Charles Dickens and the Message of Christmas

Dec 24th, 2011 | By | Category: Christian Life, Featured Issues

For over 150 years Charles Dickens? story of the miserly, miserable Ebenezer Scrooge and his three ghosts has been a regular Christmas tradition throughout Western Civilization.  Indeed, even Hollywood has fueled this tradition by producing more than 15 feature productions of ?A Christmas Carol.?  Why is this story so powerful, so gripping and such a staple of the Holiday season?  The answer lies in understanding the author, Charles Dickens.  Charles Dickens is arguably the most influential novelist in the English language.  It was his Christmas stories and his struggle with Christianity that dominated much of his life and permeated his writings.

Born in 1812, Dickens? early life was one of poverty.  His father, a lowly government clerk, found himself in debtor prison and young Charles consequently found himself laboring in the dismal factories and the workhouses of the day.  These years marked him.  When he finally escaped poverty later in life, he devoted his abundant writing gifts to exploring the lives of the poor, the frustrated and the unfulfilled.  These themes we see in his Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickelby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, among others.  Because of his success as a novelist, his life was truly a rags-to-riches story.  At the heart of Dickens? writing is a quest for significance, which eventually led him to explore the Christian faith.  But he struggled with the consistency of Anglican Christianity; he saw so much hypocrisy and hurt in the supposedly Christian nation of England.  He thus wrote innumerable essays on the disparity between Christian teaching and Christian practice and he lectured widely on the nature of Christian ethics and society.  He even wrote a perplexing, yet searching life of Christ, entitled Life of Our Lord.

His annual Christmas stories, begun in 1843, were the most widely used forum for his musings on Christianity.  The first, and in my judgment the best, was A Christmas Carol.  Everyone knows the story: Ebenezer Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, whose financially destitute, yet joyful, family ekes out an existence in old London, constitute the story?s main characters.  Cratchit?s youngest son, Tiny Tim, is the focal point of Scrooge?s miserliness.  The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future haunt Scrooge throughout Christmas Eve night, as they expose all of his sins and shortcomings.  He comes to terms with his greed and selfishness as ?the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous? miser.  In short, Scrooge is regenerated, born again, into a generous, compassionate, loving man who rescues Tiny Tim from death, and becomes one ?who knew how to keep Christmas well.?  Powerfully and with crystal clear clarity, Dickens?s story is thus the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Depravity, dispossession and depression are overcome by the power of repentance, redemption and resurrection.  Perhaps, Scrooge is actually Dickens?s alter ego, ending his quest for significance in the story of Christmas.

What lessons does Dickens teach us through his redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge?  Dickens gives us no reason to believe that Scrooge has ever been dishonest in his business dealings.  He is thrifty, disciplined and hard-working.  But it seems to me that Dickens is arguing that these virtues are not enough.  As Scrooge?s early patron, Mr. Fezziwig, demonstrates, moneymaking, generosity and a spirit of goodwill are not only compatible but inextricably linked in a purpose-filled life.  Private charity combines with hard work in Scrooge?s personal redemption.  Although considerably romanticized, Dickens also depicts hard-working families gathered for a day of well-earned rest, merriment and modest excess.  Christmas day becomes a reassuring antidote to the factory jobs and crowded cities of Victorian England.  Today, we are far removed from Victorian England.  But perhaps that is why we love the story so.  We can identify with Scrooge in his miserliness, yet also long for his redemption.  The message of Christmas is that God understands our miserly, selfish human condition and provides our redemption through His son, Jesus.  The message of Christmas remains that the babe in the manger on Christmas morning was God?s ?unspeakable gift? to the human race.  Until and unless we embrace that reality, we will remain in hopeless destitution as a modern Ebenezer Scrooge. PRINT PDF

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  1. […] The following, including the image, is taken from Dr Jim Eckman’s article, ‘Charles Dickens and the Message of Christmas’, which can be read in full here. […]