scrooge Scrooge?
Part 6 Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 1
Part 7 Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 2
Part 8 Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 3 (Section A)
Part 9 Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 3 (Section B)
Part 10 Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 4
Part 11 Evidence of a Transformed Life: Stave 5
Part 12 What Transforms Us? The Example of Ebenezer Scrooge
Part 13 What Transforms Us? The Example of Ebenezer Scrooge (Section B)
Table of Contents 2004
Part 1 The Man Who Invented Christmas (see 2006 edition)
Part 2 A Christmas Carol on the Drawing Board
Part 3 Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Section A
Part 4 Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Section B
Part 5 Happy New Year in a World of Suffering? Some Help from Charles Dickens


My Favorite Book
Part 1 of series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I have ambivalent feelings about "get-to-know-you" questions that ask things like: "What is your favorite movie?" or "What is your favorite vacation spot?" On the one hand, I find it fun to force my mind to answer such narrow questions. On the other hand, pointed questions like these drive me crazy because they are so focused. "My favorite movie?" I want to ask, "In what genre? Comedy? Drama? Adventure?" "My favorite vacation spot?" I want to protest, "Well it all depends. For a rest, I'll take Hawaii. For inspiration, give me the High Sierra. For adventure, I'll take Europe." I have a hard time choosing just one movie or one vacation spot.

So I'm about to do something that might make me a little bit crazy. I'm going to claim to have a favorite book (not counting the Bible, which pastors always have to like the best). Are you ready? Here I go: My all-time favorite book is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Immediately my mind starts protesting, flooding my consciousness with other options for my favorite book, including: A Tale of Two Cities, Les Misérables, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I could make a good case for any of these. But A Christmas Carol still wins the prize for my favorite book.

Notice, I didn't say "best book." Here Les Misérables would get the nod, I think. I wouldn't even content that A Christmas Carol is Charles Dickens's finest book. A Tale of Two Cities or David Copperfield would get my vote in this category. But, still, A Christmas Carol is my favorite book, favorite in the sense of most beloved.

And favorite also in the sense of most frequently read. For several years now I've made it part of my Christmas tradition to read A Christmas Carol in its entirety. Now, as you probably know, that's not as impressive as it sounds, because the book is relatively short. One can read it in less than two hours. When Dickens himself used to do public, oral readings of the book, he'd take only three hours or so. In truth, A Christmas Carol really isn't a novel. It's more of a novella, or, as Dickens himself labels it, "Ghost Story of Christmas."

Why do I love A Christmas Carol as much as I do? It has many things going for it. It's short enough to be read and re-read with ease. Its main theme is Christmas, one of my favorite events of the year. It's filled with mouthwatering descriptions of luscious food and drink. It's got lots of suspense and lots of humor. And, of course, it's a salient example of Dickens's inimitable narrative style, a kind of "I'm-your-friend" storytelling that draws the reader into the tale. But none of this accounts adequately for my love of A Christmas Carol. It ranks as my favorite book because of what happens in the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge . . . and because of what happens in my heart through his experience.

If you want to decipher some of the delightful yet peculiar language in A Christmas Carol, I'd recommend The Annotated Christmas Carol edited by Michael Patrick Hearn.

This is the first post in a series I'm calling Christmas According to Dickens. In fact, this series is a new and improved and expanded version of a series I began two years ago, on December 26, 2004. Some of the posts in this current series will be improved editions of what I wrote a couple of years ago. Other posts will be completely new. (The earlier series, by the way, was interrupted by the tsunami in southeast Asia, which turned my attention away from Dickens.)

Why am I doing this? Partly because I love A Christmas Carol and like to talk about what I love. But I also think that this wonderful little book can help us focus on the true meaning of Christmas. So I will be reading Dickens, not just as a lover of his work, and not as a scholar of English literature, which I am not, but as a Christian pastor, which I am. One of the questions I want to ask along the way, in fact, has to do with the presence of Jesus in A Christmas Carol. Does he show up? If so, how? And why in this way?

I also want to get back to a question I began to ponder in 2004, namely: Why did Ebenezer Scrooge change? Again, my point isn't mere curiosity. I'm also interested in the larger question of what transforms people.

If you'd like to do some reading on your own, let me suggest a number of helpful websites:

If you’re interested in Dickens and/or A Christmas Carol, there are a wealth of web-based resources. I’ll list a few. I’m sure you can find many others if you look. Much of what I have summarized in this post comes from these sites.

Helpful Links for Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol

The Charles Dickens Museum in London has lots of online material.

David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page, an exceptional collection of resources. Here’s a snippet from Perdue’s collection:

One of my favorites sites focuses on the movie versions of A Christmas Carol . It includes an extensive collection of photos of actors (and cartoon characters, Muppets, etc.) who have played roles in film versions of A Christmas Carol.

A collection of the original John Leech illustrations for A Christmas Carol.

A Finnish website known simply as Charles Dickens features a broad collection of diverse resources.

The Victorian Web has extensive scholarly and popular resources on all things Victorian, including a broad collection on Dickens.

Finally, there's a site that has a recipe for “Smoking Bishop,” a festive drink featured in A Christmas Carol.

Featured Audiobook: A Christmas Carol Audiobook, by Charles Dickens
                                             Read by Jim Dale

Jim Dale is perhaps the best known and most loved reader of books in the world owing to his memorable preformances of the Harry Potter series. It's hard to imagine a better combination than Dickens's classic tale and Dale's matchless interpretations.

Featured Book: The Annotated Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens,
                                edited with introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn

This beautiful edition of Dickens's A Christmas Carol includes wonderful illustrations and extensive commentary on the text, plus a fine introduction to Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol. If you love this classic story, I'd urge you to treat yourself to this book. It would also make a wonderful Christmas present for the person who has everything except this fine volume.

Send an e-mail link of this page to a friend.

E-mail Mark D. Roberts
Visit the guestbook.

Go to the homepage.

The Man Who Invented Christmas
Part 2 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
A new and improved version of a post put up on December 26, 2004
Posted for Thursday, December 14, 2006

In 1988 the Sunday Telegraph of London gave Charles Dickens the title of “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” If you’re not familiar with the history of Christmas celebrations, this may seem like an enormous exaggeration. But when you look more closely, the Telegraph’s hyberbole turns out to be closer to the truth than you might expect.

Of course Christians had been celebrating the birth of Christ for centuries before Charles Dickens came along. And northern Europeans also had their winter festivals, both pagan and secular. But in England at the turn of the nineteenth century, Christmas had almost vanished from the scene. There were several reasons for this disappearance. In part, the continued influence of conservative Reformed Christians–who believed that people should do only what the Bible commands, and therefore should not celebrate Christmas, especially given its popular excesses–meant that for many in England Christmas was not a valid holiday.

But even though Christians of this Puritan stripe had actually outlawed Christmas in the 17th century during their brief flirtation with political power, their efforts had been largely unsuccessful. The disappearance of Christmas from English culture had much more to do with the social impact of industrialization and urbanization. As large numbers of people left their ancestral villages to move to the large cities, they also left behind most of their cultural traditions, such as the celebration of Christmas. Moreover, in the cities, bosses weren’t inclined to encourage a holiday that meant a day off from work, especially a day of paid vacation. (Ebenezer Scrooge’s reticence to give Bob Cratchit a holiday on Christmas wasn’t that unusual in his day.)

Another implication of big city life in Victorian England was widespread poverty and human suffering. Although many people worked in factories and offices, wages were low and living conditions poor. This was an abiding concern for Charles Dickens, especially in the fall of 1843. Amid his busy writing career, he was working hard to raise support for institutions that educated and otherwise helped the urban poor of England.

Charles Dickens, in a classic drawing

In October 1843 a trip to Manchester poured fuel on the flame of Dickens’s passion for the poor. As he spoke a the Athenaeum, an institution devoted to caring for the poor in Manchester, Dickens's heart was strangely moved. Moreover, he had stayed with his beloved sister Fan (the name of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dear sister in A Christmas Carol), who had two young sons, one of whom was frail and sick (not unlike Tiny Tim). So in October Dickens began to write A Christmas Carol. According to his own testimony, his writing of this short book was rather a spiritual experience.

A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. All 6,000 copies of the first edition were sold by December 22. The book became instantly popular, though the high cost of printing, including the fine illustrations, limited Dickens’s profits. Before long, however, vast numbers of people in England and America knew the story, not only from reading the book, but also from dramatic presentations and public readings by Dickens himself.

