Why “A Christmas Carol” Still Works 175 Years Later.

You know the story even if you haven’t read it. You probably said “Bah, Humbug” before you heard Scrooge grumble it. You know Scrooge as an adjective even if you don’t know the noun. It’s been adapted countless times, from stageplays to Hollywood, from historic accuracy to modern satire, from Muppets to mo-cap.

A Christmas Carol. First penned by Charles Dickens in 1843, it’s still being told today. But it’s not just because it’s old, traditional, or Christmas-y. It’s because after all these years, it still works, still speaks to people right down in their souls.

How? Because Scrooge’s ghosts are more than just ethereal characters. They show Scrooge the three crucial things every human needs in order to make a lasting change. We all talk about change, especially seven days after Christmas and we look down at our bowl-full-of-jelly bellies with disdain. But such promises don’t last because they don’t have those three ingredients Scrooge did.

Longing, joy, and fear.

1: The Longing that Reveals the Problem

“Would you so soon put out, with your worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made me this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?” -Ghost of Christmas Past

The instant he sees his past, Scrooge leaps with joy, and tries to conceal a tear on his face. He remembers the pain of being alone on Christmas, but also the joy of reading stories in those quiet times. He revisits the jolly boss who made his Christmasses so merry. And he sees the girl who would have married him even in poverty.

But then it’s gone. And Scrooge once more remembers why he’s miserable, and why he’s snuffed out the light of the past for so many years.

Longing tells exactly what’s wrong with our world: the hole in our heart. There’s something we need and haven’t gotten, or perhaps something we’ve lost. Scrooge thinks the problems of the world are external: his idiot nephew who won’t shut up about Christmas, the poor who drain society instead of dying, even the ghosts who won’t let him sleep.

The First Spirit shows Scrooge the truth. The world isn’t the problem, its his broken heart. It’s a wound that never healed, so he guarded it with terrible ferocity, until he no longer knew what he was guarding.

Ghost of Christmas Past
Scrooge shrinks from the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past in Disney’s motion capture version of “A Christmas Carol” starring Jim Carrey. 

What’s more, the Spirit shows Scrooge what specifically went wrong. He gave up joy for money, fearing poverty and the return to his childhood loneliness. And how did that turn out? He has money, but lives like a pauper, and he’s still lonely.

Change begins from within, realizing there’s something missing. Not some material thing, not some status or position, but a puzzle piece of your heart that fell out of the box somewhere along the way.

We hide these things because longing hurts, and if we can’t heal, we’d like to forget. Scrooge was angry with the First Spirit for bringing up all these old memories because longing alone brings increased misery.

But another ghost had yet to appear…

2: The Joy that Heals the Heart

It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.

Scrooge moves a little more slowly with the Second Ghost, but soon he’s laughing and playing just like the lad he used to be. Scrooge sought happiness in riches, so The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a joy that only the poor seem to have.

And before the third ghost even arrives, Scrooge is changed. He’s playing games even though nobody can see him, and worrying about Tiny Tim. Why? Because it’s not too late. The joy he lost as a child can still be regained. Christmas is still celebrated, and still waits for him to jump in the fun.

Joy comes when we realize, “It’s not too late! I haven’t missed it! There’s still time!” Without this realization, dreams become nightmares haunting our sleep. Change comes when we believe anything is possible right here and now.

Ghost of Christmas Present
Patrick Stewart plays Scrooge, who listens carefully to the Ghost of Christmas Present in this 1999 TV movie version of “A Christmas Carol.”

Now it’s important to note that the joy we experience now may not look like it once did, but it’s there. Scrooge can’t get his old, jolly employer back, but he can be the jolly employer instead. His dead, beloved sister will never return, but her son Fred lives on with all her cheer. It’s too late for Scrooge to be a lover, but not too late to be a “second father” to Tiny Tim.

