I was rather tickled by the large sign in the main Harvey Nichols’ store in London recently which simply said “Bah, Humbug!” (although it did also say “Roll on 2021!”). Why? Well because they perhaps didn’t realise it at the time, but what the store was quoting was part of one of the greatest pieces of Christian discipleship- the novella ‘A Christmas Carol’.
The phrase “Bah, Humbug!” is of course one of the classic catchphrases of a certain Ebenezer Scrooge and was his mean view of what Christmas meant to him. It is widely recognised what Charles Dickens published on 19 December 1843 hugely influenced what we now take for granted at Christmas - families gathering together, seasonal food and drink, fun, and games, and what could be described as a “festive generosity of spirit”.
However, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is more, much more, than just a hugely entertaining and moving tale of an old miser’s redemption on Christmas Eve, that changed how we celebrate the season of goodwill in modern times. Dickens wrote it as a Christian allegory (in the same way that CS Lewis did in his ‘Narnia’ books) because his Christian faith was deep and sincere. He once told his family:
“My dear children, humbly try to guide yourselves by the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here and there”.
At its core, ‘A Christmas Carol’s message is that of the New Testament- that even the worst of sinners may repent and become good men and women. Its impact on Victorian society was huge. One writer said of it:
“the book is unique in that is makes people behave better”.
There was more. Following its publication there was a very significant upsurge in people giving to charitable needs, families did open their doors to those less well off, and in the USA there was one businessman who on reading it was so moved that he gave all his workers Christmas Day off (it was still not a public holiday there) and gave each of them a free turkey. That was the power of Dickens’ Christian fable.
‘A Christmas Carol’ though is no fairy tale. It was set very much in the reality of some peoples’ experience of Victorian Britain. Dickens had toured the country and had been moved and greatly upset by the numbers of street children living rough, ending up in workhouses or working down tin mines. He wanted to open readers’ hearts and social consciences to those people struggling to survive and to encourage those who could, to be benevolent towards them.
Its 79 page tale is of a man (Scrooge) who started out in life with great intentions but allowed himself to be beaten down by the world- his mother died giving birth to him and his father resented him for that. His beloved sister died too young, and he rejected the love of a good woman and replaced it with love of a new idol -the love of money. He had forgotten who God had created him to be- and turned himself into the cold, heartless monster that at the start of the story we know him to be.
Dickens though knew, that in life we do have chance after chance to be redeemed, to be transformed and ‘born again’-only if we take it. That is what Scrooge finally does – the 3 spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future show him the impact of his behaviour (treating his staff poorly, not helping those in need, and of course the potential premature death of poor Tiny Tim. Spoiler Alert: he did live!) but more importantly, how different the world can become if he repents and becomes anew.
The message of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is as vibrant and urgent in 2020 as it was almost 180 years ago. We should celebrate Christ’s birth by gathering together (but please make it ‘Small, Short and Local’!) and opening our hearts and if possible, our wallets, purses or time, to those less fortunate than ourselves. I can do no better than echo what Scrooge’s nephew (Fred) teaches him of Christmas:
“I have always thought that Christmas… as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable pleasant time, when men and women seem to open up their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as fellow travellers to the grave. I believe Christmas has done me good, and will do me good, so I say God bless it!”
Happy Christmas all!