Category Archives: holidays

Back to basics

Almost every year after Thanksgiving there’s an annual outcry. We’ve supposedly forgotten the “reason for the season” – between the commercialization of Christmas steadily eclipsing its spiritual origins and the rising tides of multiculturalism and secularism (to some ears “happy holidays” apparently sounds ominous).

This year, the chief complaint has taken the form of a rather nonsensical theory that Starbucks deliberately opted for a minimalist (but still red-and-green) seasonal cup design out of some sort of anti-Christian animus.

Starbucks_Red_Cups_2015-1024x683
From here.

Although there’s much to celebrate in the US becoming a more religiously diverse society and capable of maybe politely letting winter festivities be a bit more inclusive, maybe, as we buy box after box for our friends, families, and relatives, any non-merchandized sense of what this holiday is about has gotten a bit… unclear. Looking back at the history of Christmas – which started as a gimmicky continuation pre-Christian winter celebrations justified as being for Jesus’ (probably inaccurate) birthday – it’s always been a bit hazy what tradition and what cause is being celebrated on one of the shortest and coldest days of the year.

Well, no more says I! There’s long been a tradition in my family to read a chapter of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” each Sunday after Thanksgiving. There’s a couple of complicated rules to make it all line up (for instance, this year, the last chapter will be read on Christmas Eve, since we’ll be out of Sundays), but that’s the basic gist of it.

It’s a simple and modern tradition, but it’s one that I will practice this year. Each Sunday (and on that holiday’s eve), I’ll have up a brief post with some thoughts on the chapter and what it says about the holiday and any relevant happenings in the world. They’ll be searchable under a new category: holidays.

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Marley’s Ghost

Marley was dead, to begin with.

Well before “once upon a time,” Dickens paints us a portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge, which seems to have more to do with Jacob Marley, his late business partner. While there’s quite a lot of talk of Marley, and his being dead, and tangential notes about ironmongery and Shakespeare, the characterization here serves to suggest something. Scrooge himself is all but dead.

Over Scrooge’s (and previously, Marley’s) warehouse hang still, both of their names, and “people new to the business [at times] called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes [called him] Marley, but he answered to both names.” If that’s merely a path of least resistance to their confusion, Scrooge plods along it oddly, feeling no strange stirrings over being called by the name of his dead friend – “It was all the same to him.”

More than emotionally deadened, he seems beyond almost any sensation as “heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.”Physically, Dickens describes Scrooge as weathered, like a corpse. “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue” – that doesn’t sound much like someone who’s living, in any sense does it?

Finally, in the social sphere, Scrooge was also largely outside the vibrant living world. “Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, ‘My dear Scrooge, how are you?  When will you come to see me?'” Scrooge, in his rare moments of agency, walks in a way encouraging others to stay away and “warning all human sympathy to keep its distance”.

Before we reach the sentence “Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his countinghouse” we have been told in Dickens’ typically flowery prose that Scrooge’s harshness has left him in essence dead.

scrooged2
From here.

How does someone already dead to the world – emotionally, spiritually, socially – interact with people?  Now that the story has started in earnest, most people are familiar with a few of the basics. Scrooge doesn’t care for the basic comfort of his clerk, who has draped a comforter over himself in the woefully inadequately heated office. Scrooge discounts his visiting nephew’s well wishes, invitation to dinner, and even cheerful call for help for the unfortunate. The only moment he expresses something like interest or pride in him is when he thinks about how his nephew could capitalize on his speaking ability with a run for political office.

His nephew and his clerk, both yet unnamed, aren’t people to him. They’re investments. Sometimes they don’t yield what’s expected of them, or perform in ways that don’t fully utilize their apparent strengths. At other times, they even incur unexpected costs – like his clerk whom he warns he would fire if he used more coal to warm himself with. Like most investments, they’re easy to quickly and cleanly dispose if they run past their expected liabilities.

Those are a member of his family and a coworker. If they’re so thoroughly less than living, breathing humans to him, what chance do impoverished strangers have? We find out exactly how vastly little they mean to him when some visitors approach him, asking for donations for the poor.