Because our own celebrations of Christmas have been so strongly influenced by Dickens, we can easily overlook his special contributions to our traditions, such as:

• Christmas as a one (or two) day celebration rather than the traditional twelve.

• Christmas as an occasion for family and close friends to gather for luscious food, singing, dancing, and games.

• Christmas as a time for being generous to the poor.

So close was the connection between Charles Dickens and Christmas that, when he died in 1870, a young woman who heard of it was aghast. “Dickens dead?” she exclaimed. “Then will Father Christmas die too?” Well, as it turns out, Father Christmas didn’t die along with his greatest promoter, Charles Dickens. The influence of this man, and most of all his masterful novella, A Christmas Carol, guaranteed that Christmas would be kept for generations upon generations.

In my next post I'll focus on one of the essential elements in a Dickens Christmas, something I believe we all should include in our holiday celebrations today.

Featured Book: The Annotated Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens,
                                edited with introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn

This beautiful edition of Dickens's A Christmas Carol includes wonderful illustrations and extensive commentary on the text, plus a fine introduction to Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol. If you love this classic story, I'd urge you to treat yourself to this book. It would also make a wonderful Christmas present for the person who has everything except this fine volume.

Send an e-mail link of this page to a friend.

E-mail Mark D. Roberts
Visit the guestbook.

Go to the homepage.

The Real Business of Christmas
Part 3 of series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Friday, December 15, 2006

In yesterday's post I began to explain the impact of Charles Dickens, especially through A Christmas Carol, upon our celebrations of Christmas. In fact, it's not too much of an exaggeration to describe him, in the words of the London Sunday Telegraph, as "the man who invented Christmas."

Dickens's influence upon our Christmas traditions is keenly felt today when it comes to charitable giving. In this season I will receive at least a couple dozen requests to donate money to worthy causes. Moreover, I will make one of these requests on behalf of my church, which depends on an exceedingly strong December to finish the year in the black. To be sure, Dickens didn't invent the notion that giving befits the Christmas season. One could track this idea back to the Magi in the Christmas story, if not to God's gift of His own Son. But seeing Christmas a special time for donating money to charity, especially to the poor, is a perspective Dickens popularized.

The tone of seasonal charity is struck early and often in A Christmas Carol. Early in the first stave (chapter), Ebenezer Scrooge receives an unwelcome Christmas Eve visit from his nephew. When his Uncle Scrooge questions the value of Christmas, Fred responds:

"But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that- 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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

Even apart from its religious significance, Fred sees Christmas as worthwhile because it is a time of unusual generosity. Of course Scrooge doesn't buy into this one bit.

No sooner had Fred left his uncle alone than "two portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold" dropped in on Mr. Scrooge. One explained his business thus:

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

When Scrooge is unmoved, the man explains, "We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices." Of course Scrooge wants nothing to do with their efforts to make provision for the poor, exclaiming: "It's not my business. . . . It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's."

The two "portly gentlemen" from a stage
production in Omaha, Nebraska

But some ghostly interference in Scrooge's life changes his opinion on the matter of his business, especially at Christmastime. When visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge attempts to compliment him by saying, "But you were always a good man of business," to which the ghost responds:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "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!"

Then Marley's ghost adds an extra note about Christmas:

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?"

Notice that if Jacob Marley had imitated the Wise Men, he wouldn't have been led to worship the Christ child, but rather to be generous to the poor. This, rather than the religious meaning of Christmas, is central to Dickens's vision of the holiday.

As Scrooge is visited by Marley and his coterie of ghosts, his heart softens towards all people, especially the poor. Thus when his transformation is complete in Stave 5, the very first thing Scrooge does is to purchase a giant turkey for the family of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit. Then, as he is walking about on Christmas morning, he runs into the same portly gentlemen who had the unfortunate experience of meeting Scrooge the previous day. Yet, now, things are quite different. Scrooge approaches them, offers them Christmas greetings, and then whispers something in the ear of one of the men. Here's the following dialogue:

"Lord bless me!" cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. "My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?"

 "If you please," said Scrooge. "Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favour?"

"My dear sir," said the other, shaking hands with him. "I don't know what to say to such munificence–"

"Don't say anything please," retorted Scrooge. "Come and see me. Will you come and see me?"

The primarily and most obvious proof of Scrooge's transformation is not simply his delight in Christmas, nor his attendance at church, nor even his joining his nephew's Christmas party. Rather, the proof that Scrooge is a changed man is seen in his exceptional generosity, both with the Cratchit family in particular and with all needy people in general.

So when Dickens concludes that Scrooge "knew how to keep Christmas well," he means more than that he abolished "Bah! Humbug!" in favor of "Merry Christmas!" Ebenezer Scrooge kept Christmas well by becoming "as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." This goodness is seen especially in his generosity both at Christmas and throughout the year. He learned the truth that eluded Jacob Marley in this life, namely: "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business." These became the business of Ebenezer Scrooge, even as they are the business of Christmas.

Practical Tips for Doing the Business of Christmas

I expect that many of my readers have already made charitable gifts during this season, or that such gifts and their destinations are already planned. That's great. But if you find yourself unsure of where to give, or if you've just been moved by the example of Mr. Scrooge to do a little more "Christmas business," then let me suggest some excellent giving opportunities.

First, as a pastor who's keenly aware of the challenges and opportunities associated with church finances, I'd encourage you to make an extra gift to your church (if you have one). Over the years, extra year-end giving from my own members and from others has enabled us, not only to finish the year in the black, but also to share even more generously with others in need.

Second, if you want to make a special gift to help the poor, I can think of no better channel for your giving than World Vision. World Vision is a Christian organization that seeks to care for the physical needs of the poor and, perhaps more importantly, to empower the poor to overcome poverty. What you give to World Vision won't be eaten up in administrative expenses, but will almost entirely go to people in need. There are lots of ways for you to designate your giving to World Vision. Their "Ways to Give" page presents a variety of options and giving levels. It takes about three minutes to make a gift, or one minute if you have given to World Vision before and they have your personal data online.  

Third, Hugh Hewitt made me aware of the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, an organization committed to helping injured Marines and their families. This group has been certified for their financial integrity, and it has already channeled several million dollars to injured Marines and their loved ones. So, as you think of those who have made great sacrifices in service to our country, you may want to make a donation to the Semper Fi Fund. I'd encourage you to visit their website, especially the "How You Can Help" page. You can make a donation in a couple of minutes, and you can make it in honor of a specific Marine, if you wish. For more information, you can check Hugh's post on the subject.  

Finally, of course there are many, many other worthy charitable organizations that need your help in this season. If you don't follow my specific leads, that's fine. But, by all means, do some special year-end giving. Be sure to do your Christmas business!

Featured Book: The Annotated Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens,
                                edited with introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn

This beautiful edition of Dickens's A Christmas Carol includes wonderful illustrations and extensive commentary on the text, plus a fine introduction to Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol. If you love this classic story, I'd urge you to treat yourself to this book. It would also make a wonderful Christmas present for the person who has everything except this fine volume.

Send an e-mail link of this page to a friend.

E-mail Mark D. Roberts
Visit the guestbook.

Go to the homepage.

The First Ebenezer Scrooge
Part 4 of series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
An edited and update version of my post of December 26, 2004
Posted for Monday, December 18, 2006

If I were to tell you the Charles Dickens wrote a story about a solitary, crotchety old man who despised both people and Christmas until some supernatural visitors came to him on Christmas Eve and taught him to have a new perspective on life, you'd probably yawn and say, "Yes, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge." But if I were to tell you I wasn't thinking of Ebenezer Scrooge at all, but rather of Gabriel Grub, you might be a bit surprised. So go ahead and be surprised, if you wish, because what I'm saying is true.

In 1836, seven years before he wrote A Christmas Carol, Dickens published a short story as Chapter 29 of The Pickwick Papers. “The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton” narrates the strange experiences of Gabriel Grub, the sexton (caretaker and gravedigger) for a church in a rural village, and a literary cousin of Ebenezer Scrooge. According to Dickens, Gabriel Grub was “an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow – a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself.” He had “a deep scowl of malice and ill-humor.” Sounds like Scrooge, doesn’t he?