From longing for what’s lost to dancing for what he can still have, Scrooge is not the man he once was. And yet…the story isn’t over. Because Dickens knows that humans are fickle creatures, and even joy can slip through our fingers…

3. Fear that Leads to Action

“Why would you show me this if I was past all hope?!” -Scrooge

The final Ghost is a terrifying specter, silent and ominous. He shows a world where Scrooge has not changed, where he dies alone and unloved, where thieves steal the shirt right off his corpse, so low is their respect for him, and where a child lies dead for lack of help from those who could give it.

Why on Earth would Dickens include this ghost? Why terrify Scrooge when joy was so effective? Because humans are geared towards comfort. We don’t change until we feel we need to.

Who changes their diet? Countless people hear pep-talks in January, but give up by February. You know who does, though? The one who realizes beach season is just around the corner, or that they have a family history of diabetes, or who just had a heart attack. The one who changes is the one who realizes, for one reason or another, he has to.

People improve their health when the realize this body is the only one they have. People fix their marriages when they realize they really could end. Scrooge saw not only how bad his future would be, but how soon it would come. The Second Ghost said Tiny Tim would die by next Christmas. In the future scene, Tim is freshly dead on a Christmas, and so is Scrooge. Scrooge only had one year left.

Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come never speaks, but only points onward. This version from “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” 

It’s true that fear can destroy us if it defines us, however it’s also true that there’s a healthy kind of fear. This fear simply reminds us of our mortality, that while the window of opportunity may be open now, it won’t always be. Healthy fear gives us a boost of urgency. It kicks procrastination and comfort to the curb and says, “No, I’m changing NOW.”

When Scrooge finally wakes up, does he promise to be nicer later on? No! he runs outside and starts doing as much good as one person possibly squeeze between sunrise and sunset. This is because he’s elated that the future isn’t set in stone, that he still has the time to change.

You see? This kind of fear leads not to despair, but to joy. Those who know they’re going to die are happier to be alive. Those who know they can lose something don’t take it for granted.

Fear alone, again, causes terror, but Scrooge didn’t get fear alone. He got longing to shake off the cobwebs, joy to give him hope, and fear to give him motivation. This is the great trifecta of change, the recipe for a new life.

The End of It All: Finding that Joy

Our lives don’t seem to go the way Scrooge’s did, do they? Scrooge rediscovered his longing and received a healthy dose of fear, but both pointed to the middle, the joy that made his cold heart beat again.

Not so with us, is it? We certainly do feel that longing for something that’s missing in our lives, and boy oh boy do we know how finite we are, but where’s the joy? Where’s the hope that says the past doesn’t define us, the exultation that fear can only make stronger, not weaker? Where’s the joy that says it’s not too late?

I’ll tell you where. It’s in Jesus Christ. He’s the friend who sticks closer than a brother when real brothers betray or flee. He’s the very present help in times of trouble when everyone else turns tail. He’s the one who knows your suffering because his hands and feet still bleed.

He’s the muse when the music dies, the coach who takes you off the bench, the insurer who covers your preexisting condition, the kickball captain who picks you first, the lawyer who blows his voice defending you, the judge who condemns your oppressors, the porch light that’s always on, the hand you hold, the shoulder you cry on, and the fist that protects you.

It’s Jesus who reveals our hurts to shake us out of the complacency that injures ourselves and others. It’s Jesus who says, “It’s not too late! Yes, even you!” And it’s Jesus who reminds us that there is an end. But this end only gives us greater joy because it’s the end of suffering and sorrow, the end of “What if?” and “It might have been!” It’s the end of longing because it’s the reversal of loss, and the end of fear because it’s the end of endings.

While the films and such may have modified the message, Dickens was hardly subtle about what really changed Scrooge. What other joy could be so lasting? What else supersedes death, loss, and fatigue? Nothing else could so effectively heal longing and nothing else could make us so eager to move.

What was it you lost? What was it you never had? Jesus fulfills both. So why wait? The change you seek knocks are your door.

If you have questions, my email is fencingwithink@gmail.com. Have a merrier Christmas than you’ve had in a long, long time.

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