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentlemen, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses,” demanded Scrooge, “are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

[…]

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

This is where, sadly, what Dickens wrote nearly two centuries ago, becomes horrifyingly familiar. Over the past few decades, debtors’ prisons have reemerged as a part of the judicial terrain in many parts of the United States. Nationally, the welfare system has been restructured to reduce benefits and add work requirements. The effects have been catastrophic, and prominent voices in our society have been asking for even more “reforms” along those lines.

So far, the ways in which Scrooge accepts the social disposal of those unworthy of his attention have been terrible, but non-lethal. He threatens to lay off his clerk, tries to estrange his nephew, and calls for the imprisonment and exploitation of the poor. The ultimate price impoverishment can exact is mentioned, and he doesn’t flinch.

“Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population. […]”

We can gaze back at Scrooge, declaring that a few years before the Great Famine in Ireland in which the government and well-to-do in the United Kingdom made horrifyingly clear which populations it thought were in surplus. From our tidier future, that seems so horrible and reflective of another time. Nowadays, in discussions about the deportation of millions of people, even someone like Donald Trump, takes care to stress that no one would be killed.

In spite of that, however. We live in a future in which a staggering number do needlessly die. They die at the hands of the police in moments of fear created or heightened by racial paranoia. They die for providing a legal medical service. They die from lack of access to medical and social services.

Greeted with that stomach-churning reality, many do what Scrooge does. They retreat to their own world, or wherever they won’t be confronted by the lives (and deaths) of those without.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned, “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

With his visitors shortly cast out, Scrooge heads home in the fog and the cold. There’s a flood of scenes familiar to most who have watched an adaptation – Marley’s head appears in the doorknob, the dark stairwell to Scrooge’s room seems haunted by a hearse, and Scrooge somehow manages to after those unsettling images sit in his room by the fire. Then, the house’s bells peal and Marley’s ghost arrives.

Marley comes bearing a message that echoes the deadened nature of Scrooge’s life that we’ve seen so far. He has fashioned himself his own ghostly chains, made in his mortal life by cutting himself off from the concerns of others and which in his next life will weigh him down confine him to that distance.

The situation explained by Marley’s while his hair and clothing wafts “as by the hot vapor of an oven” recalls a parable from Luke. One of the few biblical accounts that depict a fiery hell, a rich man damned for his miserliness pleads with those in heaven to let him or other dead be seen by the living to tell them to help the poor or suffer. In the biblical tale, those in heaven shrug off the suggestion, but in “A Christmas Carol,” we hear of Scrooge’s glimpse at precisely that.

Having delivered the warning to be charitable and expect furthering hauntings from other guests, Marley extends Scrooge’s vision outside. He sees in summary what he has been warned about.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none was free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom he saw below, upon a doorstep

With that image of what fate awaits someone like him, Scrooge seems to continue to rely on his strategy of withdrawal, and goes to bed.

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The first of the three spirits

This is the second post in this series. You can read the first chapter’s post here or the full series.

When we last left Scrooge, he had shrugged off the bizarre supernatural experience he had had and gone straight to bed. His procession to bed is described hastily and vaguely, leaving an impression that he is drawn to bed by a strange gravity.

Pushing the weird interpretations of what is happening to him to the side, it does come off like he’s avoiding. Considering how much he has cut himself off from the world in a kind of pre-death, it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t have adopted avoidance strategies, to maintain his separation from people. Now, however, he’s using it to put distance between himself and a fantastical mix of supernatural sights and experiences.

Having cut himself off from the world, Scrooge wakes up from his sleep woefully confused. He remembers it as having been in the wee hours of the morning that he had gone to bed, but it’s the chime of twelve, presumably midnight’s, that wakes him.

Curious explanations come to him – that he’s slept through the day into Christmas night, that it’s the apocalypse and all has become night – but none of that really seems to fit. Because he has no one in his home with him, there’s no one to clarify what time or even day it is. Oddly, it doesn’t occur to him to reach out and find someone to help make sense of his incomprehensible reality. Keeping himself cloistered has become so second nature that he can’t call for help from others to make sense out of the inexplicable.

