In our home each year, Charles Dickens plays a central role in Christmas. I can’t explain it, but even as a child, I was enthralled by Dickens’ tale of the corrupted and redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps it was the ghosts that first attracted me as a boy. Regardless of the tradition’s origin, it has become a central part of my Christmas each December. Over the years, I’ve come to make it a habit of reading the short novel annually. And of course, there are no shortage of film versions, which my family and I enjoy arguing over which we like best. Who was the best Scrooge? Which screenplay was the cleverest?
There are so many obvious lessons in Dickens’ tale that it can be taken for granted. Of course, we all get it – be kind to one another; provide for the poor; love one another; pay your employees a decent wage; don’t forget to go to your nephew’s house for Christmas dinner; and most of all: stop being a miserable old bastard, because you are ruining everyone’s Christmas!
There it is in a nutshell. Nothing left to discuss.
Except, this year I’ve learned something new while reading A Christmas Carol. I learned what I would call the central lesson of the story. And that lesson is this – live in the moment; live for today.
Scrooge’s essential problem as a man is clear: he never lives in the moment. While on the surface, he appears to be living in the present, as he counts his money or lambasts his employee, Scrooge is plagued by his past and troubled by his future. In other words, Scrooge is like every man who has ever lived. He is riddled with sadness over lost joys, bad decisions, and loneliness. He is deeply morose over memories of a father who never loved him, a sister who died too young; and a love affair that was lost. Likewise, Scrooge is fearful of a future that will inevitably include aging, slowing down, and yes, eventually death. Will he have enough money? How will he survive? What of his business?
Have you ever analyzed your typical day? Here’s an example of one of mine: The alarm goes off at 4:15 am, but I don’t hear it, so my wife pokes me (gently and kindly, mind you) in the ribs. I am up and running. Make the coffee and oatmeal and wolf it down while catching some news. I have to be out the door by 5:15 so I can get to the gym by 5:45. What am I doing today? Let’s see – I have a meeting to discuss something and I think someone is calling me about some problem. Shoot! Better get moving or I’ll be late.
My day is filled with interactions where I am either thinking about something that happened yesterday, anticipating my next meeting or daydreaming. It goes like this all day – a near obsession with everything except the present. Someone is telling you something important, and you are thinking about next week’s reports that are due. What happened yesterday and what happens tomorrow – all day long, every day. Mix in some concerns about finances (when can I retire? Will I have enough to live on? To help my kids?) Then you drive home around 6pm and recount what has transpired with an eye on next week, next month, and next year.
The electronic revolution certainly hasn’t helped any – because when we get home, we can watch television while surfing the web in between exchanging texts on our phones. All the while we are having some kind of disjointed “conversation” with our family members. Thank God for these electronic devices which make us so efficient.
It’s enough to make me wonder sometimes – am I alive?
When we meet Scrooge, he is certainly not living a full life by any stretch of the imagination. He is in fact quite miserable. He is living the Hobbesian lifestyle – solitary, nasty, and brutish (although not short). It is clearly going to take a miracle to wake him up. And in this case (and every case for that matter), it is the ghosts of Christmas that create the miracle to set Scrooge straight.
First, Jacob Marley arrives, plagued by incessant regret over the way he lived his life. Doomed to eternal agony, Jacob warns Scrooge – not only about what lies ahead for miserable sinners, but more importantly he shows Scrooge the most vital thing he is missing every day: human interaction. Jacob allows Scrooge to see the spirit world, full of tormented moaning souls. When Scrooge asks his old partner, “why do they lament?” Jacob replies, they seek to interfere for good in man’s affairs but have lost the power to do so.
That is Marley’s curse. He wasted his life on the intricacies of business while ignoring the delicacies of friendship, kindness, and love.
I’ll not recount the well-worn details of the three spirits of Christmas as they take Scrooge on journeys through his past, present and future. However, I must say that during this year’s reading, it struck me quite clearly, that the only joy in the entire tale occurs in the present. When we travel back to Scrooge’s youth, his joy comes from being with his sister. He is overcome with happiness as he watches his old boss Mr. Fezziwig throw a Christmas party that is so great, everyone forgets their cares. Scrooge sees the joy of loving his fiancé and how he loses her when he becomes obsessed with the future rather than the present. Scrooge begins to realize that the best parts of his life came when he focused on living in the moment.
While traveling with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge visits his nephew’s home and discovers that like Old Fezziwig, Fred knows how to throw a party full of laughter and fun – and that Scrooge has been missing it every year. Most importantly, Scrooge visits the home of his employee, Bob Cratchit. Cratchitt, despite making a tiny salary, is able to enjoy a richness completely foreign to Scrooge. In terms of the love of family, Cratchit, like Frank Capra’s George Bailey, is the richest man in town.
In the Cratchit home, Scrooge is introduced to Tiny Tim, the youngest of Bob’s children. Tim is a sickly boy, doomed to die within the next year. Scrooge is deeply affected by Tim’s sad fate. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why Tim became such a popular Dickens character. This year, I’m convinced that Tim is popular because he is the embodiment of living today with joy. Tim is thrilled by his mother’s cooking, by the Christmas pudding, and by attending church with his father. He loves it all and he never once thinks of his illness. Tim is simply thankful for today and there is an exquisite beauty in that.
Simply put, the message of Christmas is: LIVE FOR TODAY. Your past, while a part of who you are and how you got to today, doesn’t matter at all. But, you protest, I’ve done terrible things in my past! The Author of Christmas responds, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.”
But I’ve been hurt by others. They’ve left me sad and alone! The Child in the manger reminds you, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Ah, yes but I have so much pressure on me – you see with work and bills and worries about the future. But Jesus answers, “don’t be anxious asking what shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? Don’t be anxious about tomorrow. For tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”
We have another tradition in our home. Our dear friend Santa Claus visits each year – with presents. Through no fault of his own, old Santa has become an enemy of living in the moment. As early as October, people point at Santa and start their countdown clocks. Only so many days until Christmas! So much to do, to buy, to plan, to make, to cook. It is go, go, go!
Maybe we should all remember to slow down and not make gifts the enemy of Christmas.
“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” (G.K. Chesterton)
Christmas is about the present. The past no longer matters because Christmas brought the gift of forgiveness. The future is assured because Jesus conquered the grave. Old Scrooge was a bawling mess when the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him the grave marked “Here Lies Ebenezer Scrooge.”
The cold, cruel grave was the fate of all men. If not for Christmas.
Christmas is the perfect liberation of mankind from the past and the future. Only when we understand Christmas can we live for today; loving each moment and carefree knowing that in the words of Tiny Tim, “God has blessed us, every one!”
I think that is what Dickens was after – the simple joy of living. Christmas stands alone against a world of sorrow, shame, sadness, stress and strife and shouts “Come in! Come in and know me better, man!”
Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham