Last Friday, Gary and I had the opportunity to see the play, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, perhaps the most popular Christmas story of all time. Charles Dickens, born in England in 1812, was one of the most recognized writers and social critics of his day.
Dickens wrote his novella in two months in the fall of 1843 as a way of addressing many of the social ills in English society at the time. Dickens was just 31 years old and was not far removed from memories of his own childhood. His father spent time in a debtors’ prison, and Dickens himself was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory when he was just twelve years old. His job was to put labels on jars of polish.
Social reform in nineteenth century England was very important, and Dickens, remembering how difficult his family’s life was growing up, expressed the turmoil of that time in his writing. Intensely interested in the crises of child labor and living conditions of the poor, Charles Dickens believed that the only way to change society was to change hearts.
A Christmas Carol was written quickly and was immediately popular, even though Christmas was not yet the major holiday that it is today. It also established the practice of demonstrating Christmas charity to the poor and disadvantaged.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Ebenezer Scrooge is sitting in his counting house while his clerk, Bob Cratchit, is trying to keep warm because Scrooge refuses to spend money on coal to heat the room. Scrooge’s nephew Fred eagerly enters the counting house and cries out, “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” And Scrooge replies, “Bah! Humbug!”
Fred then invites Scrooge to his annual Christmas party and shares these words, “I have always thought of Christmas time … 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.”
Two men come to Scrooge’s business and invite him to contribute to their Christmas charity for the poor. “I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned (debtors prison and poor houses): they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
When Scrooge is back in his apartment, he is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who died seven years before. Marley claims that he is being punished for his greed while he was alive by his Spirit being doomed to wander the Earth, weighted down with heavy chains. Marley tries to save Scrooge from the same fate by telling Scrooge that three spirits are going to visit him, one on each of the next three nights. Scrooge then falls into a deep sleep.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread…”
When Scrooge wakes up, the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives to take Scrooge on a journey back to earlier days when he loved Christmas and was loved by his family. The Ghost shows Scrooge his beloved master Fezziweg, who was generous and freely shared his love and wealth. But then Scrooge is also shown how his own greed caused him to treat people very poorly and how he lost the woman he loved. The ghost then leads Scrooge back to his bed.
The second night, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to London. There he gets a preview of what Christmas is like for his clerk Bob Cratchit, who earns very little money and has a handicapped son, Tiny Tim, who, despite his disability, brings hope and joy to everyone he meets. Even Scrooge’s heart is warmed.
After that, the ghost takes Scrooge to his nephew’s house to witness the Christmas party. Scrooge finds the gathering to be delightful and pleads with the Ghost of Christmas Present to stay until the very end of the festivities. When the day is waning, the Ghost shows Scrooge two starving children, Ignorance and Want, who are living under the Ghost’s cloak.
Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to several places that have to do with a stranger’s death. This stranger was a mean man who would never forgive debts that other people owed him and never showed mercy and compassion to the poor. Curious as to who this stranger was, Scrooge is taken to a cemetery where the headstone has his own name on it. He is also shown the tragic sadness of the Cratchit family, which is mourning the death of Tiny Tim. Scrooge is both appalled and ashamed and promises to return all the money that he has taken from others. Then, mysteriously, Scrooge is back in his bed.
To everyone’s surprise and delight, on Christmas Day, Scrooge is a changed person, eager to share the Christmas Spirit he formerly despised. He makes sure that the Cratchit house has a big Christmas turkey, doubles Bob’s salary, and shares his new Christmas spirit. Scrooge also treats Tiny Tim with tenderness, arranging for treatment by a famous physician; promises a large contribution to the man he previously refused to support by saying “Bah! Humbug!”; dispenses expensive gifts to those the poor; and displays generosity, tenderness, and grace to all.
As everyone gathers for Christmas dinner, Tiny Tim offers a prayer, concluding with, “God bless us, every one!” Charles Dickens added the phrase “God bless us, every one” as a symbol of Scrooge’s transformation. May you, too, experience a change of heart during this Christmas season, as the love of Jesus prompts you to move beyond “Bah! Humbug!” to reach out to the least, the last, and the lost. God bless us, every one. Merry Christmas!
The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, January 10.