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A Christmas Carol

How Christmas Was Saved, and So Were We

by Waitsel Smith

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In the mid 1800s, Christmas was a dying holiday, much as it is today. Many of its traditions were being neglected, and even the idea of "Peace on earth, good will to men" was considered passe. Then something extraordinary happened: Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas." It was an instant success, and launched one of the biggest comebacks in history: not of Dickens, but of Christmas.

The English poet Thomas Hood once wrote, "If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease." That's how powerful a tale it is. And it doesn't take that long to read.

Over the course of my life, I have enjoyed many and sundry versions of A Christmas Carol on screen and stage. But only a few years ago did I finally get around to reading it. To my surprise, it turned out to be a Christian story. I knew it was inspiring, but I never dreamed there were so many references to Christ, because only a few of them have survived in the many dramatic productions. (There have actually been fifty or sixty different film versions of A Christmas Carol made. You can read about most of them on the definitive Christmas Carol web site,

The amazing thing about this five-part story, which is one of the shortest in Dickens' career, is that we never tire of seeing or hearing it. We seem enthralled by the idea that Christmas can transform us, if only we'll let it. In A Christmas Carol, we see the Victorian Christmas we have always dreamed of. In the miser Scrooge, we see the best and worst of ourselves. And in the conclusion to the tale, we see the hope that we, similarly, can be transformed by the Spirit of Christmas.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - First Edition

It's interesting that A Christmas Carol is actually a ghost story. Tim Burton is not too far off in that regard. I suppose Dickens could have used angels; but ghosts fit the romantic sensibilities of his Victorian audience. They also kill any elusions that his audience may have had at the beginning that this would be a religious tale, as well as add a dramatically enticing element to the story. I mean, spirits. That begs the question, are they good or bad? Plus, it fits that a dead man might send spirits back to help a friend, while he may not have that kind of authority over angels. But what were the spirits if not angels, and what are angels if not spirits?

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Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - Scrooge on Christmas Eve

At any rate, it's a wonderful idea for a story - one of the best. Making each of the spirits represent Past, Present or Future Christmases was genius. As I said, it has five acts, the first being Scrooge's former state; the second through fourth, each of the spirits who visit him; and the last, his reborn state. He is reborn, you know. I cannot think of a better example of a man who's life has been changed by the Spirit of Christ in the New Birth than Scrooge. It isn't explained that way in the text, but it is implied by how Scrooge describes his change on Christmas morning after his night of visitations:

"I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!"

What is this, but the attitude and posture of a repentant man. What are the three Spirits, but the Spirit of Christ. What is Heaven and the Christmas Time but Christ in his heart. Other references in the story confirm this.

Scrooge from Disney's A Christmas Carol

Then there is the way Scrooge acts after his experience:

"I don't know what to do! I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A Merry Christmas to everybody! A Happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!"

What is this, but the actions and feelings of a man that has been born again and filled with the Holy Spirit. The 180 degree reversal of Scrooge's nature, as revealed in the events that follow, agrees with this.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - Scrooge as played by Patrick Stewart

After this, Scrooge buys a turkey - a gigantic turkey - and sends it to Bob Cratchit's house in a cab. Here's how he felt afterwards:

"The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried."

This is sheer joy: the joy of giving, the joy of Christmas, the joy of the New Birth.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - Scrooge on Christmas morning

I love Scrooge, A Christmas Carol and Charles Dickens. In his famous Christmas tale, Dickens has given us the hope that if Scrooge can change, so can we. And it doesn't take a visit from three ghosts: the source of change is right under our noses. Every year at Christmas time, God reminds us that He has given us the way to change: Christ. Every year, the hope is renewed in the world and in our hearts. Like Scrooge, let us be filled with the Spirit of Christmas. Let's wake up each morning shouting "Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!" and go forth doing the work of Christ.

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Scrooge and Tiny Tim from Disney's A Christmas Carol

A word about the historical context of A Christmas Carol, from Wikipedia:

"A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (commonly known as A Christmas Carol) is a novella by Charles Dickens, first published on December 19, 1843, with illustrations by John Leech. The story was instantly successful, selling over six thousand copies in one week, and the tale has become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories of all time.

"Contemporaries noted that the story's popularity played a critical role in redefining the importance of Christmas and the major sentiments associated with the holiday. A Christmas Carol was written during a time of decline in the old Christmas traditions. 'If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease,' said English poet Thomas Hood."

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - Alastair Sim and Albert Finney as Scrooge

Since it's in the public domain, you can read A Christmas Carol online by going to Project Gutenberg. This has the entire text on one page, and includes the classic illustrations by John Leech.

For more reviews of the classics, go to my Classic Novels and Plays web page. For more reviews of Christmas movies, go to my Christmas Movies web page. For my "Best of Christmas," which includes everything from movies to holiday recipes to gift ideas, click here.


Waitsel Smith, January 19, 2008

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Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - Annotated


[Send me yours and I'll include them on this page.]

"This is great....thanks for sharing." - Carole, Atlanta

"[My husband] has been reading the book and enjoying it.  This motivates me to want to also. Sounds kind of like 'A Little Princess,' where the book is amazingly yet wonderfully different from any of the movie versions.

"Did you review The Adjustment Bureau?  We watched it last night and found it fascinating. Lots to think about theologically." - Karen, Atlanta

"I noticed the date of 2008 for the writing of your Christmas Carol synopsis, which is very well done. You have been thinking about this for a while, obviously. I like what you had to say and perhaps folks will take your suggestion and start each day with the praise and do the work of Christ. Not just at Christmas, but maybe a little more. I love you and wish happiness and joy to you. Thanks for blessing my life and being my friend." - Joey, North Carolina

"Thanks for this, well said." - Ron, Atlanta

Thanks for all your great comments!

Text © 2008 Waitsel Smith. Images © various sources, including Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved

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