His isolation and madness are interrupted by the chime of one, which Scrooge greets by stating that “nothing else” has come.

“Lights flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of the bed were drawn. The curtains of the bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them”

Who had barged into Scrooge’s room? This is one of those details that almost every video adaptation I’ve seen has failed utterly in. Here’s how the original describes it – yes, that is the pronoun used:

“It was a strange figure – like a child, yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white, as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin.”

Its paradoxical nature is felt even in its accessories:

“It held a branch of fresh, green holly in its hand and, in singular contradiction to that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers.”

In spite of this explosion of oddity directly into Scrooge’s face, there’s one particularly attribute Scrooge first admits is oddest about it: the light that poured from its crown (which he presumes is why it carries an extinguisher, like for a candle, at its side like an unworn hat). After a moment, another aspect of it eclipses that, however:

“For as its belt sparkled and glittered, now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body, of which dissolving parts no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And, in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again, distinct and clear as ever.”

This is some unsettling, intrusive spirit that enters into Scrooge’s personal space in the midst of him being confused about unexplained events. Confronted with that kind of compounded oddness, Scrooge reacts in a telling way. He attempts to shut off contact.

“Perhaps Scrooge could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him, but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap and begged him to be covered.

The spirit brushes off the request and makes it clear that it is there to shine and benefit him. It takes him by the hand and pulls him into what for many is a familiar romp through Scrooge’s past.

What’s often lost in adaptation’s at times perfunctory tour through Scrooge’s past are the ominous signs that he was being pushed into the type of bitter and isolated old age he now finds himself in. While Scrooge was not always distant from others and prone to separating himself, the patterns of that were foreshadowed ominously even in his childhood.

The first Christmas memory of Scrooge’s that he and this spirit visit shows him unvisited by family at school during the holiday, abandoned by friends, and mistreated by school staff. Confronting that past is a difficult process for Scrooge.

“It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire and Scrooge sat down upon a form and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.

In the next memory, in which his sister fetches him from exile at his school, one of the revealed aspects of his life is that his father instilled him and others with a doubt that they would be loved and respected. Without any assurance of appreciation and dignity, Scrooge has nothing to trust in but what he himself can create – potentially through purchases.

Even as these early childhood memories of neglect and ultimate inclusion march past, his early adulthood full of apprenticeships and other economic arrangements shows him curiously on the periphery of the holiday celebrations. The full blown avoidance of social interaction that highlights his later life was prefigured in a slower retreat earlier in life. He slid out of the social sphere, into more extreme isolation.

While his retreat had in some sense started, he was active enough in the world that he remembered certain lessons well. The spirit goads him into explaining the financial returns on the Christmas feast thrown for him, a fellow apprentice, and almost everyone else working in the shop’s vicinity.

“[The shop owner] has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Charles Dickens, who himself had worked for a short time as a child laborer, is making the case for an economy centered on human wants and comfort, and what’s more having it tumble out of Scrooge’s mouth. In both Dickens’ time and ours, that’s a contested point. Then and now, resources are tightly concentrated in the hands of a few, and the basic security and happiness of almost everyone else is simply a cost to be questioned.

This can be seen in the on-going debate about whether healthcare is a human right. It’s also visible in the proliferation of work environments in which everything possible is done not to benefit the workers – with wage theft, stagnant wage growth, a proliferation of unpaid positions, and debates over the continuation of pension and entitlement programs. One of the first policy questions to come before the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was about family leave, and his answer was entirely in that vein: that work in general should be structured to allow or even encourage everyone’s happiness is silly. His time with his family is a privilege he would like, however.

By the time his Christmas memories reach what the book describes as his prime years, Scrooge’s face has “begun to wear the signs of care and avarice.” His silent participation had begun to be eclipsed by an as-yet unnamed “eager, greedy, restless motion”. As his older self witnesses him parting ways with his almost-wife, his younger self shows the signs of someone beginning to withdraw from the broader world.

That woman looks “with steadiness upon him,” and asks, “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now?” The book describes how his younger self in the moment “seemed to “yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself.” Guided by the spirit, his older self sees him retreating inwards, cutting his ties.