One Christmas Eve Grub decided to go to the churchyard to dig a grave. As he walked through the streets of his village, he watched people making preparations for Christmas parties–parties he wouldn’t even think to attend, should he have been invited. When he saw children playing games, Grub amused himself with the thought of “measles, scarlet fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolations besides.” If his neighbors offered him a Christmas greeting, Grub returned “a short, sullen growl,” not “Humbug!” but its preverbal precursor. When a young lad was singing a Christmas song in the street, Gabriel Grub cornered the boy and “rapped him over the head with his lantern five or six times.” As he began digging a grave, Grub cheered himself with this thought: “A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas box! Ho! ho! ho!”

Watch out for goblins here!

But then Gabriel Grub received a surprise visitor, a grinning goblin who taunted him with clever dialogue. Soon this goblin was joined by “a whole troop of goblins” who captured Grub and dragged him down into the earth. Grub found himself in a cavern with the first goblin, the “king of goblins,” and his band. They proceeded to show him a series of scenes that were magically projected in the end of the cavern. The first scene was of a poor family: many children and their mother. The children rejoiced when their father joined them. But then the scene shifted to a bedroom, in which “the fairest and youngest child lay dying.” “Even as the sexton looked upon him with an interest he had never felt or known before, the little boy died.” Yet the family had assurance that their little one was in “happy Heaven.” (The similarity between this scene and that of Bob Cratchit's family in A Christmas Carol is striking.)

After the magic scene was finished, the goblins beat Gabriel Grub, and then showed him another ghostly video. This sequence of viewings and beatings happened many times over, and “many a lesson it taught to Gabriel Grub.” “He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy . . . because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace.” On the other hand, Gabriel Grub “saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth, and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all.” At this point he fell asleep, only to awake in the churchyard on Christmas morning.

Grub “was an altered man.” Yet “he could not bear the thought of returning to a place where his repentance would be scoffed at, and his reformation disbelieved.” So Gabriel Grub disappeared from his village for ten years. When he finally returned, he was “a ragged, contented, rheumatic old man.” The moral of the story, according to the narrator, was “that if a man turn sulky and drink by himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the better for it: let the spirits be never so good.”

Reading the story of Gabriel Grub is like looking at the charcoal sketches of an artist getting ready to paint a masterpiece. The parallels between “The Story of the Goblins” and A Christmas Carol are obvious: a solitary, nasty old man not only refuses to celebrate Christmas, but also spurns the greetings of those who do, and even tries to hurt a boy who sings a Christmas carol. On Christmas Eve this man receives unexpected supernatural visitors who proceed to show him many scenes of life, including a moving scene of a poor, loving family whose youngest child is terribly ill. In the end the man is changed by this experience.

Of course there are also many differences between “”The Story of the Goblins” and A Christmas Carol. Yet one of the most striking differences is the conclusion. Whereas Gabriel Grub slunk away out of fear that the townspeople would laugh at him, Ebenezer Scrooge resolved to live a changed life. After the Ghost of Christmas Future revealed to Scrooge his own sorry death, Scrooge exclaimed: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” And so he did.

Yet in light of the tale of Gabriel Grub, who ran away from town for fear of people’s laughing scorn, let’s read once again the conclusion to A Christmas Carol. Scrooge had just promised to Bob Cratchit that he would raise his salary and help his struggling family. After this Dickens writes:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Both in "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton" and in A Christmas Carol Dickens recognizes that people will laugh when a person is transformed from bad to good. Yet whereas this fear kept Gabriel Grub in bondage, Scrooge was able to transcend it. “His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.” Just as Gabriel Grub recognized that people must have happiness in their hearts, and that this helps them overcome life’s difficulties, so it was with Ebenezer Scrooge.

But the difference between Grub and Scrooge suggests a tantalizing question: Why did Ebenezer Scrooge change? And why did he change so thoroughly that he didn't even mind if people were to laugh at him? To this question I’ll return in my next post.

Featured Book: The Annotated Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens,
                                edited with introduction by Michael Patrick Hearn

This beautiful edition of Dickens's A Christmas Carol includes wonderful illustrations and extensive commentary on the text, plus a fine introduction to Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol. If you love this classic story, I'd urge you to treat yourself to this book. It would also make a wonderful Christmas present for the person who has everything except this fine volume.

Send an e-mail link of this page to a friend.

E-mail Mark D. Roberts
Visit the guestbook.

Go to the homepage.

What Made Scrooge Scrooge?
Part 5 of series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Tuesday, December 19, 2006

If you call somebody a "Scrooge" today, everybody will know what you mean. You're implying that someone is miserly, grumpy, and selfish, especially but not only during Christmastime. In fact, the name "Scrooge" comes from a one-used verb "to scrooge," which meant "to squeeze." The first description we get of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol fills out this implication:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

Soon I want to examine what made Ebenezer Scrooge change from being, well, Scrooge, to be a generous man who loved both people and Christmas. But before I get to this, I want to consider what turned the human begin named Ebenezer Scrooge into the archetypal mean-spirited miser.

I realize this question is more of a 20th or 21st century question than a 19th century question. It's only been in recent times that we've become fascinated, one might say, obsessed by psychological causes of behavior. Yet, even though Charles Dickens didn't supply a lengthy biography of Scrooge, we can nevertheless discover some of what made him the man he became. This knowledge may also help us to understand what unmade him and remade him.

Most of what formed the soul of Ebenezer Scrooge appears in Stave 2 of A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge images of his past experiences. The very first view of the younger Scrooge comes as he sits alone in his boarding school on Christmas Eve. He is "a solitary child, neglected by his friends." Seeing his young, abandoned self, the grown up Scrooge sobs with a peculiar kind of empathy. The only joy in this lonely boy's life comes from fantasy books.

In the next scene from Scrooge's past he begins, once again, abandoned by the other boys who had gone home for Christmas. But this time Ebenezer receives a surprise visit from his sister, Fan. She brings the good news that Ebenezer will be coming home for Christmas, and even beyond. Here's a bit of the dialogue:

The cover of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. From University of Birmingham online exhibit.

'Home, little Fan?' returned the boy.

'Yes!' said the child, brimful of glee. 'Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you're to be a man!' said the child, opening her eyes,' and are never to come back here; but first, we're to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world.'

In this short paragraph we learn some crucial facts about Ebenezer Scrooge's sorry childhood:

• He had been sent away from home to a boarding school.
• His father used to be cruel.
• He had previously been left alone at school for Christmas.
• His mother was dead (implied, since she isn't mentioned).

These bits of data begin to explain why Scrooge became Scrooge. But the next scene in Scrooge's past shows that he hadn't been completely corrupted by his difficult childhood. In this scene he is serving as an apprentice for a fun-loving, generous man named Fezziwig. Ebenezer appears to have thrived under Fezziwig's tutelage, and also been close to his fellow apprentice, Dick Wilkins. We have no hint of the selfish, Christmas-hating man whom Scrooge became.

Yet something happened after Scrooge's apprenticeship under Fezziwig that changed his heart for the worse. We learn this from the next scene in Scrooge's past. There his fiancée informs Ebenezer that she is to break their engagement. Why? Because "another idol has displaced me," she explains. And this idol is "a golden one," which Dickens calls "Gain" and we would call "Greed." The dialogue continues:

[Scrooge says,] "There is nothing on which [the world] is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!"

"You fear the world too much," she answered, gently. "All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?"

Scrooge has become the tight-fisted, hard-as-nails man who cares only about financial gain. What has driven him to this? Partly it's his recognition of how difficult poverty is. This came for Scrooge, as it did for Charles Dickens, from his own bitter experience. And it has led him to be consumed, not just by materialism, but by fear. He is so afraid of poverty's lash that he has abandoned his "nobler aspirations," including the desire to marry the woman he loves and who had once loved him.

No doubt the rejection Scrooge experienced from his fiancée hardened his heart still further. Love itself was to be scorned, which is exactly what Scrooge had done in the Stave 1, when his nephew admitted to marrying because he fell in love: "'Because you fell in love!' growled Scrooge, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas."

The hard-hearted, grasping Scrooge found strength and solace in the social philosophy of his day, that thought of the poor as deserving their sorry fate, and even as being a threat to the well-being of the world. When, in Stave 1, Scrooge rejects the request of the two "portly gentlemen" for a charitable gift for the poor, he suggests that the poor might die "and decrease the surplus population." Here Scrooge echoes the views of the influential economist Thomas Malthus, whose theories would have allowed a man like Scrooge to defend his greed and lack of compassion for the poor.

