By Sarah Puryear
Like most English majors, I keep a running list of books I “should” read but never quite get around to reading. Several of Charles Dickens’s books feature prominently on mine; I’ve been meaning to get around to reading A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House for ages, but they never seem to rise to the top of the list, despite how genuinely I enjoy the Dickens novels I read for English classes over the years. This fall, when my first-grader had the opportunity to play Tiny Tim in his school’s production of A Christmas Carol, I decided it was time to finally familiarize myself with the original text of this famous story. Like many, I had seen more than one movie adaptation but had never read the book itself. Over the course of the next few weeks, I immersed myself in the story of A Christmas Carol through multiple forms of media. I found and enjoyed an unabridged and illustrated edition at our local library; my kids and I watched the various children’s movie versions of the story, ultimately ranking the Muppets’ version the most entertaining; and watching my son’s play several times brought Dickens’s prose to life, due to the work of the director, Paula Flautt, in retaining the original text and storyline throughout her adaptation of the novel.
I came to the story curious to answer one question in particular: how does Dickens engage with Scripture and Christian tradition in his text, and in particular, how does he depict Christ? Many of the movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol stick very closely to the original narrative, retaining the paranormal and ghostly dimension of the story, but removing any explicitly Christian references. However, I found many references to Christ in Dickens’s text, and while they are brief and oblique, they are the source of the call to love one’s neighbor that resounds through his story. Dickens’s purpose was not to temporarily warm the hearts of his comfortable audience; he hoped that by illustrating Scrooge’s encounters with the spirits, his subsequent repentance, and the amendment of life he begins on Christmas morning, readers would be moved to examine their own lives and show greater love for their own neighbor.
While the story’s Scripture references are subtle, they are also powerful, as in the words of the ghostly Jacob Marley, who is weighed down by the chains he created in life through neglect of his neighbor and asks, “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?” If Marley had sought out and adored the poor child in the manger, as the Wise Men did, he would have gone on to seek out for and serve those suffering from poverty in his own time. Here Dickens hints that proper love for the Christ child will lead us to proper love for our neighbor.
So how does Dickens characterize Christ, to whom he gently alludes throughout his book? And how can pondering Christ’s nature help us better love our neighbor this Christmas, even 178 Christmases after his book was originally published?
First, at Christmas we adore Christ, who is the Founder of this feast. A Christmas Carol goes to great lengths to show the merriment and celebration people in Dickens’s time enjoyed on Christmas Day and the entire 12 days of the Christmas season — the Christmas markets, the meals, and the parties that cultivate a feasting spirit in its revelers; and Dickens connects all of this to Christ, who is the “founder of the feast.” His birth began the yearly cycle of this celebration, and presumably he approves of all this merriment, in contrast to Scrooge, who refuses to participate in it at all. And what’s notable is that this spirit of joy and celebration is not self-serving, in which we only attend to our own pleasure; it has a fundamental generosity that reaches out to share that spirit with others. We see this demonstrated in the men seeking donations in the opening scene of the story, wanting to “furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” for it is at Christmas that “Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.”
The true Christmas spirit impels us to share our abundance with those who cannot or will not make merry themselves, whether for financial reasons or as the result of emotional or spiritual poverty, as in the case of Scrooge himself. Scrooge’s nephew demonstrates that generosity by inviting Scrooge to Christmas dinner, even though he is likely to decline; and after his transformation, Scrooge humbly goes to his nephew’s house and asks if he can still join in. The celebration of Christmas spills out and over its initial circle to include others, particularly those who would otherwise go without a celebration. This generous spirit flows straight from the generosity of God, revealed at Christmas in the gift of his Son.
Second, at Christmas we worship Jesus who came as a child. Dickens also develops his trademark lengthy descriptions about the games that Victorians would traditionally play at Christmas — blind man’s bluff, forfeits, and a 19th-century version of twenty questions — and commends the silliness of adults playing games by saying, “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.” Tiny Tim embodies the faith and love of a child in A Christmas Carol that we are all to have. Bob Cratchit shows a childlikeness on his way home from Scrooge’s office by joining some boys in some impromptu sledding, and Scrooge’s transformation initially looks like a childlike glee and energy upon waking on Christmas morning and realizing he can surprise the Cratchit family with a giant turkey. Dickens connects the embrace of childlikeness with Jesus’ admonition that adults must become like children in order to enter God’s kingdom. When Scrooge revisits the Cratchit family with the Ghost of Christmas Future, a scene that imagines Tiny Tim’s death, Scrooge hears the words of the gospels spoken by an unknown source: “And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” We see a gentle nudge from Dickens here to remember the way that Jesus welcomed children and told grown-ups they had to become like a child to enter God’s kingdom.
And third, at Christmas we adore the Jesus who healed the lame. It’s an unexpected move at Christmastime to reflect on what Jesus did during his years of ministry, but it’s a connection that Tiny Tim himself makes. His father shares a comment Tim made after a Christmas Eve service to his wife:
[Tim] told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas-day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.
This reference to Jesus is as indirect as possible, omitting even his name — but it is a powerful one. Tim understands that Christmas is a time to remember Jesus, and he hopes that his physical disability will prompt people to remember how Jesus came among us, not only as the one who inaugurated this feast in the distant past, and not only as a little child, but as one who grew up and used his power to seek out the weak and heal their infirmities.
Scrooge’s change of heart stems largely from his newfound compassion for Tiny Tim and his concern that he survive, and after his transformation, paying for Tim’s medical treatment is at the top of Scrooge’s priorities. (If you’ve ever wondered how Tim’s ailment would be described in modern medical terms, check out this article that outlines the possible diagnoses.) Our own efforts to alleviate or heal the suffering of others is a response to Christ’s ministry of healing, and Christmas is an ideal time for us to renew our commitment to loving our neighbor in this particular way.
Scholars have debated whether Dickens, a lifelong member of the Church of England, held orthodox theological views, particularly about the person of Christ. A Christmas Carol demonstrates that Dickens’s reluctance to browbeat his readers with overt religious themes; those themes are present but form a quiet undercurrent to his story. Perhaps, to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor, Dickens understood the writerly task of allowing Christ to haunt one’s story rather than giving a full-blown gospel presentation; doing so rarely makes for good fiction.
Dickens, who died in 1870, would not have been familiar with the service of Lessons and Carols, since its inaugural service was held at King’s College Cambridge on Christmas Eve 1918; but I suspected he would have loved the following words from its bidding prayer, which calls people to remember the poor at Christmastime:
Because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.
May we find ourselves spurred on to greater love for our neighbors in need this Christmas — the miser, the outcast, the disabled, or the little child. And, as Tiny Tim observed, “May God bless Us, Every One!”