That is the conclusion he unfortunately reaches in adulthood, from seeds sown in his childhood. He echoes the cheapness that his old schoolmaster tended towards – who served stale food to him and his sister and offered a servant something even worse. The coldness of his father, who sent him away for school, returns in his chilly romance. His own dead-like nature has begun to emerge after his sister has ominously disappeared from his Christmas memories.

From that memory between him and his unnamed romantic partner, they look in something akin to horror on a Christmas he had been elsewhere. On the Christmas of Marley’s death, his would-be-wife and her actual husband enjoy a Christmas with their children and speak of him briefly. Her husband had seen him “quite alone in the world” in passing earlier that day.

Overcome by the children he never had and the wife he never married, Scrooge begs that the spirit shield him from this tour of his past, only to look on it and see “a face in which, in some strange way, there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him.” Scrooge’s own tumultuous, unstable past has come to confront him, and he fights it, grabbing “the extinguisher cap and by a sudden action pressed it down upon [the spirit’s] head.”

Ghost_of_Christmas_Past

From here.

He buries his past just as he cuts off his connections in the present, and leaves himself alone to avoid those in worse places than him. He finds himself in his room again and falls into a deep slumber, just like after meeting Marley’s ghost.

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The second of the three spirits

This is the third post in this series. You can read the first chapter’s post here, the second chapter’s post here, or the full series.

Just as last week’s chapter began with Scrooge alone in bed, this one does too. Once again, Scrooge has shrunk back from a message critical of his actions. First he retreated somberly and almost automatically to bed after meeting Marley’s ghost, but now, he has also more aggressively shut out the warning from the Ghost of Christmas Past.

That spirit had shown him something that pained Scrooge – his own steady transformation into the person he is at present. Although the seeds for self isolation and miserliness had always been in him, a lengthy series of choices led him to embrace those parts of his life, and be pickled in his own vitriol and contempt.

Isolated in his room again, awaiting yet another spirit, he’s beginning to have something of a change of heart, however. After awakening in bed, he doesn’t passively await the spirit while insisting they won’t come. Instead, “finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new specter would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own hands, and lying down again, established a sharp lookout all round the bed.” Previously impervious to cold and socially withdrawn, him being spurred to interaction by a chill shows the beginnings of a changed nature.

This spirit, perhaps reacting to Scrooge’s inching towards a return to social life, awaits him this time around, in the next room. The light emitted from him eventually draws Scrooge from bed – again, having him relinquish his isolating tendencies – and Scrooge walks in on the spirit. The spirit makes a luxurious first appearance, which is often lovingly rendered in stage and video adaptations:

“It was [Scrooge’s] own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceilings were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright, gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there, and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as the dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time or Marley’s, or for many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-checked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy stat upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.”

Where the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared before Scrooge almost faded – a mixture of forgotten good moments and ignored negative ones – this spirit comes as a loud proclamation of what Scrooge is missing out on. His bounty appears before Scrooge as physical and even edible. As they go on another Christmas tour, through the present holiday not Scrooge’s past, he seems to imply it isn’t ultimately one that you have, let alone eat. Instead, it’s one that you share.

As they travel, Scrooge witnesses the spirit blessing a number of meals, of all different sorts of people, and this conversation happens between them:

“‘Would [the blessings] 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.'”

With that, they begin a rather harrowing look at how the other half lives, which Scrooge so casually dismissed from concern in the first chapter. The tour begins with Scrooge’s own underpaid clerk, who is cheerfully reunited with his eldest daughter, who has moved out of home to be a milliner’s apprentice. Even amid the joy in seeing her, however, the tone of the day has somber moments. Scrooge’s clerk had previously been at Church with his youngest and disabled child – Tiny Tim.

When discussing him with his wife and eldest children, his “voice was tremulous when he told them [about their morning at Church] and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty. His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool beside the fire, and while [Scrooge’s clerk], turning up his cuffs – as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby – compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round”.