So, what made Scrooge Scrooge? You start with an unhappy childhood: mother dead; cruel father; sent away from home to overly strict boarding schools; no friends among classmates; only solace in books; the only student not going home for Christmas. Then you throw in an strong fear of poverty along with a growing love for material gain. Add the rejection of a fiancée. And top it off with popular philosophy that praises acquisitiveness and derides the poor as deserving of their condition. What have you got? Scrooge! Scrooge: whose heart has been squeezed by the impact of a sorry life and his own sorry choices. Scrooge: who squeezes his hand around the only thing that gives him meaning and security in life . . . money.

So if this explains, at least in part, how Scrooge became Scrooge, now the question is: What caused Scrooge to change?

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Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 1
Part 6 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Edited and updated version of my post for December 28, 2004

As A Christmas Carol begins, Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most unlikable characters in all of literature. Here is the full version of Charles Dickens’s classic description (which I gave in shorter form in my last post):

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Don't you love that description? Now there’s a man in need of an attitude adjustment, or, indeed, a life adjustment. And that’s exactly what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge, and in less than 100 pages! By the end of the story, here's the new Scrooge:

Scrooge was better than his word [to Bob Cratchit concerning help for his family]. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. . . . [A]nd it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

What in the world can explain such a transformation?

Well, one might begin by saying that nothing in this world can account for it. Scrooge needed, and indeed, received supernatural assistance. The change in Ebenezer Scrooge is a direct result of the impact of four ghosts upon him, the spirit of his departed colleague Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. The transformation of a man like Ebenezer Scrooge requires other-worldly influence. In this regard, Ebenezer Scrooge is like his literary forefather Gabriel Grub (see my post entitled "The First Ebenezer Scrooge"), though Scrooge was haunted by ghosts rather than goblins. And, unlike poor Grub, Scrooge didn’t get physically pummeled into submission. The ghosts worked on his heart, not his body.

It wasn’t the mere fact of ghostly visitors that changed Scrooge, however, as if he had been scared into repentance. Rather, it was what he experienced with the spirits that made all the difference. Indeed, the ghosts weren’t really necessary for Scrooge’s transformation. It could have all been just a dream with the same result, all that would have been much less fun.

The Impact of the Spirit of Jacob Marley

Before Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley, he shows not the slightest bit of kindness or tenderness. His heart is hard. His focus is utterly self-centered. He has nothing to offer others but scorn and an occasional "Humbug!" But it is in his interaction with Marley's ghost that Scrooge first offers the tiniest morsel of positive feeling to anyone.

When the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge, he at first doubts the veracity of his visitor. In one of my favorite lines from A Christmas Carol, Scrooge argues that his vision is probably "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Yet with loud cries and a horrifying change of appearance, Marley's ghost prevails upon Scrooge's good sense. He finally believes that the ghost is real. Scrooge’s first response to this recognition is fear and trembling. His fear grows when he learns that he is destined to wear even heavier post-mortem chains than the onerous ones that Marley himself is forced to carry. “Speak comfort to me, Jacob,” Scrooge begs, in his first real demonstration of some sort of human vulnerability. Yet Marley can offer no real comfort.

"Marley's Ghost" by John Leech, from the first edition of A Christmas Carol. This and other pictures from the first edition are found here.

Here we catch a glimpse of tenderness in Ebenezer Scrooge, though it is completely self-centered. He desires comfort because he is terrified to learn about the Hell that awaits him after death. Thus the frozen heart of Scrooge begins to thaw just a smidgen, even if his feeling is still egocentric.

As Marley continues, he explaines that he has come to warn Scrooge so that he might escape Marley’s dire fate, “a chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.” To this Scrooge responds, “You were always a good friend to me, . . . Thank’ee.” Here is the first positive emotion Scrooge shows, and the first bit of tenderheartedness directed at someone other than himself.

What begins to thaw the frosty heart of Ebenezer Scrooge? It's the fact that Marley has acted to help Scrooge. It's a gift of undeserved kindness that first touches Scrooge's soul.

Pastoral Reflections

Undeserved kindness. Theologians call this grace. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Marley extended grace to his former partner. In no way did Marley owe Scrooge anything. And there's no reason to believe that Marley stood to gain anything for himself in helping Scrooge, other than, perhaps, the sense of having made a positive difference in Scrooge's life (and afterlife). Moreover, in no way whatsoever had Scrooge done anything to deserve Marley’s help. Marley's intervention was simply an act of grace. In fact, it was a demonstration of what theologians call prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace is, simply, grace that comes before anything we do. Prevenient grace takes the initiative. It gets the ball of transformation rolling. The fact that God's grace is prevenient makes all the difference in the world. It means that we cannot do anything to earn God’s favor, nor must we. It means that God’s favor is given first, and everything we do for good is in some measure a response to that prevenient grace.

Although Dickens was not an enthusiastic Christian–his own faith seemed to be more of a romantic, deistic, Unitarian variety–his anthropology bore much in common with his evangelical contemporaries, of whom he was not particularly fond. According to both Dickens and the evangelicals, human transformation comes as a result of grace, grace that is communicated through a supernatural agent. Of course in the Christian case grace comes from God, not a human ghost, and is delivered through the Holy Spirit, not the spirit of a dead colleague. Jacob Marley doesn’t appear in Scripture when I last checked. So when it comes to theology, A Christmas Carol isn’t especially Christian. But Dickens’s understanding of human nature is surprisingly similar to the Christian perspective in some ways. We change in response to grace, with the help of a supernatural spirit.

Though Scrooge’s initial experience of grace softens his stony heart just a bit, it hardly transforms it. This arduous task remains for the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. To their work I’ll return in my next post.

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Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 2
Part 7 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Thursday, December 21, 2006
Edited and updated version of my post for December 27, 2004

In my last post I began to examine A Christmas Carol to discover why Ebenezer Scrooge changed so dramatically. I showed that we see the tiniest hint of his transformation in his interaction with the ghost of Jacob Marley, whose graciousness to Scrooge elicited a morsel of gratitude from the old miser. Yet Marley’s impact would be most keenly felt, not in his visit, but in his sending three other spirits to “haunt” Scrooge.

The Impact of the Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past is a strange apparition who explains the purpose of his visit as Scrooge’s “welfare,” or, indeed, his “reclamation.” The spirit begins by magically transporting Scrooge to the place where he spent his boyhood. The sights and sounds of his youth begin to soften Scrooge’s heart. Yet the spirit has only begun his transforming effort.

Next Scrooge sees his fellow students merrily on their way to celebrate Christmas. The school is deserted, all except for one boy, “a solitary child, neglected by his friends.” It is Scrooge, of course, left alone with nothing to cheer him but the characters from his beloved books. The old man weeps bitter tears for the child he once was. For the first time in a long time he feels compassion for someone else, even if that “someone else” is really just an earlier version of himself. Yet as he feels for himself as a boy, Scrooge also shows the first glimmer of care for another human being as well: “There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night,” he explains to the ghost. “I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” Ironically, Scrooge had almost given that boy something – a rap with his ruler!

On some Christmas Eve following the time of his isolation in the school, the young Scrooge receives a visit from Fan, his beloved sister. (Dickens himself had a sister named Fan.) Fan informs Ebenezer that he can come home for Christmas. Years later Fan dies, leaving behind a child–the nephew Fred whom Scrooge had so badly mistreated only hours before.

After this tender family scene the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to the warehouse of Old Fezziwig, to whom Scrooge had once been apprenticed. The mere sight of his generous old master brings joy to Scrooge’s heart. Then, as he witnesses a grand Christmas party, “Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene. . . .” When challenged by the ghost, he defends Fezziwig’s generosity. And, once again, this begins to be translated into a desire to be generous in his own life: “I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now,” Scrooge says.

The next scene is not a happy one for Scrooge. He watches as his fiancée Belle breaks their engagement, recognizing that Ebenezer loves money far more than her. Then the ghost shows Scrooge one more scene, in which a Belle is much older, with a husband and daughter. Their family love stands in stark contrast to Scrooge’s own miserly loneliness. At this, Scrooge begs to be removed. “I cannot bear it!” he exclaims.

How does all of this help to transform the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge?

"Mr. Fezziwig's Ball" by John Leech, from the first edition of A Christmas Carol. This and other pictures from the first edition are found here.

His journey starts at a most curious place, with Scrooge looking upon himself as a lonely child. It’s as if Dickens realizes that even hard-hearted people might have the tiniest soft spot for themselves and their own suffering. One might almost be tempted to say that Scrooge is acting out a sort of psychological Golden Rule, loving himself so that he might love others as well. From a psychotherapeutic angle, Scrooge is getting in touch with his inner child.

