In the opening sequences of A Christmas Carol—which in a way is a kind of secular gospel story for the secular Christmas—hardworking and thrifty Scrooge is bent over his desk delivering value to his clients. In addition, by restricting the use of coal in his office fireplace, he’s also doing his part to clean up London’s then-notoriously poor air quality. Not that he gets any credit for that, but moving on.
His nephew enters, possibly drunk, to invite him to Christmas dinner, with a series of blatantly passive-aggressive statements that no sane person could misinterpret. Scrooge then accurately assesses the utility of the Christmas holiday thus:
“What’s Christmastime to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” says Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
Strong words, yes. But that doesn’t make him wrong.
And then, moments later, in walk two do-gooders of the most shifty sort—neither, let’s be frank, carries any identification or offers to prove his affiliation with any certified tax-exempt 501(c)(3) institution; I mean, these guys could be anyone, and they demand money from Scrooge because—and this is what gets me—he has it and other people need it. Scrooge quite reasonably replies with a slightly crude rejoinder—remember, Dickens is writing this one hundred years before Friedrich Hayek’s magisterial post-Scrooge exegesis The Road to Serfdom— that boils down to, Hey! I pay my taxes.
What happens after that is well known. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts—the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future—and by the end of his ordeal he’s been transformed. We glimpse him at the close of the book giddy and rosy-cheeked—tipsy on wine and generosity, full of Christmas spirit and bursting with a new and fuller heart. What we’re supposed to think is this: that everyone Else around Scrooge had the Right spirit, the right Christmas attitude, and that the three ghostly visitations were a kind of Victorian spectral therapy—highly successful at that—in getting Ebenezer Scrooge with the program.
To which I say: Humbug.
Who, exactly, in the early pages of the book offers to give Scrooge anything? Sure, his nephew offers him the dubious pleasure of a dinner, but with company like that, Scrooge was right to prefer his porridge and his ale. In the enormous constellation of irritating characters in the Dickens universe, Scrooge’s nephew looms large and bright. He is clearly one of those people who keeps tapping you when he talks. Hey, hey, hey, pay attention to me! And he’s one of those guys who keeps telling the same story over again. I’m telling you, Uncle Scrooge! It was hilarious! Hi lar-i-ous! We were screaming. Seriously.
Who wants to have dinner with that?
And then people come in and want his money. And then his employee wants time off. No one—no one—offers to give him anything. Scrooge and the world are at a standoff. He’s a miser, yes. But the rest of the world is withholding, too. He refuses to budge, but so does everyone else.
The picture of his life, painted in images and ghostly time travels, is one of sadness and loneliness and rejection. These days, we’d call it what it is: depression. But back then, surely, in the sentimental and emotional Victorian era, when people were fainting and shrinking and collapsing from consumption and heartbreak, what’s remarkable is how callously the world treated the younger Ebenezer Scrooge, how stingy it was with its gifts and its love. Scrooge, in almost every respect, is exactly whom David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby would have turned into, without the lucky breaks that Charles Dickens doled out to them.
Still, Scrooge wakes up full of the Christmas spirit, radiant with joy and laughter, and showers gifts on everyone in his circle. To which we’re supposed to say, It’s about time.
And yet, in the final chapter, when Scrooge sends the little street urchin off to buy a turkey—“The one as big as me?”—for the Cratchits, it takes a certain kind of selfish, smug, utter misunderstanding of the point of Christmas not to ask, Hey, did anyone ever buy Scrooge a turkey?
We know the answer to that. The answer is no. And then we wonder why he seems like such a jerk.
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To read more from Rob and other great conservative writers on the wonder of Christmas, purchase a copy of The Christmas Virtues at Templeton Press, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. The Christmas Virtues is a humorous companion for, and guide to, navigating the trials and tribulations of the holiday season. It’s a reminder of how we can embrace the joy, hope, and love of Christmas—of the real Christmas. And a call for us to stand up for Christmas, because America needs is now, more than ever.