This is the life that someone in comparatively good economic standing could have in Scrooge’s time. He is not ensnared in poverty and hardship – which will be seen later – but he and his family live with constant interruption, reminding them of how fragile their lives are and how economically vulnerable they remain. Nothing, I think, shows this better than the description of their Christmas dessert as they bring it out:

“A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’ next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered = flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding!”

Unlike others, soon to be seen, the Cratchits do live with a certain amount of material comfort. But even in their celebrations there are the looming prospects of how much they must do (and soon) to maintain what little good things they have, making even a pudding not just a triumph but one that reminds them of a series of different economic activities. In our era in which the presence of basic comforts is so routinely used to cast doubt on the seriousness of economic vulnerability or limitation, this stands out as a profound portrayal of how living without enough, even a small amount less, is debilitating.

The labor they need to perform permeates even their rest days and the ominous threat of costs that can never be fully covered – most obviously proper nutrition and otherwise treatment for Tiny Tim. Scrooge, watching these private moments is moved, and asks if Tiny Tim will live, presumably meaning to a reasonable, adult age.

“‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.'”

He then gives Scrooge something of a ticking clock, by implying it is most likely to happen before the following Christmas. Scrooge is horrified to hear this, only to have the spirit hurl his words back at him: “‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population.'”

From this, the spirit guides Scrooge through miners’ and sailors’ Christmas celebrations, showing those in even more precarious standing and with even less to celebrate with than Scrooge’s clerk and his family. In this, Scrooge sees the faces of those he had so coldly called expendable surplus lives the day before.

They travel everywhere, however, and ultimately see Scrooge’s nephew’s celebrations. The games at their party ultimately culminate in a kind of older version of twenty questions, in which it is ultimately revealed that the moody animal that walks the streets of London is revealed to be none other than Scrooge, who declined to join them.

Scrooge laughs off the joke, showing a previously unseen sense of humor, but an often overlooked exchange comes about after that reveal among the guests. “[S]ome objected that the reply to ‘Is it a bear?’ ought to have been ‘Yes,’ as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.”

What’s suggested here are two things – that Scrooge has become a distant and often overlooked subject to many of these people and that when he is considered, it’s not entirely in human terms. It’s at that point that Scrooge sees something also curiously between human and animal protruding from his accompanying spirits cloak. “‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply” before he lifts the hem of its robe, showing “two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, [and] miserable.”

ignorance and want final
From here.

The spirit disavows parenthood of them, saying that they belong to men. He introduces them: “‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow, I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’

Often, this is read as a warning that those with fewer resources – for education or more immediate wants and needs – are a scowling, almost subhuman threat if left unfed. Reading this immediately after Scrooge himself is noted to be similar at the edge of humanness and has come to grips with his ignorance of what life in poverty is like, however, it seems more as though Scrooge is the clawing child. He maybe be threatened by the “Doom” written upon him, but he is also the unsavory and dangerous threat himself.

This is the second spirit’s last moment with Scrooge, for it then disappears at the stroke of midnight, leaving him alone except for “a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, to him.”

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The final spirit

This is the fourth post in this series. You can read about the first chapter here, the second chapter here, the third chapter here, or the full series.

Trigger warning: war, racism, islamophobia, ableism

When we last left Scrooge, he had just been introduced to a boy who represented the characteristic (ignorance) he had just displayed about how a huge chunk of the world’s population lives. The dying spirit who had shown him the child told him that across the boy’s forehead was written one word: doom. As if that’s not enough to spook Scrooge somewhat, that spirit then vanished into thin air, making room for one of the most iconic characters in this story to enter.

christmas future final.jpg
(From here.)

In Dickens’ words, the final spirit is-

“shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

[Scrooge] felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.”

In spite of its rather chilling appearance, Scrooge’s turn from isolation towards interaction holds firm. He speaks to the spirit, telling it among other things, “I am prepared to bear your company and do it with a thankful heart.”

Wordlessly, the spirit then conducts him on a similar tour of his surroundings. There’s a series of business-minded men who discuss an unnamed colleague’s recent death in unemotional and even disparaging terms. The man’s death is a passing topic, like the weather. The spirit then transports Scrooge from the genteel detachment exhibited among them to its more naked counterpart among those hocking items they’d taken from the dead man’s house.