The vision of the Fezziwigs’ party not only lures Mr. Scrooge into a bit of vicarious celebration, but also it forces him to reexamine his own values. Mr. Fezziwig, whom the old Scrooge continues to hold in high regard, saw fit to spend a bit of money for the sake of others. “The happiness he gives,” Scrooge insists, “is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” There’s more to life than money, the old miser begins to realize, for the first time in a long time.

The Ghost of Christmas past, beyond conjuring up within Scrooge feelings of nostalgia and celebration, helps him see–and feel–the harsh contrast between love and loneliness. Love figures prominently in his boyhood encounter with his sister Fan. Remembering her love for him–and his for her–makes Scrooge’s grouchy rejection of Fan’s son Fred all the more grievous. Moreover, the scenes featuring Belle press into Scrooge’s heart the lack of love in his own life. Where Scrooge had once felt genuine love (from and for Fan, from and for Belle), he had chosen to cut himself off from this love, whether with his former fiancée, or with Fred. He realizes he has made poor choices for his life, and he starts to wish for something better.

It’s interesting to me that Scrooge doesn't reject all of this as a bunch of maudlin nonsense. What, I wonder, gives him the ability to see, really to see, his life as it truly was? And what gives him the ability to feel emotions that had for so long been absent from his heart?

The spirit leads Scrooge through a process of open-heart surgery, if you will. It begins with something that would move just about any person: a vision of his own childhood loneliness. Yet something else is at work in this scene. Once again, it’s the magic of supernatural intervention. When the spirit is just about to whisk Scrooge away through the air, he protests for fear of falling. “‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!’” Indeed, ghostly magic enables Ebenezer Scrooge to take into his heart that which, otherwise, he might well have rejected as emotional poppycock.

Pastoral Reflections

What can transform a stony heart? For Charles Dickens, the answer has several layers. Nostalgia for the past seems to help. Looking afresh at one's life makes a difference. Supernatural assistance contributes. But, at the core, love changes people. Love, not of the romantic sort, but of the compassionate, self-giving variety, transforms hearts.

Here, once again, Dickens’s anthropology is virtually Christian. Christians believe that the ultimate transformation in life comes as we experience God’s love for us given through Jesus Christ.

Over a century before Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, another Englishman had something to say about the power of love to transform one’s life. Consider how these words of hymn writer Isaac Watts express something like what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride. . . .

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all

For the Christian, the deepest and most transforming kind of love is celebrated, not at Christmas, but on Good Friday.

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Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 3 (Section A)
Part 8 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Wednesday, December 27, 2006

When we last left Ebenezer Scrooge, he had just finished being visited by the first of three Christmas spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past. He fell into bed, exhausted. At the beginning of Stave 3, Scrooge awakes, ready for the visit of the next of the three spirits. This visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Present, a giant being who exudes the extravagant joy of Christmas. Though at first hesitant to look at this spirit, soon Scrooge shows how his heart has begun to change:

"Spirit," said Scrooge submissively, "conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it."

Like his predecessor, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Ebenezer Scrooge many scenes of Christmas. Here Dickens is at his "Dickensiest" in lavish descriptions of food and festivity, all of which accentuate the joyfulness of Christmas. At first an observer of such delights, in time Scrooge begins to participate in the Christmas games as if he were actually present in the celebrations. He does this most of all as he watches the Christmas celebration of his nephew, Fred, who, in spite of having been mistreated by his uncle the day before, nevertheless wishes Scrooge a Merry Christmas.

What has turned Scrooge into a man who delights in Christmas parties? His observation of genuine celebration leads, it seems, to an open-hearted desire to become an enthusiastic celebrator. Dickens believes that festivity, especially of the pure-hearted variety, is contagious. Yet what touches Scrooge's heart in Stave 3 isn't merely his looking upon numerous Christmas parties. One scene in particular has special impact upon his soul.

"The Ghost of Christmas Present." A copy of the original illustration by John Leech.

It comes as he observes the family of his Clerk, Bob Cratchit. Though this family has little in the way of money, they abound in love and joy. The center of their passion is Tiny Tim, the Cratchits' sickly little boy, who walked with a crutch and was supported by "an iron frame." This sweet boy had may have had a crippled body. But his heart is bigger and stronger than most. He's the one, after all, who offers the generous wish: "God bless us every one!" Viewing Tiny Tim in his weakened state, Scrooge asks the spirit "if Tiny Tim will live."

"If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future," the Spirit responds, "the child will die."

"No, no," said Scrooge. "Oh no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared."

To which the Spirit quotes Scrooges own words from Stave 1: "If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Confronted in this way, "Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief."

Precisely at this point in the story, Bob Cratchit offers a toast to Mr. Scrooge, "the Founder of the Feast." Even though his family is none too happy to drink to Mr. Scrooge, they dutifully follow their father's lead. Thus compacted into a minute's worth of action, Scrooge feels compassion for Tiny Tim, learns that he will die unless something unexpected happens, is confronted by his former hard-heartedness, repents profoundly, and then witnesses the extraordinary grace of his mistreated clerk, Bob Cratchit. Now that's a formula for personal transformation!

Dickens uses Tiny Tim, perhaps more than any other character to pray open the icy heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. This reflects Dickens's own experience of being touched by children, especially their suffering. I noted earlier that the first sign of tenderness in Scrooge comes as he observes his own childhood loneliness. This prepares him to be compassionate for other children. Dickens once wrote to a friend, "Certainly there is nothing more touching than the suffering of a child, nothing more overwhelming" (Annotated Christmas Carol, p. 97).

This conviction no doubt explains the bizarre conclusion to Stave 3. As the Ghost of Christmas Present nears the end of his mission to save Scrooge, he reveals two children hiding beneath his robe. They are "wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable." Who are these emaciated beings? "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want."

 Their presence calls forth compassion from Scrooge, who asks, "Have they no refuge or resource?"

Once again the spirit hurls Scrooge's own words back in his face: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" And with this, the Ghost of Christmas Past disappears along with his pitiful children.

So what in Stave 3 contributes to the transformation of Scrooge's heart? I'll answer this question in my next post, and add some pastoral reflections.

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Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 3 (Section B)
Part 9 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Thursday, December 28, 2006

In yesterday's post I began considering what in Stave 3 contributes to the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge's heart. I summarized the events of Stave 3, focusing especially on Scrooge's response to children in need: Tiny Tim of the Cratchit family and the two wretched children who hide under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Today I want to offer some conclusions and reflections on the events of Stave 3.

What in this stave contributes to the transformation of Scrooge's heart? Partly, it's the observation of Christmas celebrations, especially those of common folk, especially the poor, who, in spite of their material circumstances, enjoy the jovial spirit of Christmas. Yet even more powerful than this observation is Scrooge's vision of Tiny Tim and his suffering. Like Dickens, Scrooge finds himself moved by the plight of a child in need.

John Leech's drawing of Want and Ignorance in the first edition of A Christmas Carol.

Yet the Spirit of Christmas Present doesn't merely allow Scrooge's heart to be touched by childhood pain. He also confronts Scrooge twice with his own words of scorn for the poor. In response to the first of these, Scrooge repents with much sadness. We don't know of how he responds to the second confrontation, however, because the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come Makes his appearance before Dickens can relate Scrooge's feelings.

Pastoral Reflections

Sometimes I think Dickens overstates the power of celebration to thaw Scrooge's heart. Yet I have seen this sort of thing happen. For example, perhaps the strangest worship service in my church each year occurs on the Sunday following our Vacation Bible School week. In our otherwise ordinary Sunday services, worship leaders dress in costume and lead children's songs with lots of hand motions. The children are exuberant in their worship, and predictably wiggly and noisy during times of prayer and Scripture reading. The "sermon" is a dramatic sketch in which I and a couple of my colleagues are dressed up as wacky characters who inevitably discover the truth of the gospel in spite of our silliness. Children love VBS Sunday. But what about the grown ups?

When we first did VBS Sunday this way, I was afraid that some of our more sedate and refined adults would be upset. Was I ever wrong! They loved it just as much as the children, in some ways even more. There was something about the unsophisticated celebrations of children that allowed even very grown up people to rejoice, sometimes even clapping their hands or joining the children in their hand motions. So, given the right circumstances, I do think that celebration, especially that of children, can be contagious.

