A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is arguably the most famous and beloved Christmas tale ever told. The classic holiday ghost story can stake a claim as one of the most recognizable stories of any seasonal variety. The tale has become as much of a staple of the holiday season as colored lights, presents under trees, and chocolate advent calendars. In fact, so integral is Dickens’ story to the holiday season that one Dickens biography (and later movie) was boldly titled: The Man Who Invented Christmas. Dickens’ personal religious convictions would lead him to reject such a lofty and erroneous epithet (after all, that title belongs to a baby born in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago), but such praise testifies to the importance and popularity of the story.
Why has this simple story resonated so profoundly across generations? Dickens is firmly entrenched on the Mount Rushmore of literary greats, and the “Christmas factor” is undeniable—everything is better at Christmastime. But the enduring power of A Christmas Carol transcends these factors. I believe this is the answer: At the heart of the classic holiday story is the Christian Gospel.
For All Have Sinned
“Marley was dead . . .”
A jarringly grim, three-word opening for a festive tale. But it is a perfect beginning, both literarily and thematically. Despite being a holiday associated with a glorious birth, the meaning of the season must start, paradoxically, with the inevitability of death. The gift of God, given through Jesus, was necessary because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
Equally memorable is our introduction to the character of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”
As readers, we typically like to align ourselves with the noble heroes of any moral tale. In Christ’s parable of the prodigal son, we are the loving and forgiving Father or perhaps the returned son (post-restoration) but rarely the self-righteous and jealous older brother. Thus, in A Christmas Carol, we naturally place ourselves in the position of the good-hearted “everyman” Bob Cratchit or as Fred, Scrooge’s cheerful and optimistic nephew. Seldom do we see ourselves as Scrooge himself.
Even Scrooge fails to recognize his true role in the tale. Only by the ghostly visitation of his “dead as a doornail” business partner, Jacob Marley, are his eyes opened to the reality of his sinful and wretched human nature. The wages of sin are visualized by the tormented Mr. Marley: “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
Scrooge, like so many of us, hides behind empty platitudes of being a “good person,” working hard and achieving material success. Yet, Marley’s ghost laments,
“Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!”
Romans 3:23 declares, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Whether we accept it or not, we are Scrooge in this story. But, like Scrooge, it is not the end of our story.
The Christian gospel is at the heart of A Christmas Carol, but the story is not a Christian allegory. The three Christmas spirits are not stand-ins for the Holy Trinity, nor does Scrooge receive salvation in a theological sense. Yet, his story paints a vivid picture of redemption.
Scrooge is transformed by his encounters with the Three Spirits—The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. He catches a glimpse of this lost innocence, an almost Edenic and dreamlike Christmas paradise. He is shown the despairing truth of his current life. And, lastly, he is reminded of eternity and the consequences of death.
Upon waking from the final spectral visitation, Scrooge is born anew. The old has passed away.
“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!”
The good news of the story is that no one, not even crotchety old Scrooge, is too far gone to be redeemed:
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it.”
As the criminal crucified beside Jesus reminds us, there is no expiration date on the invitation into heavenly paradise other than death. What makes A Christmas Carol so heartwarming is not just that Scrooge is redeemed but that he still has time to share his newfound Christmas spirit and bless those around him (none more so than feeble Tiny Tim).
A Timely Reminder Again and Again
A Christmas Carol remains as timely and profound today as it was when Charles Dickens first published it 177 years ago. We do not outgrow the story, because we do not outgrow the Gospel or our need to be reminded of it. Jesus taught that we should come to Him like children, and perhaps nothing connects us back to our childhood roots like Christmas does. As the Ghost of Christmas Present helps Scrooge realize, “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”
As we enter this holiday season, let’s embrace the true spirit of Christmas. Furthermore, let’s fix our eyes on the amazing gospel story that gives power and meaning to Christmas and our beloved seasonal tales.