In a pawnshop, three of them met unexpectedly – one an employee of an undertaker, another a charwoman (basically a part of the cleaning staff), and the other a laundress. As the pull out of their parcels all sorts of random items taken from the dead’s house:

“They were severally examined and appraised by old Joe, who chalked the sums he was disposed to give for each upon the wall, and added them up into a total when he found that there was nothing more to come.”

The cold calculation that this dead man’s life is reduced to is the horror in this story. Since many know before reading it who the man is or otherwise pick up on the many references in the story to his wealth, it’s easy to read this and think of this dehumanizing reduction of him as a universal human problem. He’s a wealthy man however, who doesn’t experience this until he dies at a ripe old age – not everyone is so lucky.

Throughout this year, similar calculations have been made about those in less stable standing – living and working in war zones, on the edge of empires, or disabled within the heart of them. Most recently, this sort of mathematics applied to human lives led to the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan, the on-going demands to “vet” Syrian refugees, and the social abandonment of thousands of disabled people in the UK many of whom have since died.

When Scrooge begs the spirit to see someone moved by this death, as he begins to suspect who it may be, he gets a taste of how this older man came to be looked at as a resource and not a person. In a nutshell, he treated others that way, engaging in his own calculations not dissimilar to others’ that have had medical centers torched, survivors of war zones denied refuge, and the disabled left to die.

The only emotion stirred by the death that the spirit can show him is that of thankful reprieve – a couple indebted to the dead man eat better, sleep better, and breathe better knowing they have a few more days to pay off their debt, if it isn’t outright forgiven. Their creditor is something other than human to everyone else in part because he saw them as simply costs, revenues, and resources – just as he in turn shrewdly saw them.

Scrooge begs the spirit to show him something outside of this morose world of seeing others in such a dehumanizing light and in turn being seen that way. It takes him to a now familiar house – his employee’s. Bob Cratchit is deep in grief for Tiny Tim, something which many adaptations manage to show quite well. What’s less common for them to capture is what comes later out of his mouth. He asks his children –

“”[H]owever and whenever we part from one another , I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim – shall we?  – or this first parting that there was among us?’

‘Never, Father!’ cried they all.”

The grief never totally dissipates from the Cratchits’ home, but there is tenderness and remembrance that cuts it down to manageable size. This other way for the world to exist is one predicated on empathy and love, and it’s one in which the cold can be fought off and warmth shared. It seems callous to write off the Cratchits as quite simply “not broken” over the death of one of their children or siblings, but there is a resilience often lost in adaptations of this story, which speaks to the durability of the alternative they embody to an unfeeling world.

Scrooge is pulled away from his look into that world by the spirit. His doubts around him, he has a bit of a relapse of his avoidance-centered way of approaching the world. He runs away from where the spirit points to look at where his current office is, someone else is inside. When the spirit collects him from there and takes him to a graveyard, he won’t look at the headstone at which the spirit points – instead he asks a question of the spirit. For a return to his self-isolating ways, he seems remarkably reliant on interaction as a means to avoid looking at what he doesn’t want to see.

Having all but guessed who the dead man is, Scrooge begs the spirit to at least once speak and explain if these visions of the future are changeable. His only hope is to alter them, and he reasons out that there is no purpose in showing him his doom if he has no means to avoid it. The spirit offers no confirmation of that or other reassurance though – it simply points with its one feature, still to one particular grave. It bears Scrooge’s name.

Scrooge sinks to his knees and pleads to be told that he can change these outcomes, then insists he will heed the warnings he has been given by these spirits, and ultimately, catches the spirit’s hand and won’t let it go. It’s not clear what causes Scrooge to wake up in his own bed, the phantom transformed into his bedpost – his promise to be different or his demonstration of that by reaching out and grasping someone else. It’s a bit of the magic in the story that it can be both and between the two.

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The end

This is the fifth post in this series. You can read about the first chapter here, the second chapter here, the third chapter here, the fourth chapter here, or the full series.

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.

scrooge waking up

“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 anonymityScrooge 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.

stave 5 b(From here.)

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.

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