Oh my, what’s this? It’s December 24th, which means either the Mayans are running a little late or they’ve delivered the most disappointing the apocalypse since… well every other doomsday prediction ever, really. Now it’s Christmas Eve and that means I get to write all the warm and fuzzy stuff I want, without explanation or apology. For some of my international readers it is already Christmas, so let me first wish them all a very merry Christmas and happy Holidays!
Now onto the main event. I know I usually talk about writing…and that’s exactly whats going to happen. Let’s talk Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.
Undoubtedly the most famous Christmas Story ever written, it is not only an excellent story but a prime example of how a good story can reach people on the most basic level. Prior to Dickens writing this novel, Christmas was a purely religious holiday, and was mostly confined to church services and small private celebrations. The hallmarks of Christmas that we all know an love now: the presents, the tree, the feasts, the charity, the gathering of family, that was all just something Dickens made up because that was what he thought Christmas should be. Scrooge isn’t just one man, Scrooge represents the greedy, cruel and careless world that Dickens grew up and lived in his entire life. In the hellish confines of 19th century London, child labor was abundant (Dickens worked in a shoe polish factory at the ripe old age of 12), and when they weren’t working on dangerous machinery they were being locked up with their parents in jail, and often dying with them there. Tiny Tim represented the plight of children in London at the time, they were sickly, suffering and dying…and no one seemed to care. The city had turned into Scrooge:
“He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing,wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” – A Christmas Carol, Chapter 1 Marley’s Ghost
And it was crushing the life out of everyone. Well Dickens said fuck that, and wrote a story that changed the course of god damn history. Suddenly people, companies and even governments were giving to charitable organizations. Several laws came out immediately after publishing his story, improving safety and working conditions in factories, and finally outright banning child labor in 1867. Sure it took a long time to get to where we are now, but we got there.
“What are you talking about, John!? The world is falling apart!” Well to that I will leave you to the almost-as-handsome-as-me character Esposito from Castle to explain:
Or for those of you who have recently seen The Hobbit, Gandalf says something similar (paraphrasing): “I find it is the small things that keep evil at bay, the small kindnesses and love ordinary people show to each other.”
Yes there is still a lot of horror and cruelty in the world, as recent events have recently shown us, but often times we’re powerless to prevent much of what goes wrong in the world. I can’t single-handedly stop every single crime against humanity. Recent events have shown us that if some madman wants to go out there and cause pain…there’s not a lot we can do to stop it. Instead of trying however, and throwing blame around, what we can do is share the joy in our lives with those around us, while we still can, lest we end up like the ghost of Jacob Marley. Most people know Marley has a chain, a chain he forged in life, but they forget what else he was supposed to do:
“”It is required of every man,” the ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”
He’s not just being punished for his evil deeds, but for his unwillingness to live his life, instead choosing to horde his wealth and remain locked in his house. The chain makes it more difficult for him to move, which means he will spend longer trying to enrich his spirit than a more benevolent, yet solitary, person might have to. What’s worse about this is that Marley has to go around experiencing all the joys he missed in life, but he can no longer take part, so all he can do is stare at the joy that was once available to him but now can no longer share. His one chance at redemption is to help Scrooge avoid the same fate by helping Scrooge break the chains that will bind him as well. The point is that whatever happened in his past to turn Scrooge into a bitter husk of a man is passed, and he has to move on. As the Ghost of Christmas Past says, “these are the shadows of the things that have been, that they are what they are, do not blame me.” The ghost might seem to be torturing Scrooge but that’s simply not the case, he is being given a golden opportunity here to look back at his life and recognize the mistakes he made with complete clarity and objectivity (the ghost is showing him how it was, no rose-tinted glasses for Scrooge). Neither the Ghost nor Scrooge can change what has already past, but Scrooge can learn from his mistakes. We rarely get the chance to make this retrospective look because often times the mistakes we make don’t seem like mistakes at the time. Then suddenly twenty years have passed and your left wondering how you ended up penniless and riddled with phlebitis! But, the point of this section isn’t simply that Scrooge wasted his opportunity, its that he can make up for the mistakes of his past, and as the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him, there are still opportunities to be had.
This is a great example of juxtaposition that I talked about earlier this year. Scrooge has just gone through a very painful emotional experience, and hitting him with another dour, melancholy ghost now would just dilute the impact of the previous ghost and make the last ghost redundant. Instead Scrooge gets to see people at their best, sharing the journey through the city celebrating Christmas with a spirit who is basically Santa Claus. I love this part of the book, especially the Spirit’s favorite catch phrase: “Come, and know me better man!” He’s not saying come and know me personally, after all his time on this Earth is very short. Instead he’s telling Scrooge “Come and experience joy for the first time. Come, and I will show you what you have been denying yourself.” That’s a powerful image, at least for me. Then after the happy go lucky times with Santa, we meet up with the grim reaper and it takes all of five seconds for Scrooge, the dour, flinty, hardnosed bastard, to be reduced to a quivering pile of thoroughly terrified flesh. The Past Ghost showed Scrooge what he’s missed, the Present Ghost shows him what could still be his, and the Future Ghost shows him what he will become if Scrooge refuses to change.
What I love about A Christmas Carol though, is the way in which Scrooge redeems himself. He doesn’t make any kind of huge changes to his life, he doesn’t give up all of his money and move into a monastery or turn his house into a giant orphanage. What does he do you ask?
He’s starts smiling.
He starts wishing random people on the street a Merry Christmas. He attends a Christmas dinner with his Nephew. He gives Bob Cratchit an annoymous turkey for and then surprises Bob at work the next day with news of a raise in his salary and an offer to help manage Bob’s finances. These aren’t huge changes like we’re used to seeing in feel good Christmas movies, like Rudolph going from a social outcast to legendary hero because of a freak storm, which makes it feel much more real and far more relatable. Big changes are hard, and take time. Everything Scrooge does, however, are a great example of how just a few easy to make changes can have a profound impact on your personality and impact. In time Scrooge might make other changes in his life, but for the time we see him in the book (and his redemption is actually the shortest section of the novella), these seemingly tiny changes improve his quality of life to an immeasurable degree.
That’s the real lesson to take away from this timeless story, the obvious moral of the story is not be a hardnosed skinflint completely lacking in empathy, but the real lesson, the important moral, is that change starts small.
A smile, a good word, and a positive outlook can make all the difference in the world.
Now stop reading this and go have fun! A Merry Christmas to All!
Note: In case the pictures and video didn’t tip you off, I”m a huge fan of A Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s not only a fun, colorful and incredibly moving movie, but it is also one of the most faithful adaptations to the book I’ve seen thus far. Seriously, it’s a wonderful movie and you seriously need to watch it. If only to see Michael Caine sing.