TERRE HAUTE — Scrooge was lucky.
He realized his mistakes, acknowledged them, and made things right — just in time.
For most of us, visits from ghosts of our Christmases past, present and future are rare these days. And our BFFs — a.k.a. the ghost of Scrooge’s fellow skinflint and ex-business partner, Jacob Marley, in Charles Dickens’ book “A Christmas Carol” — seldom tell us the truth we need to hear, as Marley does.
Instead, it’s up to each of us to look at what we’ve done (the past), see how it is affecting others (the present), and change to make amends (the future). Otherwise, well, the bony finger of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, pointing toward a forgotten headstone, says it all.
Terrified, old Ebenezer begs that dark apparition to spare him, and swears he got the message as the ghosts forced him to sit through a play-by-play of his life. “I will not shut out the lessons that they teach,” Scrooge says.
Fortunately, he awakens from his prophetic nightmare safe and alive, yet shaken to the core. Scrooge changed. He kept his promises to reform. As Dickens wrote, he “was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more.” Scrooge apologized, too. To the man who sought a donation for the poor the day before, only to be harshly rejected, Scrooge said, “Allow me to ask your pardon.”
In Dickens’ two-sentence note to readers in his preface to “A Christmas Carol,” he hoped the book would “haunt their house pleasantly.”
It has. His original 66-page manuscript has endured for 166 years. The book, amazingly, has never gone out of print. More than 20 movies are based on “A Christmas Carol,” including this season’s 3D version starring Jim Carrey. Its moral is timeless. Scrooge’s metaphorical long, hard look in the mirror applied in 1843 London, and 2009 Terre Haute.
“That’s what Scrooge does — he takes stock, and doesn’t like what he sees,” said Michael Shelden, an author and professor of English at Indiana State University. “That’s really what ‘A Christmas Carol’ is about. It’s a re-examination of your life — what are you living for?”
For Scrooge, his obvious flaw was a covetous heart. He hoarded his money, without considering the needs of those around him. He gave his dutiful clerk, Bob Cratchit, a cruelly low wage, without concern for Bob’s wife and children. Dickens, himself, knew such humiliation and pain inflicted through an uncaring decision. At age 12, young Charles had to work in a shoe polish factory after his father was thrown into debtor’s prison.
“A Christmas Carol” doesn’t simply implore readers to spend their hard-earned money. Instead, Scrooge learns to offer his money with an open heart. After the wakeup-call visitation by Marley and the three ghosts, Scrooge buys Cratchit’s family a plump Christmas turkey so big “he never could have stood upon his legs,” as the recovered miser put it. He also raises Bob’s pay. Scrooge found joy in his newfound generosity because he realized he’d helped others, not selfishly disregarded them.
Dickens was born in 1812, but if he lived today, he’d probably shop on Black Friday, said James Krasner, professor of English and British literature at the University of New Hampshire.
“Going to the mall at Christmastime is very much like what he describes in ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Krasner said last week by telephone from the UNH campus in Durham, N.H. “I think [Dickens] would agree, there are kids getting $400 iPods that shouldn’t be getting them. But the book is sort of about striking a balance.”
The families in the story reflect that ability to commit space in life to good cheer. Poor as the Cratchits are, their humble home buzzed with Christmas planning and anticipation. The family and friends of Fred — the hopeful nephew whose affection Scrooge had previously rebuffed — toasted the holiday with “a great array” of food and drink. After his transformation, Scrooge appreciated both families, and shared Christmas with them.
The value and respect for family permeates Dickens’ tale. Ironically, the famed author lost track of that principle later in his own life. In 1858, Dickens “literally turned his back on his family, walked out and just kept on walking,” Shelden explained. Dickens kept working with great success, but never returned to his family. He died in 1870.
The story he produced transcends his own personal failings. Once Scrooge awakens, he understands his actions have consequences for others — good and bad. The choice is his. Money, in Scrooge’s case, is merely the tool. The broader lesson is to be kind and do the right thing.
“Buying presents is a metaphor for connecting,” Krasner said. “Buying presents for your family is a way of showing that you love them.”
He added, “Spending money is like spending emotion.”
That concept has biblical roots. The book of Matthew says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In essence, our priorities in life are made apparent by how we spend our money. On our own, with a little extra cash, how do we use it? For ourselves? Or for those we consider to be priorities? Will our choices help, hurt or disregard others?
“A Christmas Carol” offers powerful advice.
“It has an impact on the way we live our lives,” Krasner said. “The way we celebrate Christmas is affected by this book.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TERRE HAUTE — Scrooge was lucky.
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