But I also agree with Dickens that the suffering of children, perhaps even more than their celebration, can open hearts in a unique way. Consider, for example, the case of African children orphaned because of AIDS. Their tragedy has touched the hearts of millions, even people who might have been reticent to care about the HIV/AIDS crisis because of its association with sexual immorality.

Moreover, World Vision and other charitable organizations have found that people will give generously to help hungry children even when they might be less inclined to help equally hungry adults. If you go to World Vision's Ways to Give web page, you'll find nine pictures of struggling children, along with ways to contribute to their well-being. But you won't find any pictures of adults in similar distress. This is not an accident. Partly it reflects World Vision's laudable focus on children. And, I expect, it also reflects a realistic judgment of what moves people to give. I'm not criticizing World Vision for this, please understand. In fact, my family and I regularly contribute to World Vision. If you are looking for a place to make a special year-end gift, I can think of no better one.

Dickens is right to realize that compassion alone won't change people's hearts, however. The Ghost of Christmas Present rightly confronts Scrooge with his own hard-heartedness, that which Christians call sin. Scrooge needs, not just an infusion of kindness, but a complete change of heart. And this requires repentance and reformation.

Once again I see Dickens's understanding of human nature to be much in accord with Christian anthropology. Christians believe that the transformation of human beings requires repentance. In fact, we believe that a Spirit, in this case, the Holy Spirit of God, brings conviction of sin so that we might turn to God (see John 16:7-11).

The complete transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge doesn't happen at the end of Stave 3, however. More is still needed. To this I will turn in my next post.

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Why Did Ebenezer Scrooge Change? Stave 4
Part 10 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Friday, December 29, 2006

The final spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the "Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come" or simply the "Ghost of the Future." This silent spirit, shrouded in black, takes the mythic form of death. Not surprisingly, the visions it reveals to Scrooge also focus upon death and its meaning.

The largest portion of Stave 4, which is shorter than Staves 2 and 3, has to do with various reactions to the death of some unknown figure. At first several men of business talk about this man's death with curious indifference. Then Scrooge observes three people who robbed the dead man and are selling their booty in creepy part of town. Of course the reader guesses that the deceased victim is none other than Scrooge himself, but this doesn't occur to Scrooge at this stage in the story. In fact, when he stands next to the covered body of the dead man, Scrooge is unable to lift the covering and discover whose body lies beneath it. He just can't bring himself to face his own mortality.

The most touching scene in Stave 4 involves the Cratchit family, minus Tiny Tim, who has just died. Their shared grief is almost tangible as they try nevertheless to enjoy a bit of Christmas cheer. Nevertheless, Bob Cratchit breaks down with sadness, crying out "My little child!" Before Scrooge leaves the Cratchits, the family members resolve never to forget Tiny Tim, whom the narrator addresses: "Spirit of Tiny Tim, they childish essence was from God."

In the final scene of this stave, Scrooge demands that the spirit reveal the identity of the mysterious dead man. Soon Scrooge stands in a deserted graveyard, directed by the spirit's pointing finger to a neglected grave, the stone of which reads "Ebenezer Scrooge." The horrified Scrooge realizes the sum total of his life, which amounts to zero. He will die unloved and unnoticed, unless he chooses a different course of living from that moment on.

And this is exactly what Scrooge resolves to do, even though the spirit refuses to assure him that his life is redeemable:

"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, "hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"


Ebenezer Scrooge confronts his own death. Illustration by John Leech in the first edition of A Christmas Carol.

Yet the spirit doesn't speak, and, as Scrooge attempts to hold him, the spirit turns into a bedpost, Scrooge's own bedpost.

One might wonder why Dickens associates the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come with death. Michael Hearn, in The Annotated Christmas Carol, cites something Dickens wrote eight years after A Christmas Carol was first published:

Of all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us. City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, they people who are dear to us! (Hearn, p. 126)

Dickens seems to have experienced Christmas in the way many others do, as a time for remembering loved ones who have died. Therefore Christmas itself can lead to the remembrance of death. What seems to have altered Scrooge's character, however, is not merely the fact of his mortality, but also the fact that his sad death accentuates the worthlessness of his life.

Pastoral Reflections

Death, it seems to me, does have a way of refocusing our vision, helping us see what matters most in life. I've frequently had this experience as I participate in memorial services, something I do quite often as a pastor. Considering the death of someone else, and the things said about that person post mortem, cause me to examine the value of my own life. When my days on this earth have passed, will I have lived my life to the fullest?

Moreover, confronting one's own mortality can, indeed, lead to personal transformation. I think of people I've known who have had serious cancer, and who, in the aftermath, have decided to live with new priorities. Yet Christians believe that moving from death to life isn't something we can will into existence, but requires the regenerating work of God.

Finally, the theme of "death within Christmas" is also central to Christian theology. Though we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we remember that His birth was a precursor to His death on the cross. It's common to interpret the gift of myrrh as a symbolic foretaste of Christ's death, since myrrh was used for embalming (see John 19:39). So, from a Christian point of view, the presence of death in A Christmas Carol makes sense.

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Evidence of a Transformed Life: Stave 5
Part 11 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Tuesday, January 2, 2007

When we left Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of my last post in this series, he had come to the end of the visits by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. In response to these visits, he promised to be a changed man:

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."

Stave 5, the final section of A Christmas Carol, reveals that Scrooge wasn't lying or even exaggerating. He was indeed a new man.

The first evidence of his transformation is his giddy enjoyment of life. He's almost crazy with joy, especially when he finds out that it's Christmas day. This stands in stark contrast to the gruff negativity of the former Scrooge.

Apart from being silly with excitement, what is the first evidence Dickens supplies of Scrooge's renewal? Generosity, of course. Charity. Given what we've seen earlier in this series, namely Dickens's association of Christmas with helping the poor, we are not surprised that the new Scrooge jumps at the chance to help the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, by sending them a giant turkey for their Christmas dinner. Calling this "charity" doesn't quite get the feel of Scrooge's action, however. "Playful charity" might be a better description, since he intends to surprise the Cratchits and not even reveal his identity as their patron.

Soon, however, Scrooge's benevolence takes a more serious and costly turn. As he's walking the streets, wishing everyone he sees a "Merry Christmas," Scrooge spies the two "portly gentlemen" who had visited him the previous day, seeking his help for the poor. That was not a pleasant encounter, of course, since Scrooge dismissed the men without the tiniest gift. But the new Scrooge not only greets the two gentlemen warmly, but also offers a surprisingly large financial gift.

The next evidence of Scrooge's transformation is easily lost if one reads too quickly. And it's not often picked up in dramatic presentations of A Christmas Carol, though it figures prominently in the 1999 film starring Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Dickens writes simply, "He went to church." Since we don't have more to go on than this, we shouldn't imagine that Scrooge has experienced some sort of religious conversion. Yet Dickens hints that, in some way or another, Scrooge has a new interest in God, or at least in religious observance at Christmas time.

Following church, Scrooge visits his nephew Fred, asking to join him and his wife for Christmas dinner. Together they experience, in Dickens's inimitable description: "Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!"\

The last scene in A Christmas Carol mirrors the opening scene, with Scrooge in his office. He hopes to catch Bob Cratchit coming in late, and his wish is fulfilled. Scrooge uses this opportunity to scare poor Bob half to death with his newfound generosity and Christmas joy. He promises to raise Bob's salary and help his family.

The closing paragraphs of A Christmas Carol explain that "Scrooge was better than his word." He became like a second father to Tiny Tim. Moreover, he "became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Yes, from then on Scrooge "knew how to keep Christmas well," but his transformation wasn't limited to one day or one season. Rather, he fulfilled his promise "keep Christmas all year," both in his joviality and in his generosity.

So what evidence do we have of Scrooge's transformation? Most simply, we see:

John Leech's original illusration of Scrooge and Bob Cratchit enjoying some "smoking bishop" as they discuss Cratchit's job and family.

• Joy
• Generosity
• Childlike playfulness

Earlier in this series I explained how central children were to Dickens's heart, especially his heart for the poor. The suffering of children touched him more than any other suffering. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Dickens shows that if one allows one's heart to be transformed by children, not only will one care for needy children, but also one becomes childlike. Even Scrooge's generosity has a innocent, playful dimension as he surprises both Bob Cratchit and the portly gentlemen.

Pastoral Reflections

Once more, I'm impressed with the extent to which Dickens's understanding of human life is similar to my own Christian point of view. Transformation, for Dickens and for the Christian, has both internal and external aspects. It's a matter both of feeling and of action. The new Scrooge feels new. But he also takes tangible steps to act in new ways in the world, principally through financial generosity and general kindness. This is the sort of thing that happens when a person is transformed, not by Christmas spirits, but by the Spirit of God.

Though I don't want to be a humbug sort of person, I should say that we have no evidence that Scrooge made any attempt to right the social wrongs of his day apart from his commitment to private generosity. We don't see Scrooge becoming a crusader for the right of the poor to, say, a decent education. Of course we don't see much of anything about Scrooge's transformed life. I'm simply pointing out that Scrooge's generosity, however laudatory, is not explicitly tied to any effort to help the poor in more structural ways. His transformation may have changed his private relationships, but it may also have left his politics intact.

I do think Dickens is right in his notion that a softened heart is a childlike heart. Jesus Himself says that one must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Though I'm pretty sure He wasn't thinking of playfulness at Christmas, Jesus rightly saw that a life renewed by God has an essential childlike aspect to it. The more our hearts are touched by the Spirit of God, the more we are able to be like children: trusting, free, expressive, spontaneous, enthusiastic, joyful. I'd like to be this sort of person, even more in 2007 than I was in 2006. I don't need any ghostly visitors, however. But I do need to pay more attention to the One we used to call the Holy Ghost. The third member of the Trinity is able to do in fact, what the spirits of Christmas were able to do in fiction, and much, much more.

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What Transforms Us? The Example of Ebenezer Scrooge
Part 12 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Wednesday, January 3, 2007

I'm finally ready to answer the question that has guided most of this series on A Christmas Carol: Why did Ebenezer Scrooge change? Today I want to sum up what we've discovered and make some connections to our own experience.

Transformation begins when something interrupts our ordinary experience.

For at least a couple dozen years Ebenezer Scrooge had been a committed grouch, miser, and Christmas-hater. But then something interrupted his otherwise ordinary experience. In his case the interruption was supernatural: the spirit of Jacob Marley and the three spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. These spirits forced Scrooge out of his rut and propelled him along a life-changing path.

I've seen this sort of thing happen time and again in life. People are going along their merry way when all of a sudden something causes them to veer off their established path. Sometimes it's a unexpected blessing: a new job, a new love, a new friend. Often, perhaps most commonly, the catalyst for change is something unwelcome, at least at first, such as cancer, marital conflict, or being laid off.

An autographed manuscript of A Christmas Carol. From the Morgan Library and Museum.

Transformation comes through pain.

Throughout Ebenezer Scrooge's momentous night, he frequently felt pain: the pain of having been a lonely boy, the pain of his broken engagement, the pain of suffering children, the pain of his own wasted life. This pain was essential to Scrooge's transformation in a number of ways. For one thing, it opened his frozen heart, helping him to feel things had had not felt for ages. Yet pain also caused Scrooge to desire a different life, a life filled with the joys of living.

In my pastoral experience, people are rarely interested in spiritual renewal when they're happy with life. When everything's great, they're understandably happy to stay on their familiar course. But if that course leads to suffering, then they're all of a sudden interested in God.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that pain-driven interest is short-lived. I think of a couple who have been irregularly involved in my church. When they first started attending years ago, it was because their marriage was on the rocks. But when God helped them find healing, they were happy to return to life apart from Christian community. Then, several years later, the husband had severe heart problems, ones that might have been fatal. Once more, he and his wife were eagerly involved in church. But when the surgery was successful and life got back to normal, this couple stopped showing up at church. I fully expect that I'll see them again when the next crisis hits. So pain alone doesn't forge lasting change in people, though it surely can help.

Transformation comes through children.

Scrooge is changed because he sees children in a new light, joining in their celebration and pitying their suffering. The latter was especially significant for Charles Dickens, who himself felt compassion for the plight of poor children, in part because he himself had once been in their shoes.

Children do have way of thawing icy hearts. I've seen this especially in men who are trapped in their inexpressive machismo until they become fathers. All of a sudden tenderness flows from their hearts, as if by magic. Or, to cite another example, I think of how the presence of children can bring joy to senior adults in a convalescent home.

Of course it doesn't always work this way. Sometimes cranky people are made even crankier by the noisy gladness of children. So there's no guarantee that exposure to children will work positive change in people.

Tomorrow I'll finish this discussion of transformation and wrap up this series on Christmas according to Dickens.

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What Transforms Us? The Example of Ebenezer Scrooge (Section B)
Part 13 of the series: Christmas According to Dickens (2006)
Posted for Thursday, January 4, 2007

Yesterday I began to gather together the strands of this series and weave some conclusions about what transforms us. I suggested that:

• Transformation begins when something interrupts our ordinary experience.
• Transformation comes through pain.
• Transformation comes through children.

Today I want to add to further reflections on what changes us.

Transformation is a result of seeing with a fresh perspective.

As I explained in Part 4 of this series, seven years before he wrote A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote a short story about a grouchy man who is changed through his interaction with goblins on Christmas Eve. Part of what altered Gabriel Grub was the beating he took from the goblins. They literally knocked some sense into him.

Scrooge, on the contrary, experiences no physical pummeling from the spirits who visit him. They work their wonders simply by showing Scrooge scenes of Christmas past, present, and future. This enables Scrooge to see life from a fresh perspective, and as a result he resolves to become a changed man.

Part of what Scrooge saw wasn't new. In fact, it was his own past. Yet he was seeing from the perspective of an outsider, and this altered his vision. Part of what Scrooge saw was new to him. For example, prior to his travels with the Ghost of Christmas Present he had never observed the Cratchit family's Christmas celebrations, so joyful even though so humble.

It seems clear that Dickens believed in the transforming power of fresh perspective. He wrote A Christmas Carol not only because he needed additional income, but also and especially because he wanted people to experience the joy of Christmas, and especially the joy that comes from generosity, both in giving and in receiving. Dickens hoped that his little book would function in the lives of his readers much as the spirits functioned in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge. There is ample evidence that his hopes have been fulfilled thousands if not millions of times over since 1843.

I've also witnessed the power of a fresh perspective to change lives. For example, in the past few years several hundred people from my church have gone to a small community in northern Mexico called El Niño in order to assist the poor who live there. When they return, they often see life differently and act differently too. They see in a new ay, for example, how richly blessed they are financially, and resolve to give much more away to those who are not so blessed.

Some typical houses in El Niño. The ones we build have a concrete foundation (rather than dirt) and a solid roof.

Transformation requires supernatural help.

There's no question that Ebenezer Scrooge needed supernatural assistance in order to change his ways. Apart from Jacob Marley's intervention, Scrooge would have continued to forge for himself a hellishly-long chain which he'd be forced to drag about for eternity. Yet because the spirit of his former partner interrupted Scrooge and sent the three Christmas spirits, Scrooge's life is renewed.

I'm not enough of an expert on Dickens to know whether he would agree with the claim that transformation requires supernatural help. Though he was a theist of sorts, Dickens didn't share many of my Christian convictions. He may have believed that literature, unaided by spirits of any kind, was powerful enough to effect change in the Ebenezer Scrooges of this world. Nevertheless, I believe that profound, lasting human transformation does indeed require supernatural assistance, namely that of the Holy Spirit.

The good news for those of us who are in need of transformation, and to some extent that means all of us, is that God's Spirit is in the renewal and reformation business. According to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit "gives life," offers "renewal," and leads us into "new life" (2 Cor 3:6; Titus 3:5; Rom 7:6). The Spirit draws us to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:3), and then empowers us to live in a whole new way (Rom 8). The Spirit of God also helps us to see with fresh perspective, opening our minds and touching our hearts. And, unlike the spirits in A Christmas Carol, this Spirit doesn't disappear at the stroke of midnight. Though I'm quite sure it wasn't Dickens's intended purpose, my reading of A Christmas Carol produces in me an enhanced desire and a more fervent resolve to live this life less by my own strength and more by the power of God's Spirit. In this way, my own "Scroogishness" might be transformed, by God's grace.

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Happy New Year in a World of Suffering?
Some Help from Charles Dickens

Part 5 in the series "Christmas According to Dickens"
Posted at 1:00 a.m. on Friday, December 31, 2004

As many of you know, I’m in the middle of a series called “Christmas According to Dickens.” In my last two posts I was examining what actually changed the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. Though I’m not done with that examination, I’ve decided to take a detour in order to reflect a bit on the implications of the tragedy in coastal Asia and Africa. Ironically, I think the wisdom of Charles Dickens embedded in A Christmas Carol speaks profoundly to our situation this very day.

