“Marley was dead: to begin with” … so begins the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. It was originally published on December 19, 1843 and the first edition was completely sold out by Christmas Eve (that’s less than a week!). This was not Dickens’ first Christmas story. As a matter of fact, he had written three before writing this one and would go on to write four more afterward. The story of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, however, remains his best known holiday story.
1982 – English Class – Lincoln Junior High
While I was familiar with the story, and had even seen a few movie versions of this classic ghost story, I had never actually read the novella. However, in 7th grade, I was blessed with one of my all time favorite teachers – Mrs. Shirley Kellogg. She was a no-nonsense teacher who could even make diagramming sentences fun.
I remember one day I got caught daydreaming and looking out the window. She saw me and asked me a question, which I obviously did not hear. I was startled by her calling my name and I must have looked scared to death. She looked at me and said, “Well just don’t sit there like a Willie Lump Lump – answer the question.” I started laughing, because I was well aware of the Red Skelton character she was referring to and even though I didn’t have an answer, I immediately connected with her! Rest assured, I saved my daydreaming for other classed!
Back to A Christmas Carol – I remember that we would often read from this big blue book that had the word “Literature” in the title. It was a collection of modern stories, short stories, classic stories, and poems. Charles Dickens’ tale was in this book. In elementary school, we would often read stories aloud, with each student reading a chapter. What makes my first “reading” of this story unique is that Mrs. Kellogg read it to us – not live though…it was Memorex! She had spent time recording herself reading the entire story and played it back to us on a cassette tape. This allowed us to read along while she graded papers and such. Because of this, when I read the story today, I can still hear certain lines in her voice.
Dickens divides his tale into 5 “staves” or chapters. In the first one, the story opens on a miserable Christmas Eve, 7 years after the death of Scrooge’s partner in business Jacob Marley. Dickens’ opening line stresses the importance of the fact that he was dead. In fact, he stated that this “must distinctly be understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story” that follows. Dickens’ description of Scrooge is something that I can still hear in Mrs. Kellogg’s voice – “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Right from the start, we learn what a miserable man Scrooge truly is.
In this stave we are also introduced to Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. His visit only continues to illustrate Scrooge’s hate for the holiday and the season. Another main character is Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk. As we hear of the poor working conditions and his measly salary, we are left to wonder why this poor man is working for such a jerk like Scrooge. We are also introduced to two men collecting for charity, who are basically told by Scrooge to “get lost”. He tells them that he supports prisons and workhouses and those in need should go there for refuge.
Before the chapter is over, we follow Scrooge to his empty, damp, dark, and desolate home where we are introduced to his deceased business parter, Jacob Marley and begin to witness the beginnings of Scrooge’s transformation.
Marley’s ghost is a ghastly sight. He is wearing heavy chains and lockboxes. He tells of the misery and gloom that he suffers in the afterlife. He gives Scrooge a warning that his fate is far worse than his, as he has had additional years to labor on the chains he is forging. A doubtful Scrooge tells him he must be some sort of mirage or illusion, to which Marley scares him into believing his presence. Marley sets the stage for what is to follow – the visits from three spirits. These visits are the only chance that Scrooge has to avoid Marley’s fate.
Stave Two – The Past
Scrooge’s second spiritual visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge then asks the spirit if it is the spirit of “long past”, and the spirit tells him “your past”. The spirit whisks Scrooge away to Christmases where Scrooge was a boy, a young man, and a young adult. We begin to get a sense of why he is the way he is. As a boy, he spends Christmas at a boarding school. As a young man, we see him as an apprentice – an apprentice who loves Christmas. We also see him as a young adult, where the love of his life leaves him, because money has grown the most important thing in his life.
The older I get, the more this part of the story stays with me. Scrooge, as he witnesses all these past Christmases, is given a gift. He is allowed to see a younger self and those who he grew up with. He calls out the names of the school mates, he sees his beloved sister who died giving birth to his nephew, he speaks highly of his fellow apprentice and his old boss, and he relives the pain of the loss of his love. We witness scenes that spark many emotions with Scrooge.
Imagine, being able to go back in time to witness past Christmases! What I wouldn’t give to relive those childhood memories! I would love to see:
- My grandfather’s face as I opened the cribbage board he gave me
- The joy on me and my brother’s faces as we opened up the entire collection of Star War Figures.
- The homemade Christmas ornaments mom made for our tree
- My children’s first Christmases
- A family pinochle game in the sun room at my grandparents
- Dad putting together one of our toys with a gazillion stickers to place on it
- Mom in good health, laughing at a gag gift I bought her
- The adults playing guitars and the organ after having a few too many rum balls
- The spread of Italian food we’d feast on every Christmas Eve
The list goes on and on. To be able to hear the voices of loved ones who are no longer with us … wow. What a gift Scrooge is treated to.
Stave Three – The Present
The second spirit is the Ghost of Christmas Present. He is a jolly spirit who shows Scrooge what is to happen this Christmas. He is first given some enlightenment about his clerk as he visits their home. He learns first hand of the struggles that they face, financially and emotionally. He is shown the small feast that the entire family is to eat and also introduced to the Cratchit’s lame boy, Tiny Tim.
We really see the events of the past and present stirring in old Scrooge here, as he very uncharacteristically asks the spirit if Tiny Tim will live. The spirit informs him that if the present course remains, Tiny Tim will die. The amazing change that is beginning in Scrooge is seen clearly here. The glimpse of compassion and worry as he asks the question of Tiny Tim’s fate, followed by the hanging of his head in grief when he hears the answer.
