From Humbug to Humble

"A Christmas Carol" Lives On

17759-1.jpgIf there’s one story everyone knows, it’s “A Christmas Carol.” The saga of the miraculous overnight transformation of the world’s meanest man into a grateful, humble, compassionate human being has touched untold millions—more like billions—of people since its publication 164 years ago. It hit the stands December 16, 1843, and within a week had sold 6,000 copies. What writer today wouldn’t kill for that kind of a success?

“A Christmas Carol” has been so popular and enduring, in fact, that it’s become part of our very linguistic heritage. Expressions like “Bah, humbug!” and “God bless us, every one!” are so familiar to us that they need no explaining. In fact, the two main characters, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, are such powerful embodiments of bad and good that there have been, and will continue to be, countless movie adaptations of the story, each benefiting from these expertly drawn characters who, after 164 years, are still so vividly real that we feel as if we know them, and have always known them.

That’s why actors relish the chance to try their hand at Scrooge, a man of great complexity. In the hands of a lesser writer, Scrooge might have been a mere one- dimensional caricature of evil. But Charles Dickens’ wit, insight and empathy made him not a monster but a lost soul capable of redemption. In a way, “A Christmas Carol” is the story of the Prodigal Son, who strays from God’s flock into a narcissistic life of materialism and selfishness but who, when he finally repents, is welcomed back into the arms of his loving father with redoubled joy.

Dickens and Religion
This is not a coincidental analogy. Dickens was a member of the Anglican Church, but religion to him was far more than just going to church. His personal brand of Christianity emphasized a life of good deeds over public piety. “Dickens’ beliefs,” notes one historian, “were Unitarian. His God blessed all, his Christ was a very good man, his religion countenanced no creeds.” I’ll bet you don’t know—I didn’t, anyway—that Dickens wrote a book, “Life of Our Lord,” which was published after his death, and which explains his attitude toward religion.

It is Christianity to do good always—even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbor as ourselves…It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to show that we love him by humbly trying to do right in everything.

The real miracle in “A Christmas Carol” is not simply the transformation of Scrooge, but the revelation that every time we choose to do good, to be generous and selfless, to truly care about our fellow man, it is we, not God or ghosts, who work miracles.

The great thing about “A Christmas Carol” is that it is all that. It reminds us that if God can forgive Ebenezer Scrooge, He can forgive anyone, but it’s never for one moment preachy. The representatives of good in the story—innocent Tiny Tim, the gentle Cratchit family, Scrooge’s good-natured nephew—are not annoyingly virtuous but rather believable and lovable. Dickens is funny and wry and oh, so full of compassion for everyone, particularly his hateful main character. As the Ghost of Christmas Past takes cranky old Scrooge back into his childhood and young adulthood, we learn why he became such a hard-hearted misanthrope: because his mother died giving birth to him and his father hated him for it, because he lived a life of terrible abandonment. As his father won’t allow him to come home from school at Christmas, young Ebenezer is forced to remain all alone in the cold, empty schoolrooms while his classmates are off on holidays. When the only person who ever cared for him—his beloved sister, Fanny—dies in childbirth, Scrooge turns his back on God and humanity. And, exactly as his father had done to him, he rejects Fanny’s child—his nephew—refusing to acknowledge him for the rest of his life. Until, of course, the Christmas Ghosts work their miracles on him.

Parable of Hope
Long before Freud, Dickens understood psychology and the effect of childhood trauma on the adult psyche. And he knew that, sadly, most of us will never undergo a full inside-out overhaul as Scrooge does. We tend to remain in denial about our faults and our pain, unwilling to face ourselves as we really are and do what it takes to change our bad behavior. So, Dickens created a great parable of hope. The Christ child—crippled, sick little Tiny Tim—prays for the world and even for “Mr. Scrooge,” the man whom everyone hates, and the Prodigal Son—Scrooge—has a spiritual awakening and devotes the rest of his life to helping humanity.

When the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how his miserliness to the Cratchit family has rendered them unable to pay for the medical procedure that could cure Tiny Tim, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come reveals that as a result, Tim will die, Scrooge becomes Tim’s benefactor and the boy gets well. It’s the supreme biblical twist—Christ saved from the cross by mankind’s embrace of good over evil. The real miracle in “A Christmas Carol” is not simply the transformation of Scrooge, but the revelation that every time we choose to do good, to be generous and selfless, to truly care about our fellow man, it is we, not God or ghosts, who work miracles.

So, God bless us, every one. And let us in turn bless everyone with, as Abraham Lincoln once referred to goodness, “the angels of our better nature.” Merry Christmas!

This essay originally appeared on