For the past seven years, my daughter has played a role in a local production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the 1843 novella that to a striking degree laid the foundation for how Christmas is celebrated today. This particular production amplifies the comic undertones of the original and is highly contemporary, which is one reason it just celebrated its 48th year. I first saw it when I was in elementary school. For reference, my older child just returned home from his first semester in college. The one constant in the play, which is performed as a musical, is Ebenezer Scrooge, played by the show’s creator.
Scrooge, of course, is a mean-spirited miser, a misanthrope whose hard-heartedness and self-absorption take a terrible toll not just on himself, but on his community, beginning with his long-suffering employee Bob Cratchit and by extension, Mr. Cratchit’s family, which includes the disabled child Tiny Tim.
When I first saw the play, I was perhaps just slightly older than Tiny Tim. I remember fearing Scrooge but also laughing at his obvious flaws. As a daydreaming kid, I really didn’t need to be told not to waste my life working in pursuit of money and riches (how ridiculous!). I needed no encouragement to celebrate holidays, most especially one in which I stood to receive an abundance of toys and candy in exchange for vague promises of decent behavior. But I was shocked by the vision of Tiny Tim’s death. It truly left an impression. Children weren’t supposed to die.
Well, they weren’t supposed to die in Raleigh in the 1970s, but in London in the 1840s, well, there was no such implicit guarantee. As the agrarian economy of Great Britain gave way to the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era, urban children living in horrific conditions was becoming increasingly common. Dickens himself was forced into labor as a child after his father was imprisoned for indebtedness. But A Christmas Carol is not a mere harangue against child labor; instead, it poses bigger questions to Victorian England, and really, of course, to all of us: what kind of society are we? Who are we as a people? Are we, as my economics professors described us using an x and y axis, nothing more than labor and capital?
After all, when I returned to A Christmas Carol as an adult, I must admit that old Mr. Scrooge seemed a lot more sympathetic, perhaps even prophetic. Why, who among us truly enjoys the mad scramble up to Christmas Day? The overspending, overindulging, brazen commercialization, and creeping cynicism all seem to suggest Scrooge might have been onto something. Bah, humbug, indeed! Even the tendrils of Scrooge’s most contemptible notion, that society ought to seek to “decrease the world’s surplus population” seeks to take dark root.
However, the horror of Tiny Tim’s fate had not diminished. As a younger adult, with my own small children, watching this scene hit me harder than before. Every child fears death, but parents fear nothing more than the death of their children. I can hardly bring myself to write about it. Thus for me, the meaning of A Christmas Carol began to change, as all our lives do, from the story of my own dreams, to the story of my dreams for someone else.
Scrooge’s path to redemption begins with the Ghost of Christmas Past reminding him of the younger version of himself, one who loved and was loved, before he was hardened by time and allowed himself to be slowly consumed by ambition and avarice.
The ghost conjures a vision of Scrooge’s mentor, jolly Mr. Fezziwig, a successful merchant who might be English literature’s first example of someone who had achieved the optimum “work/life balance.” Victorian readers would have recognized Fezziwig as a character from a vanishing era, one in which wealthy landowners would open their houses to their tenant farmers for a lengthy Christmastime feast (sometimes even lasting, wait for it, twelve days).
After all, it turns out Scrooge wasn’t born a monster. We learn he was sent off to boarding school at a young age by a distant father and not allowed to return home during the holidays. Little by little, he deviated from the model of the happily married and generous Fezziwig toward something wretched, but not until the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the projected fate of Tiny Tim does the scope of his error begin to dawn on him. By the time the Ghost of Christmas Future delivers the vision of Scrooge’s own lonely, miserable death, we already know someone is about to have a change of heart.
This year, my children are much older than Tiny Tim was in that terrible vision. I even made it through that terrible scene without a tear, which for me is an extraordinary achievement. But I did not make it through the whole play. The one that finally got me (spoiler alert) was after Scrooge’s Christmas morning conversion when he becomes as a “second father” to Tiny Tim, promising to cure Tim’s lameness. These were tears of joy and hope, mixed with a few of salty resolve, because this was the recognition that we will all eventually die, that we must each contemplate our own legacy and that we can only hope that our worldly works will leave a positive mark.
Yes, somewhere between elementary school and AARP eligibility, the Scrooge miracle occurred for me just as it occurred for him. Call it humility, self-awareness, the Golden Rule, or a Commandment, the meaning of Christmas managed to penetrate my brain, even if just for a few days. Truly, what matters more than the ducats we accumulate is what we do with them, how we spend our time, and how we treat each other.
As Scrooge’s nephew said, “I always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; when men and women seem by consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were really fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
So, just as Bob Cratchit proposed, even before Scrooge was redeemed, here’s to Mr. Scrooge, the founder of our feast. For he is us, and we are him, and we will always be in each other’s company until we leave this earth.
And of course, as Tiny Tim said:
God bless us, every one!