Published December 29, 2021
There are holy days of sobering solemnity when one is meant to reflect on the sadness of life, the weakness of human nature, the vast distance between who you are and who you ought to be: Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Yom Kippur are such spiritually demanding occasions. But Christmas is supposed to be different. It is the consummate feast of joy, when grim thoughts are to be banished. On Easter the Passion of Christ is still close, while on Christmas one tends not to look too far past the glorious birth. Some Renaissance masters who painted the infant Jesus with his mother did foreshadow the inevitable torment and death, including a troubled look on the baby’s face or a menacing black cloud in the background. But those times are long past. We now observe this holiday according to Dickensian decree—golden family happiness, especially the adults’ delight in the children’s delight, occupies the center of the celebration.
Kindness, generosity, warm-heartedness, gusto in eating and drinking, gratitude for the pleasures of this earthly life: These are the indispensable Christmas virtues that Charles Dickens has helped make central to the season and that one needn’t be a Christian to practice. These are the virtues that Ebenezer Scrooge, through his dark Christmas night of the soul, learns to exercise every day of his remaining life. The terrifying ordeal that he endures in A Christmas Carol (1842) ends with the nasty old skinflint’s moral transfiguration—his entry into the festive and blessed company of those who know “how to keep Christmas well.” A Christmas Carol has influenced how we view and celebrate Christmas in modern times. But does Dickens know how to keep Christmas well?
The best-known Christmas story apart from the Gospel According to Luke opens not with a glorious birth but with the confirmation of a death that took place seven years before: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. . . . Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” The business partners Scrooge and Marley were two of a kind, and Marley’s death affected Scrooge not in the least. Three paragraphs in, the reader weighs two men’s lives in the balance and finds them not only wanting but downright weightless. Dickens cannot contain his righteous and amusing contempt for these creatures of his, as he lays out the contents of the reprobate’s miserable soul: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”
So Scrooge’s Christmas will require of him a comprehensive moral inventory, in which he takes stock of how his entire existence has been spent, or misspent. The miser before his revelation sees the holiday season as a time of reckoning for everyone but himself, and he bases his moral calculations strictly on cash value. Christmas cheer violates Scrooge’s code of conduct.
During his dark Christmas night of the soul, visits from three spirits compel Scrooge to alter his understanding of why he has been placed on earth. The Ghost of Christmas Past confronts Scrooge with having valued money over romantic love—the reason for his consequent unrelieved loneliness. The Ghost of Christmas Present, a hearty roisterer, is formidable and frightening nevertheless, and Scrooge quails before him. Plenty, prosperity, and physical comfort naturally go with this Ghost’s extravagant warmth; but not everyone is so fortunate, and decency obliges you to share your good fortune with the poor, such as Scrooge’s underpaid underling, Bob Cratchit, or the slum children Ignorance and Want, the terrible products of the Gospel of Mammonism that Scrooge had embraced.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come forces Scrooge to face his worst fear: dying alone, unloved, unmourned, remembered as a paragon of selfishness who was nobody’s friend, and condemned in death to walk the world in the chains he forged for himself while alive. Scrooge learns the hardest lesson there is for a proud man who thinks himself an exemplary success: that he has been mistaken in everything he believes, and that he has been living the wrong life. This is the very lesson Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich learns, only to die upon learning it; Dickens lets the reformed Scrooge savor to the full the new life he has been granted. To live every day of the rest of his life radiant with the Christmas spirit is Scrooge’s great good fortune.
Dickens has written the most seductively merry of Christmas fables. Yet the sort of Christmas that Dickens has decreed is often disheartening to realize. One can love rereading A Christmas Carol yet take unkindly to the seasonal enforcement of unrelenting cheerfulness.
Dickens does not encourage speculation about his characters’ future lives, but one might wonder what Marley’s continued purgatorial suffering will come to mean for Scrooge, who got off easy for comparable sins. Exultation such as the newly reborn Scrooge’s is impossible to maintain; there is really no permanent place for it in ordinary life. It comes and goes as it chooses. Pain, on the other hand, is always ready to announce itself and to settle in for the long haul. The mother of my oldest and dearest friend used to remain at home by herself on Christmas Eve when the rest of the family went to church. Her father and brother had been killed by the Japanese in the Second World War, and she chose this sacred occasion to mourn them privately while the rest of the world celebrated. There are many who mourn even as they celebrate, or attempt to.
Though we love A Christmas Carol, “keeping Christmas well” entails rather more than Dickensian high spirits and well wishing to all comers. In the premonition of great sorrow on the Christ child’s face in an Old Master’s painting, one sees more deeply into the meaning of this holy day than one can in Scrooge’s overnight transformation.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor of the New Atlantis.