As you read this post, we’re already a few weeks into the new year. But as I’m writing it, it’s still mid-December, the middle of the Christmas season.
I grew up in a non-religious family. But there are still a lot of things I associate with the Christmas of my childhood. It was, for example, still the era of aluminum trees. I vividly remember the spectacle of our shiny silver tree standing proudly in the corner of our downstairs room, bedecked with glass ornaments. At night, the tree literally glowed.
But Christmas wasn’t just about trees and presents, now was it about the story of baby Jesus. The story I associate with Christmas was that of Ebenezer Scrooge, first told in the mid-19th century novella by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Story.
As a child, of course, I wasn’t reading Dickens. The only Scrooge I knew was an animated one, starring the hopelessly nearsighted Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus). Later, as an adult, I came to appreciate other portrayals: the 1951 classic starring Alastair Sim (above); the 1984 TV movie with George C. Scott (right); the 1999 version starring Patrick Stewart (below). And though as a lifelong fan of Star Trek it pains me to say it, Scott’s and Sims’ portrayals were the best. (Maybe my phase inducers — whatever the heck they are — need to be realigned? Picard to Engineering…)
When we first meet Scrooge, it’s Christmas Eve. He is a hard and lonely man who dismisses Christmas as mere “humbug.” Money is his god, and the accumulation and hoarding of wealth his one obsession. He has no compassion for others, and others seem to have no compassion for him — except for, ironically, his overworked and underpaid clerk. Bob Cratchit struggles to keep Scrooge’s books because his fingers are numb from the cold; Scrooge refuses to afford him enough coal to make the office warm. But Cratchit can still take pity on his miserly boss, because Cratchit is the father of Tiny Tim, a crippled little boy with a loving and generous heart.
You know the story. When Scrooge closes the office and goes home, he is visited first by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that his obsession with money is forging terrible chains that will bind him in the afterlife. Three more spirits then visit Scrooge that night: the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future. We learn that Scrooge was not always as we see him now; he twisted himself into his present shape after his love of money and success prompted his fiancee to break their engagement.
Dickens gives us a happy ending, the kind we’d expect from a Disney movie. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come forces Scrooge to see the bleak future that awaits him, he finally Learns His Lesson, and becomes a better man. He gives Cratchit a long overdue raise, plays Secret Santa to Cratchit’s family, and becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim.
It’s not simply the fear of a meaningless death, however, that drives the change. True, the first transformational moment in the story is when he sees his own gravestone. But the second is when he wakes up to find that he’s still alive, that he still has a chance to change the future. Scrooge, giddy with childlike joy, vows on the spot to become a different person. Indeed, this is the reason I prefer the performances of Sims and Scott — to me, they embody Scrooge’s Christmas morning joy in a way that is more palpable and real.
It took one night and four otherworldly visitations to produce that massive change in character. I suppose if I’d been in Scrooge’s slippers, I’d rethink my life too.
But things aren’t usually that simple.
. . .
Dickens’ portrait of Scrooge is a caricature: he describes him as a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” The tale so effectively captured the imaginations of Dickens’ readers that the name eventually became a recognizable label for any mean and tight-fisted person. Indeed, by some historical accounts, the story of this sinner’s redemption almost single-handedly revived the flagging Christmas spirit of 19th century England.
But cold-hearted people who care only about filling their own coffers have existed in every culture and in every age. If Victorian England had its Scrooges, fictional or otherwise, the world of the psalmist also had its share of power-hungry people who profited off the backs of others. “Such are the wicked,” the psalmist says; “always at ease, they increase in riches” (73:12, NRSV). They are not to be redeemed in one sleepless night; they will carry on with their wickedness and oppression, and get wealthier and wealthier.
And as we’ll see, it’s the psalmist who loses sleep over the injustice of it all.