Ever wonder what people are saying about you when you are not there? In some cases, it’s better that you not know. Scrooge visits his nephews home next and is shown the dinner that he was invited to. What he sees is the guests making fun of him. He sees his nephew telling everyone in disbelief about his uncle’s abhorrence of the holiday. The more he sees the angrier he gets and tells the spirit to take him away from the scene he is watching.
As the spirit’s time grows short, Scrooge notices something that looks like a claw coming out from underneath the spirit’s robe. The spirit reveals two children – a boy and a girl who are anything but pretty. They were children, but they looked terrible. Scrooge asks the spirit if they belong to him. The spirit answers that they are “Man’s”. Scrooge learns that the boy is Ignorance and the girl is Want and is told to “Beware them both, and all their degree”. 175 years later – these words are still true! Beware ignorance and want!
There is nothing that is more embarrassing than to have your own words thrown back at you, especially when those words take on a whole new meaning in a situation. As the ghost’s time expires on earth, he answers Scrooge’s question about finding some sort of refuge. His powerful reply consists of Scrooge’s words to the men collecting for charity “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” With that, the spirit is gone…
Stave Four – Christmas Yet To Come
Fear can be a very good motivator. Imagine the fear that now engulfs Scrooge as he sees his final spiritual visitor! The Phantom which is described as being “draped and hooded” is now coming toward Scrooge”slowly, gravely” and “silently – like a mist on the ground.” Rather than run away in a panic, Scrooge faces the spirit who speaks not a word. Words can be scary – silence can be scarier! How he comes to know that he is in the presence of the ghost of the future must have be based on his knowledge of his previous two visitors. He confirms this by asking the spirit if that is who he is and the reply that he gets is a slow and deliberate nod.
Scrooges’s fear is no secret, as a matter of fact he tells the ghost that he fears him “more than any other Spectre I have seen.” The change that continues in Scrooge is apparent here as he goes on to say that he knows that his “purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company”.
No surprise that the topic everyone shown to Scrooge is discussing is death. The death of one nameless man in particular. He sees business men standing on the street talking about an “old scratch” who “got his own at last”. Then he is shown a sort of pawn shop where three people meet up to pawn stuff they took from a dead man’s home – including the shirt off the man’s dead corpse. He is then in a dark empty room where a dead man lays on a bed under a sheet. The spirit points to the head of the body – he wants Scrooge to look at the man. Scrooge says that he cannot do it. Every situation the spirit showed Scrooge was one where the man’s death brought pleasure.
Scrooge begs the spirit to show him some “tenderness connected with death”. He is taken through town to the home of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. The mood is somber there as they continue to deal with the death of Tiny Tim. There is much hurt and many tears in the house. Scrooge then has the realization that the time with the spirit is almost gone and asks to know who the man was that had died. He is taken to a church yard that is overrun with weeds and not upkept. The spirit stands with nothing but a hand pointing to a gravestone.
The culmination of all that he has seen is now coming to a head. Scrooge must have some sort of inkling of who is buried in this terrible place, because he now becomes frantic and asks if the things he was shown are things that “will be” or things that “may be” and whether or not they can be changed. Upon reading his own name on the gravestone, Scrooge breaks. He begs the spirit to wipe his name from the stone. He insists that he is not the man he was and that he will live an altered life. He makes promises to honor Christmas and live by the lessons taught by all the spirits. He grabs the spirit and continues to plead, but the spirit disappears and turns into his bedpost.
In the classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is shown what life would be like if he was never born. He is frightened by so many things that he sees. He understands just how many things would have been different if he were never born. With A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge sees the product of the present and future because of his life and how he lives it.
Stave Five – The End of It
The climax of the story – the miracle of the story – all culminates here. Scrooge is now a changed man! He is awake on Christmas day and he is filled with joy and happiness which have eluded him for many many years. His first order of business is to buy the prize turkey and send it to his clerk anonymously. He even splurges for a cab to send it there. He then dresses in his best and heads out. He see’s the men who were collecting for charity and whispers a huge sum of money to them – saying that there are many back payments included. He goes to church and then heads over to his nephew’s house. Fred is surprised but welcomes him with open arms.
The one man who is unaware of the change in Scrooge is Bob Cratchit. When he arrives a few minutes late, Scrooge lays into him asking him why he is coming in late and how he is not going to stand for it anymore! Then he announces he is giving Bob a raise and vowed to help his family in all ways possible.
Dickens ends by telling the reader that he was better than his word. He was a great man and second father to Tiny Tim. He also says that there were plenty of naysayers who still laughed at the transformation in Scrooge, and said it didn’t bother him one bit. We are told that there is no more spiritual intervention and that he “knew how to keep Christmas well”.
I have been reading Dickens A Christmas Carol every year for 36 years now, and each year I am grateful for the start of the tradition. I was lucky enough to have had Mrs. Kellogg for English Class in 7th and 8th grade and she read it to us both years. Every holiday, I think of her fondly as I read those opening words.
I have seen almost every film and TV adaptation of this story and it is hard for me to pick a favorite. What hold true for all of them is the amazing transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge and a renewed appreciation for the Christmas season. During the holidays, just like Scrooge, people tend to give more to those in need, they tend to be kinder, and they tend to be happier. Here’s a thought – why not do this all year round?
Elvis Presley had a song on his Christmas CD which stated my feelings perfectly:
Why can’t every day be like Christmas? Why can’t that feeling go on endlessly? For if every day could be just like Christmas, what a wonderful world this would be.