When I was around 9 or 10 years of age, my mother took me to see a lavish production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at the Bloomington [Illinois] Scottish Rite Consistory. The Consistory was—to my young mind—a huge theatre and the play seemed peopled with hundreds. It proved one of the cherished memories of my youth. I remember being vaguely disappointed as an adult with the more modest production Goodman Theatre presents in Chicago.
The 1950's script as I think back on it might have come directly from Dickens' novel. It was all there—from Scrooge's small office and his bedroom to a vast Anglican Church scene where Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit attend and watch a Christmas Eve service. I remember I was amazed at the number of people on stage and how vast the whole thing seemed—complete with procession of priest, acolytes, swinging censures and rich fabrics. The warehouse scene with the dancing was another favorite memory. Whether I have added actors over the years or whether it was a cast of hundreds, I don't really know. But I can still see some of the moments some 52 years later.
Currently I am teaching British Literature at St. Ignatius College Preparatory High School in Chicago. Finishing up with the Romantic authors, I could not ignore Dickens, but with only a few weeks left to the semester, his long works seemed too complex for the time frame. I chose to teach A Christmas Carol for several reasons: it was short, it is an iconic work that still shows off Dickens' humor and plotting, and Dickens' messages seem to reinforce the school's focus on social justice.
One critic credits Dickens with single-handedly “saving” Christmas. His work, which was quite popular from its publication in 1843 onward, helped define many of our concepts of what “keeping Christmas” in one's heart means.
As one of the culminating activities for my students, I had them list as many of the lessons as they could that Dickens teaches us. Here are only a few—some students came up with 50:
- Lesson One: The needy are our responsibility.
Before Marley appears, Scrooge shows his reaction toward the poor and mankind in the scene with the men soliciting donations.
Marley tells us that it is our duty “to walk among mankind” doing good while we are alive. If we don't we'll be forced to do it after death.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I'm very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can't go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don't know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It's not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!” … “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”
- Lesson Two: Remember the past.
Early on in his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge returns to the school where he was deserted as a boy. Scrooge cries during the scene.
The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man's sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!
“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”
Scrooge muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.
“Remember it!” cried Scrooge with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”
“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!” observed the Ghost.
In a wondrous scene, Scrooge sees his younger self reading and outside the window can be seen the book companions who kept him company--Ali Baba, Valentine and Orson, the Parrot, Robin Crusoe and others. He finds himself thinking of a young boy caroler who he treated badly. He delights in watching Fezzwig's party. He feels the loss of the woman he loved. The past lessons show him all he has missed.
- Lesson Three: Celebrate the season with song and music.
Early on Scrooge encounters a caroler already mentioned:
When returning with Christmas Past to Old Fezzwig's, he watches several dances, which delight Fezzwig's employees.
Foggier yet, and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of
"God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!"Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.
As he watches his nephew Fred and his house celebrate, they finish dinner and turn to music.
After tea, they had some music. For they were a musical family, and knew what they were about, when they sung a Glee or Catch, I can assure you: especially Topper, who could growl away in the bass like a good one, and never swell the large veins in his forehead, or get red in the face over it. Scrooge's niece played well upon the harp; and played among other tunes a simple little air (a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes), which had been familiar to the child who fetched Scrooge from the boarding-school, as he had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley.
- Lesson Four: Decorate your houses.
The shock of the Ghost of Christmas Present for Scrooge is that his home is for the first time decorated for the season.
It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge's time, or Marley's, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.
- Lesson Five: Celebrate with feasting.
Christmas dinners are lush affairs for Dickens.
The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow's pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef.
Even the poor Cratchits can enjoy a feast of goose:
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!
The goose is followed by the revered plum pudding:
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.
- Lesson Six: Honor the family.
The scenes with the Cratchits and Fred and his wife show the depth of feeling that families bring their members.
- Lesson Seven: Protect children.
The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children under his long green gown.
“They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
One of the most touching scenes no one usually knows from the book is Bob Cratchit sitting alone with Tiny Tim's dead body, having returned from looking at the grave where he will be placed.
He left the room, and went up-stairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy.
[It is this scene of true pathos and emotion for Tim's loss that makes such a heart-felt contrast to Scrooge's discovery of the deserted and empty rooms where his body lies. No film has chosen to show this scene, but the power of it shows Dickens' wisdom in including it.]
- Lesson Eight: Forgive others.
Fred forgives his uncle his eccentricities and on Christmas Scrooge is quickly accepted as part of Fred and his wife's family.
- Lesson Nine: Take care of others.
Some of Dickens' contemporaries were shocked and uncomfortable with his was suggestion of the duty of employers have toward their employees.
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!
- Lesson Ten: Empathize with the lives of others.
Scrooge worries about the illness of Tiny Tim. With Belle and her husband he learns all he might have had with children.
- Lesson Eleven: Spread peace and joy.
This might be interpreted as entertain others, laugh and celebrate with games and laughter. Fred and his household play blind-man's bluff, forfeits, How, When, & Where, and Yes or No:
Later, in his long evening with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge sees other happy families celebrating.
It was a Game called Yes and No, where Scrooge's nephew had to think of something, and the rest must find out what; he only answering to their questions yes or no, as the case was. The brisk fire of questioning to which he was exposed, elicited from him that he was thinking of an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, and walked about the streets, and wasn't made a show of, and wasn't led by anybody, and didn't live in a menagerie, and was never killed in a market, and was not a horse, or an ass, or a cow, or a bull, or a tiger, or a dog, or a pig, or a cat, or a bear. At every fresh question that was put to him, this nephew burst into a fresh roar of laughter; and was so inexpressibly tickled, that he was obliged to get up off the sofa and stamp. At last the plump sister, falling into a similar state, cried out:
“I have found it out! I know what it is, Fred! I know what it is!”
“What is it?” cried Fred.
“It's your Uncle Scro-o-o-o-oge!”
Which it certainly was. Admiration was the universal sentiment, though some objected that the reply to “Is it a bear?” ought to have been “Yes;” inasmuch as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.
“He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,” said Fred, “and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, ‘Uncle Scrooge!' ”
“Well! Uncle Scrooge!” they cried.
Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery's every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.
- Lesson Twelve: Learn from one's mistakes.
It is in the presence of the final spirit that Scrooge realizes his lessons.
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am
not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this
intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
And Scrooge does, of course. He learns the lessons well, and according to Dickens, “ it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”