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The Everyday Hope Of A Christmas Carol Is That The World Can Change Because We Can

Here is the beating heart of A Christmas Carol: The world can change if Scrooge can change.


At certain times, we find ourselves caught in a curious paradox: I want to do a meaningful thing, to be involved in this or that important occasion, yet it’s just so hard. How can an activity I care so much about still be so difficult — even to the point of being off-putting? 

Depending on what’s at the forefront of your mind, this could sound like a description of your political or family life. There’s a presidential election coming next year (as you may have heard), and it is important: Why then is it so discouraging to think about doing your part? And soon you’ll be gathering with family for Christmas: You may want — even need — to do it, yet is there anything more stressful to contemplate sometimes? 

In each case, the phenomenon is the same. Both situations come down to the possibility of change in a broken world. We want to believe that transformation, personal and social, is possible, yet we have a strong hunch it might not be. Is there anything more hopelessly gridlocked than contemporary politics and culture? And in the family setting, as we reenter our natural habitats, why would we think things could ever be different? All the old wounds, burdens, and complicated memories are there: My mother will of course expect me to do X, which I hate, and my cousins will certainly go into Y in their usual way. None of this will ever change. Can’t we just stay home this year for Christmas and sit out the election cycle? 

Against such a backdrop, the undying popularity of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol makes sense. The little book has never been out of print since Dickens first wrote it in 1843, and as we know, it has been repeated, rehashed, and reimagined in countless films, TV adaptations, stage productions, public readings, parodies, and so forth.

These are signs of some essential good thing we desire, abiding and profound, that A Christmas Carol gets at. Part of that desirable good is wrapped up in its picture of human transformation. Inside the story, the drastic about-face undertaken by Ebenezer Scrooge seems possible, despite all the odds. Change, we think as we read or watch, can happen. A Christmas Carol strikes us as an expression of hope in a dark time.  

At the story’s beginning, Scrooge is not only greedy, alienated, and unhappy, but completely cynical as well. “A merry Christmas, uncle!” says his nephew Fred. “God save you!” After his expected “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge makes clear what he thinks about Christmastime revelries: Given the hardships of life, and especially those of the wintry close of the year, what reason is there to rejoice?

“If I could work my will,” says Scrooge, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

Like us contemplating the family gathering or pausing over the latest poll data, Scrooge is bitter because he senses there is no real possibility of a happy outcome. Things are what they are, and the costs outweigh the benefits, so why bother pretending all is well? 

Nevertheless, Scrooge’s point of view does shift, gradually, with the help of his ghostly visitors. Part of what he begins to see, of course, is the truth about others — that there is a possibility of happiness in a dark world (as at his nephew’s house), and hope for the healing of those in need (as in the case of Tiny Tim).

But beneath these realizations lies a deeper and more foundational truth: that Scrooge himself can change. The Ghost of Christmas Past famously shows Scrooge his sad childhood self, eliciting his pity, and his early employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who calls forth Scrooge’s love.

Of Fezziwig, the older Scrooge remarks, “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Between the desire to help his pitiful former self and delight in Fezziwig’s gratuitous goodness, Scrooge has been called beyond his old miserly limits into a new life where he must be a different person. Love requires it. The rest of the narrative builds up his hope and confidence that this transformation will be possible. 

Here is the beating heart of A Christmas Carol: The world can change if Scrooge can change. If he can become a better lover, a soul of generosity and warmth, then he can love the world around him into a better place. As the end of the book says, “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” 

So we, in our families, broken but beloved as they are — and we in our bumbling, bickering, great nation — can find a starting point again this year in Scrooge. The poet Richard Wilbur once wrote that as a person begins to rise in the morning, “the soul descends once more in bitter love / to accept the waking body.”

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol gives us the strength and hope again to make this difficult acceptance, to rise up and believe that we and others are capable of becoming who we are meant to be. If that is possible, anything is possible.

“God bless Us, Every One!” 

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