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Saving Scrooge: The Real Meaning of “A Christmas Carol”

Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is enjoyed by millions of people every December, as it has for many decades in many different forms. This is, in part, due to the unforgettable character of Ebenezer Scrooge—a character we all know, but few understand. The popularity of this tale makes it all the more unfortunate that it is so frequently mistaken as a story about charity. We sometimes refer to a person as a “Scrooge” because they lack Christmas cheer, or because they are wealthy and greedy. (Recall the Disney character Scrooge McDuck, whose greatest pleasure was diving for a swim in his enormous vat of money—all stored away so no one else could touch it.) One of the most memorable scenes from “A Christmas Carol” has Scrooge telling two men from a local charity that he has no desire to give, since he already supports the prisons and workhouses. He goes on to suggest that if the poor would rather die, they should “get on with it and decrease the surplus population.” A brief review of the English Poor Laws and the economic ideas of Thomas Malthus can put these statements in their historical context, which I will not do here. The message is clear: Scrooge was rich, didn’t give to the poor and didn’t care for Christmas. But to come away from the story thinking this was the source of his condemnation is to miss the whole point. Ebenezer Scrooge was haunted not because of his wealth or lack of charity alone, but because he had narrowed his perspective and misplaced the true value in life; material security had become his priority—for its own sake—while the love of friends, family and neighbors had been completely neglected. This is a story about a man who abandoned every opportunity to build meaningful relationships with those around him, and therefore never discovered the purpose for which he was given life. Ebenezer’s particular idol happened to be money. He worked for it, hoarded it and measured everything—and everyone—by it. His every action was determined by whether or not it brought him gain—a rational, calculating approach, but one that was unable to fulfill his true needs as a human. As time wore on, loneliness led to bitterness and back again. The Spirits did not come merely to make him generous, but to restore his life by removing this idol. Books are always better than their cinematic counterparts, and it is no less true in this case. When reading the words of Dickens himself, one meets Ebenezer Scrooge on a more personal level. The texture and depth of the story convey more fully the sadness that he feels in watching his life pass before his eyes, and in confronting a cold and lonely end to a suddenly meaningless existence. Everything that he had invested himself in—his narrow definition of success—provided no solace on his deathbed. The Spirits force Scrooge to view his own life and that of others through a new perspective. He is reminded of the joys of his childhood, and the love of his youth. He shown people in meager situations, who manage to find warmth and fellowship in good company. He watches as he gains material wealth, but loses his friends, his fiancé and a little sister, who had a son before her death. It is this very nephew—the only family Scrooge has left—whose friendship he rejects time and time again. When finally faced with his name on a tombstone, it is not death itself that terrifies Scrooge, nor the prospect of sharing Marley’s fate. What renders Ebenezer Scrooge so repentant is the fear of having never truly lived. He pleads that he is changed; he promises to “live in the past, present and future.” This is not about money—it is about recognizing the value of our human connectedness, to our family, our community and even to our former and future selves. Scrooge’s lesson was that no amount of money could buy happiness, and that love and friendship are worth more than all the material goods a person could acquire in a lifetime. In the end, we find a man not only more generous—a sign that he no longer worships at the altar of profit—but one who is more genial and eager for a good laugh. Thus, he is liberated in both life and death. The story compels us to consider how we treat the poor. We are encouraged to embrace a selfless spirit of giving on Christmas and year round. But it should also make us consider the truly important things in life, and how easily they are tossed aside as we seek our own goals. It should remind us that material gain, for all of its very real benefits, does not compare to the richness and happiness found in sharing our hopes, fears and good humor with those around us. It should teach us that our pursuit of prosperity exists for greater ends, and is not an end in itself.