The meaning of Christmas is most often told through the story of the Nativity, but coming in a close second is “A Christmas Carol.” The 19th-century tale by Charles Dickens helped elevate the celebration of the birth of Jesus – and the essence of his message.
The Christmas of 2011 is being used as a kickoff for a year-long celebration of Dickens. The English author was born 200 years ago this coming February. His other works, from “Oliver Twist” to “Great Expectations,” are masterpieces, but they don’t get nearly as much replay as the novella he wrote in 1843 with that hopeful message which takes the reader from Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug” to Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, everyone.”
The Dickens story tells of the transformation of the wealthy and cruel Scrooge from miserly to meek in just one Christmas Eve. For many, it also reinforces the kind of never-too-late redemption embedded in Christ’s message.
“A Christmas Carol” serves as a continual reminder of the need for compassion that lies at the heart of the Christ mission. The Dickens bicentenary will likely revisit a pivotal time in the author’s life when, at the age of 12, he was forced by his father’s sudden indebtedness to work in a shoe polish factory pasting labels on bottles.
Dickens’s feelings of desolation and shame were a conversion experience, giving him empathy for the poor and disadvantaged. Later, as a famed author, he wrote of that time: “For any care that was taken of me, I could have become a little robber or a little vagabond.”
In early Victorian England, Christmas wasn’t the holiday it was to become. His Yuletide tale helped bring it from a day spent mainly in churches to one celebrated in the home with family and the showering of love on young and old with gifts, cards, food, and cheer.
Even more, his tale helped bring the meaning of Christmas into people’s hearts.
Dickens wrote the story after reading a report for Parliament on the abuse of child workers in factories. He wanted to show that even cold-hearted businessmen could redeem themselves in an instant if their lives, as Scrooge saw by looking into his future, were put in perspective.
The atoning message of Christmas is that love and charity can be found anytime by even hardened misanthropes, starting with the warm ties of home and hearth.
Dickens may have used the literary device of ghosts to turn around the skinflint Scrooge (the author was fascinated with why people even believed in ghosts). But his most popular work really shows how much everyone wants to live with the enduring qualities of hope, forgiveness, and love.
And that’s a blessing, for everyone.