This final chapter starts on the same note that the last one ended on – with Scrooge in a bit of a frantic whimsy. As he opens his eyes and is definitely awake again for the first time in several chapters, Scrooge shows part of what’s changed in him. Even though none of the ghosts are visibly there with him, he still calls out to them, saying,
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! […] The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. O Jacob Marley! Heaven and Christmastime be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!”
From the man who unfeelingly recounted Marley’s death and sought to interact with as few people as possible, Scrooge’s calling out to these spirits and Marley specifically shows the new leaf he has already turned over. It doesn’t stop there, however. He dresses himself a bit madly, and calls down to a stranger in the street, asking what day it is.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s today, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.
“Today!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. […]”
His hours with the spirits were stacked one over the other, even as Marley warned him that they would be on proceeding nights, at progressively earlier times. That’s the funny thing about time travel, it’s awfully convenient.
Scrooge then races to make amends – in three major ways. Most film productions tend to focus narrowly on the first one, and edit it as well. He buys a prize-winning sized turkey and has it delivered to the Cratchits, to supplement their lean Christmas dinner. Often, he’s shown as coming with his delivery and, without revealing his generosity, spies on how it is received – none of that’s in the original story.
Someone else writing about the Cratchits’ meal and Scrooge’s purchase on their behalf delved into some of the class tensions at hand here. Turkey – in contrast to the Cratchits’ goose – was still at that time an imported and exotic food item in Europe, the way pineapple would remain further into living memory. The different meats are already distinguishing class status in terms of what one can afford, but adding onto that there’s “the ostentatious aspect of purchasing the ‘prize Turkey,’ an ostentation largely erased by Scrooge’s anonymity.”
Scrooge’s gift being unattributed is necessary to maintain in order to avoid self-aggrandizing and furthering his class status over the Cratchits, but that’s not the end of it. Avoiding making it known that he is their donor seems like a way of avoiding a sort of retrofitted noblesse oblige. What Scrooge is skirting around the edges of is the type of wealthy vision of the poor – one I think best examined in an article describing the philosophy of a modern storage tycoon.
At the core of it, there’s an ideology popular among some of today’s wealthy in which the rich can and maybe even should help the poor. That generosity comes with certain provisions – not only can they do so in whatever manners they choose but they can also selectively obscure or emphasize their role in helping someone with less. The conspicuousness of their kindnesses are at their disposal, with information about how they have helped withheld or doled out as they see fit. Worse yet, that can take the form of them seeing their donation at work, with a kind of one-way mirror, as they use it to look into the lives of the poor in a way that the poor cannot look back on them.
Spying on the Cratchits (without spiritual help) would be Scrooge confirming his spiritual well-being to himself, and making them being fed about his salvation. When he reveals himself to the family (as he does in most versions), there’s a moment of almost shaming, usually of Bob Cratchit’s wife, for ever having doubted him. Even without that particular ugliness, he inserts himself into a day of respite for that family, and makes his involvement about his spiritual fulfillment, rather than theirs (spiritual, or otherwise).
Scrooge and the Cratchits, from here.
Scrooge breaks with that entire vision of how to help others, central as it is in our modern philanthropy, with the other two amends he makes. He moves away from the atomizing charity he’s performing for the Cratchits towards something more broadly reaching. In the middle of the day, he comes across one of the men he turned down for donations to the poor in the first chapter. He quietly tells him to call on him for a donation, which he implies to the reader would be quite large, which would be distributed to countless impoverished people.
The change in Scrooge is at once personal and political – he is altering his relationship with Bob Cratchit (and forging one with the broader Cratchit family) but also committing himself to helping a more anonymous and broader population whom he doesn’t know, and likely suffer more than the Cratchits. Weighing in on the personal side as well, however, he makes his third amends – to his nephew and his wife, whose dinner he goes to and enjoys with them all.
Finally, the day after Christmas he commits to helping Bob Cratchit, with a raise for starters, but without revealing it was him who gave his family the turkey. It’s a mix of professional, personal, and political commitments that he’s making all at once.
Throughout this series I’ve made several sharp remarks about how modern adaptations tend to alter this story. In many ways, A Christmas Carol was a key player in launching the modern preoccupation with charity, because it made the argument that helping others improves your life as well. It’s notable, however, that it never fully splits the two apart the way we so casually do today.
This is woven into the story. On the note that the fourth chapter ended on, Scrooge’s nightmarish vision ends when he simultaneously reaches out for comfort and pledges to help others – a fusion of those two. Scrooge’s salvation is an omnipresent issue, but so is the suffering, largely material, of so many people around him. Scrooge’s betterment of himself doesn’t eclipse their urgent needs.
Amid the beatitude in which this story ends, there’s a somber note. The focus on poverty and want, so keenly depicted in dire moments and in prolonged inadequacies, in many modern versions takes a backseat to Scrooge’s personal evolution. Even the nature of his change is recast in those, from a journey towards interaction and community into one from naughty to nice. It’s shrunk down and made into something else, and this holiday is the perfect day, in a free moment, to ponder why and recall what it originally was.