A Christmas Carol no secular tale
'A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens, is as much part of the holiday celebration as the holly and mistletoe. But whereas "A Christmas Carol" (written in 1843) is one of the most familiar works in all of literature, everyone knows the tale of the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge being haunted into generosity and Christmas cheer, the tale is largely misunderstood. For most critics make the careless and erroneous assertion that "A Christmas Carol" is a secular tale and the Dickens Christmas is a secular celebration.
Typical of this school of thought was the late Edgar Johnson, author of the 1953 book "Charles Dickens: His Triumph and Tragedy." In his book, Johnson stated, "It should not be imagined that Christmas has for Dickens more than the very smallest connection with Christian dogma or theology." Several critics have made the same assertion.
But truth be told, Christian theology leaps off the pages of "A Christmas Carol" and is the essence of Dickens. As the late Eleanor Farjeon wrote in a 1954 introduction to "A Christmas Carol," "To separate the feast of Dickens from the festival of Christ would do Boz poor justice," Boz being the pen name used by Dickens in his earliest works.
Christian theology is so essential to the Dickens Christmas that the celebration is not just of the saga between Nativity and Epiphany. The Dickens Christmas celebrates the entire story of Christ, from Nativity to the Resurrection. For instance, in "The Christmas Tree" (the first of Dickens' "Christmas Stories") the author lists every biblical event in the life of Christ as part of Christmas. And in "What Christmas Is As We Get Older" (the second of Dickens' "Christmas Stories") the author cites the adult Christ raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead as part of the Christmas story.
Nowhere in the works of Dickens is Christian theology more obvious than in "A Christmas Carol." Hardly secular concepts, the tale contains the twin themes of redemption and forgiveness. Paul Davis wrote in his 1990 book, "The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge," that Scrooge's odyssey is a journey from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
The allegory is most compelling when considering the three nights of Scrooge's ordeal. Remember that it is only in the movies where Scrooge's experience with the Christmas ghosts all takes place on Christmas Eve. In the actual tale written by Dickens, Scrooge's conversion at the hands of the ghosts takes place over the course of three nights. It is only by the miracle of the Christmas Ghosts of Past, Present, and Yet to Come that Scrooge is able to wake on Christmas morning after three nights having passed since Christmas Eve. And these three nights of Scrooge's ordeal are representative of Christ rising on the third day.
But the Christian theology of "A Christmas Carol" is not limited to allegory. Indeed, most of the theological symptoms are explicit and concrete. Most memorable are the words of Tiny Tim, the afflicted son of Scrooge's beleaguered clerk Bob Cratchit, who tells his father on their way home from church that he hoped people had seen him with his crutch so as "to remember on Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see."
There is also the example of Scrooge's nephew Fred, who sings the praises of Christmas "apart from the veneration due its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that, as a good time." This passage brings us back to Eleanor Farjeon's point that the feast of Dickens is inseparable from the festival of Christ.
Lest we forget, there is also the passage when Scrooge is visited by the two charitable gentlemen soliciting funds "to make some slight provision for the poor and destitute." In response to Scrooge's insensitive suggestion that the poor and destitute belong in prisons and workhouses, one of the gentleman replies that prisons and work-houses "scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude."
Nor can we forget the ghost of Scrooge's late partner Jacob Marley who laments "Not to know that any Christian spirit will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness." Marley's ghost goes on to lament never having raised his eyes "to that blessed star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode."
There is also the author himself interjecting his Christian theology. He instructs the reader that it is good to be child-like at Christmas "when its mighty founder was a child himself."
So much for the secular side to "A Christmas Carol." But why would the critics still persist, contrary to all the evidence, that "A Christmas Carol" is a secular tale and the Dickens Christmas a secular celebration? The only available answer is that most critics are intellectuals and intellectuals are hostile to anything with a religious suggestion. And that Dickens, the greatest force in literature since Shakespeare, was a staunch Christian is too much reality for intellectuals whose praises are found in agnosticism.
John O'Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer. He is researching for a book on Charles Dickens.