Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Christmas Carol 3

`Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch?' asked Scrooge.
`There is. My own.'
`Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day?' asked Scrooge.
`To any kindly given. To a poor one most.'
`Why to a poor one most?' asked Scrooge.
`Because it needs it most.'
The Ghost of Christmas Present represents the sheer joy of the holiday. What the Ghost does is relatively simple: he merely shows Scrooge other people who are enjoying Christmas with one another. In some ways, this is the most far-ranging portion of the novella; we are given the impression that the Spirit shows Scrooge a multitude of people and celebrations over a large area. The main point is that people are enjoying themselves together, and there is little relationship between their financial situation and the joy they experience--except for the fact that poverty can endanger the actual lives of those in its clutches, and thus cause grief, opposing joy. But wealth in no way ensures joy; in fact, all the people Scrooge sees are less well-off than he is, and full of much more joy.

But the two main places that the Spirit takes Scrooge are the houses of Bob Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew. At Bob Cratchit's house, Scrooge becomes acquainted with his clerk's family. Bob's wife is "dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence"; his oldest son Master Peter Cratchit is proudly wearing his father's shirt, with a "monstrous shirt collar" playing a prominent role in the day's festivities; Martha and Belinda, the older girls; two smaller Cratchits, a boy and a girl; and Tiny Tim, the youngest son, crippled by an unknown illness. Charges that A Christmas Carol is overly sentimental may derive from Dickens's portrayal of poor characters, and Tiny Tim in particular, as impossibly virtuous. But the description of the joy and pleasure of the Cratchit's feast is wonderful, despite the fact that the foods described are those accessible to a poor family.
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.
And about the Christmas pudding, "Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing."

The point to be made upon Scrooge is that the Cratchits are altogether unlike his own discontent self:
They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker's. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.
At the house of Scrooge's nephew, Scrooge learns that his own position is not only not shared by others, but can be positively comical to them:

`He said that Christmas was a humbug, as I live!' cried Scrooge's nephew. `He believed it too!' [...] `He's a comical old fellow,' said Scrooge's nephew, `that's the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.'

`I'm sure he is very rich, Fred,' hinted Scrooge's niece. `At least you always tell me so.'
`What of that, my dear?' said Scrooge's nephew. `His wealth is of no use to him! He don't do any good with it. He don't make himself comfortable with it.'
Scrooge enters in to the singing and the merriment of this party which he had steadfastly refused to attend on Christmas Eve afternoon, even though he is the butt of the Yes and No game. Once he has been persuaded to measure things on a basis other than that of money, he finds a great deal of joy in many things he had disdained for many years.

On two occasions, the Spirit has occasion to repeat Scrooge's words from the beginning of the story. The first is when Scrooge asks whether Tiny Tim will die, and is told that he will not last until the next Christmas: "If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
`Man,' said the Ghost, `if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child.'
And then later, when the Spirit shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want:

`Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge.
`Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. `Are there no workhouses?'
I wrote earlier that Scrooge was not merely a miserly, crotchety old man; that he actively enjoyed his own malevolence. Yet even he did not recognize the damning impact of thoughts and attitudes such as his. His cruelty was to dismiss others less fortunate than himself, assuming them to be lazy or otherwise unworthy, and thus suffering justly the consequences of their own decisions. And then he thinks no more of them. But those others have to live out the implications of Scrooge's thoughtlessness. Having been to Bob Cratchit's home, he now cares whether Tiny Tim will live or die; if he had not gone there, Tim would have died without Scrooge having ever known about it. Those are the implications of such thoughtlessness, as Dickens presents it.

I see an attitude growing today: whether the liberal attitude, "You can't tell me what to do with my body," the conservative attitude, "You can't tell me what to do with my money," or the libertarian attitude, which says both. The attitude, at bottom, is this: "I am me, alone; I am not part of anything larger; I owe nothing to anyone apart from myself." This is Scrooge's attitude. And it would be funny, if it weren't so sad.

The gift-giving and get-togethers and festivities at Christmas, hopefully, remind us that we are not merely ourselves, and that we have a responsibility to others. Paul writes in Galatians 2:10, "All they [the Jerusalem apostles] asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do." When's the last time you heard an evangelical pastor preach on that verse? We are not alone. If we are salt and light, then we are called to salt and enlighten something other than ourselves. May we enjoy, in our festivities, our connectedness with others, and may we touch lives, as best we can, for their benefit and encouragement.

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