Note: I’m interrupting my series on Dickens to reflect a bit on the new year and the tragic events unfolding in Southeast Asia because of the earthquake and tsunami. I’ll get back to Dickens in due time.

As I sit at my computer, it’s just after midnight on December 31st. In just a little less than a day many of us will be at New Year’s Eve parties, drinking champagne (or sparkling cider), kissing (or at least hugging), and wishing everyone in sight “Happy New Year.” At least that’s our tradition. That’s what we’re supposed to do as the new year breaks upon us.

But how can we even think about doing such things in light of the tsunami that recently broke upon millions of people throughout coastal Asia and Africa? What sense does it make to celebrate a new year when over a hundred thousand people have died, when countless millions are homeless, when tens of millions of people are overwhelmed with unspeakable loss and grief, and when their suffering has only just begun? How can we celebrate when our hearts are heavy, even when that heaviness is half a world away?

I’ve been pondering these questions all day today. I will share with you a few of my reflections. These are raw reflections, neither polished nor well thought out. But they are well intended, and I hope they may be helpful to you in some small way.
Sri Lankan man weeps when he hears of the death of a relative.
Indian survivors mob a relief van in desperation for supplies.

1. Celebration always happens in the midst of human suffering.

I know this sounds callous, but it’s true. Take last New Year’s Eve, for example. Though most of us weren’t thinking about it at the time, while we enjoyed our festivities, about 850 million people throughout the world were undernourished. Including these hungry souls, 1.2 billion people were living below the international poverty line (earning less than $1 per day). I could stop right there, having made my point without evening mentioning medical care, education, political oppression, violence, etc. What has happened around the Indian Ocean is indeed tragic. But it’s not as if human suffering was relatively unheard of before the giant earthquake on December 26th. To be sure the events of this last week have added to the sum total of the world’s pain. But the suffering masses have been increased by at most 10% in the last week. I don’t mean to downplay the horror of this number. My point is simply that, though things are worse this year, they’re not a whole lot worse than last New Year’s Eve. The difference, of course, is that we are now much more aware of the suffering of people in our world.

For centuries people have been celebrating. And for centuries millions of people have been suffering. Sometimes, strange as it seems, the suffering ones are also the celebrants. My point is simply that there has never been a human celebration that happened in the absence of human suffering. That’s a brute fact of our lives. And, by the way, it’s a fact that Charles Dickens understood ever so well. Through A Christmas Carol there is an undercurrent of human suffering. Yet this in no way diminishes the joys of Christmas celebrations.

2. Celebration should happen even in the midst of human suffering.

Again, I run the risk of sounding horribly callous. I hope this isn’t true. But I do believe that it’s right to celebrate even though our festivities come in the midst of a hurting world. Now let me hasten to add that I’m not thereby saying that all kinds of celebration are appropriate, or that we must always play at happiness even in the midst of sorrow. But I do believe that human beings desperately need times of celebration. Can you imagine what our world would be like if all people stopped partying because people were suffering? This would create even greater damage and pain to our world. A “celebration-less” world wouldn’t be a better place, but a far worse one.

Sixteen years ago my mother-in-law, Marion, was dying of cancer. As we entered January of 1988, she had only a few weeks to live. So what did we do? We threw a party, with Marion as the guest of honor. The main event of the evening was a time for people in the room to tell her what she had meant to them. It was rather like eulogies at a memorial service, only with the honoree present. I still remember that evening as one of the sweetest celebrations in my life, even though we all knew that Marion had little time left. But that made our gladness all the more meaningful – and necessary. I think that party greatly helped our family get through the crisis of Marion’s illness and death. We needed to party, even in the midst of our sadness.

3. When we celebrate with our eyes and hearts open to the world, we will celebrate soberly.

Now I do mean this literally, in part, but not only literally. The more we are in touch with the struggles of others, the more our hearts feel the pain of our fellows throughout the world, the less we will be inclined to celebrate frivolously, even dangerously. Of course one might argue that feeling the pain of the world might drive one to drink. And so it does in some cases. But more often our awareness of the suffering of others makes us less selfish and less self-indulgent.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong for people to enjoy a glass of champagne at midnight tonight, though I do believe drunkenness is never acceptable. But, just for a moment, let me invite you into a thought experiment.

How much do you think we Americans will spend on alcohol tonight. Currently there are more than 295 million people in the United States. Among these, some are children; others are teetotalers. So let’s say for the sake of argument that half of our population will have at least one drink tonight. That’s at least 147.5 million drinks. Now, let’s suppose that each drink costs $1. This means, obviously, that we’ll spend $147.5 million on alcohol tonight. My guess is that the actual number is greater, given the amount people drink and what strong drink really costs. But what would happen if we decided as a nation to give up alcohol for one night, and to donate our savings to the tsunami relief effort? Now there’s a reason for a sober, indeed, an abstinent celebration tonight!

But when I speak of sober celebration, I’m not talking simply about the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Rather, I’m suggesting that even as we party, we do so with wise restraint and deeper passion. Giddiness is replaced by genuine gratitude.

Let me offer a recent example. A few hours ago my wife and I took our children out for a fancy dinner. It was the first time we had ever done such a thing with our kids, who are now old enough to enjoy the experience, as well as to be an enjoyable part of our experience. (If you’ve ever watched young children participate in fine dining, you know what I mean!) At many points throughout the meal my mind wandered away from the table to the tragic drama in Southeast Asia. For a moment I wondered how I would feel if I lost my children in a tsunami. (Ironically, we were eating very near the ocean, at an elevation of five feet or so.) I didn’t dwell here long, but the thought increased my appreciation of the moment. I felt more gratitude than I would have if I had simply been caught up in my own experience. So I’d say that my evening with my family was a sober one, but with deeper joy and greater gratitude because of my awareness of the fragility of life.
My family and I out to dinner tonight. Notice carefully the ironic backdrop!

4. When we celebrate with our eyes and hearts open to the world, we will celebrate generously.

There is a risk in what I just said. It’s the risk of allowing the pain of others to increase my happiness. Period. It’s hard to imagine a more selfish and heartless response to the suffering of others. This, I assure you, is not my intent. Nor is it the norm for healthy human beings. On the contrary, when my heart is open to the distress of others, then I will want to share my celebration with them, at least insofar as I am able. As much as I enjoy the party, I want others to share in my joy. I truly believe that celebration and generosity can – and should – go hand in hand together.

Here’s where Ebenezer Scrooge makes his cameo visit. At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, he was both dour and miserly. By the end of the book, Scrooge was joyful and generous. I don’t think this is accidental. Openhearted people are both celebrative and giving. One who is closed to festivity will, in most cases, be closed to charity as well. Yet a genuine celebrant will also be a “cheerful giver,” to borrow a phrase from St. Paul.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol not only to foster seasonal delight, but also to inspire charity for the poor. In one of my favorite scenes from the book, and a thematically pivotal moment, Ebenezer Scrooge attempted to compliment the spirit of his dead partner, Jacob Marley:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “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!”

I find the liquid metaphor sadly ironic, given the context in which I’m using this quotation. After all, it’s the terrifying power of the ocean that has led to my musings. But the point, after all, is that “mankind is our business.” It is our business to care for those whose lives have been devastated by the recent tsunami, not to mention those whose lives were devastated by poverty and injustice before December 26th.

When we take our business seriously, we won’t stop celebrating. The world, not to mention our own souls, needs festivity, perhaps now more than ever. But our celebrations won’t cut us off from the people who are our business. We won’t deaden our own pain through a drunken stupor. And we won’t party as if joy were a zero sum game. Rather, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we’ll learn to celebrate and to give, to love life and to love people, especially those who are suffering.

Here’s an idea for tonight. At your New Year’s Eve party, pass the hat. Take a moment to make a short announcement, or set up a collection box with a sign, inviting people to give to the victims of the tsunami. The result will be two-fold, I believe. First, money will be collected for a worthy cause. This is reason enough to take up a collection. But there’s something more. Second, the reminder of what’s going on in the world and the call to respond with generosity won’t dampen the mood of your party. In fact it might very well enrich the experience. Perhaps there will be more sobriety, more charity, more gratitude, and, in the end, more genuine celebration.

In conclusion, let me say that “Happy New Year” isn’t a description of reality but a wish. When I say “Happy New Year” I’m not declaring that the new year will be happy. Rather, I’m saying in shorthand, “May you have a happy new year.” So, on the heels of that explanation, let me say, “Happy New Year!”