Worth Reading: A Christmas Carol

By: William Jackson
December 15, 2017

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This one is a no-brainer for the season, an essential for any reader who wants to get into the holiday spirit. One of the best of Charles Dickens’ books, it also is one of the two greatest Christmas stories ever written. What makes it universally loved is that despite the title, it really isn’t about Christmas. It is about rebirth rather than the Nativity and can be enjoyed whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan or Saturnalia.

The true meaning

Everyone probably knows the story, and almost everyone has seen a version of it on TV, in a movie or on stage. There is something missing in my holiday season if I don’t get to watch Alastair Sim or Reginald Owen as Scrooge. But the book stands alone. I have read it every year for 40 years or more. From the first line—“Marley was dead: to begin with.”—to the last—“God Bless Us, Every One!”—it is a gem.

There little of religion in the book. True, the reformed Scrooge attends Christmas services, but that is quickly passed over. There are two oblique references to Christ, and with the exception of Tiny Tim’s exhortation that God bless us, there are no references to a deity. Even the spirits say nothing about Heaven or Hell. The book is Humanist. “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-man,” Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge. But Humanist does not necessarily mean secular. The reader is welcome to read what he will into the message.

The message is one of reclamation and rebirth. Just as the sun rises from the shortest day after the solstice and the year begins anew on January first, Scrooge is reborn after the spirits show him what could have been and what could be. “I’m quite a baby,” he exclaims the morning after. “I’d rather be a baby.”

Although he had the help of the spirits, he makes the change himself. And we can all make that change without waiting for divine intervention by recognizing our obligation to walk abroad among our fellow-man.

Outside influences

Dickens gets just credit for this beloved book. There is even a movie about him out titled “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” But he didn’t do this alone. One of America’s first great writers laid the groundwork for A Christmas Carol a generation before Dickens wrote it.

Washington Irving is underappreciated today. (We’ll be reading more about him in an upcoming Worth Reading.) But his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was immensely popular, especially in England, when it was published in 1819-20. Dickens was a fan and was influenced heavily by Irving’s sketches of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall.

It is a common complaint today that Christmas isn’t what it used to be, and apparently it never was. Squire Bracebridge made this same complaint in Irving’s sketches, and studiously maintains the old traditions, as documented by his visitor, Geoffrey Crayon. Christmas at Bracebridge Hall is a largely secular celebration (although they do attend church services Christmas morning), with an emphasis on good fellowship, games and feasting. Irving anticipates Dickens’ snowy landscape and the breaking up of the boarding school for the holidays, the revelry of Fezziwig’s ball, and the fixed game of blind man’s bluff. Dickens’ Christmas streetscape in London even echoes Irving’s descriptions of rural plenty in the Sketch Book’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

None of this takes away from the delight of reading A Christmas Carol. It might be a little long to finish in a single sitting, but you certainly can get through it in a couple of cups of cocoa or a few glasses of punch. You don’t need a Christmas tree to enjoy it; you only have to believe that it is possible for any of us to be a little better than we are.