Because of the continued health concerns associated with transmission of COVID-19, many of us will be celebrating Christmas on a much smaller scale than in years past. Yet, this year’s muted celebrations can actually reveal that which so often goes overlooked. Our lives are constantly filled with noise – especially at this time of year – and a bit of solitude can allow us to listen more closely to the voice of God as He invites us to a clearer sense of what the Nativity can bring to our lives.
Besides taking time to read through and pray over the beautiful stories of the birth of Jesus as presented by Matthew and Luke in their Gospels, there are other works that are worthy of our time and consideration. From the overtly religious to the purely secular, from animation and claymation to box office hits with major stars, the topic of Christmas, and, more often, of the celebration of Christmas, is one that easily lends itself to the imagination of writers and the telling of a good story.
Of all the stories that have caught the imagination of audiences over the years, the one that has most stood the test of time is the response of a writer and social critic who, disgusted by the conditions of children in London in the mid-1800s, decided that he would have more impact by writing a Christmas story than he would have by penning a jeremiad.
The novella A Christmas Carol, in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, was first published on December 19, 1843. The first run sold out by Christmas Eve, and this most well-loved work of Charles Dickens has never been out of print since.
The adaptations of this “Christmas classic of all Christmas classics” are almost uncountable. Beginning in 1901 with the six minute silent film Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, this story has been transformed into movies, plays, musicals, operas, radio dramas, and television shows. In addition, the list of what one might call “derivative” productions – where the theme remains but is adapted to a different set of characters – might not be of the highest quality (Bill Murray’s Scrooged being a notable exception), but it certainly is lengthy.
For my money, and for those whose job it is to make sense of all of this, the best adaptation is the 1951 version staring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. As critics have noted, this film is not only about the England of the time of Dickens, but it is also about the time of reconstruction in the aftermath of World War II. The original story was part of the revival of the celebration of Christmas in the Victorian Era and the film was part of the revival of British pride in the 1950s.
There are Dickens scholars who see the novella as simply a statement about the plight of children during the Industrial Revolution. There is certainly evidence to back up their claim. One of the most frightening moments in the film is the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children at his feet: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware 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.”
This theme of the need for social change is certainly intentional, but so is the theme of personal change, and it is that which turns this from a story with a Christmas setting to a story with a Christmas message.
The emphasis on personal conversion and transformation takes on a distinctly Christian flavor through the words of Jacob Marley, the former partner of Scrooge. On Christmas Eve, the seventh anniversary of his death, Marley appears to Scrooge to both warn him of his impending doom as well as introduce the means for avoiding it through his experience with the three ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come.
The most telling words of Marley are those related to his present sufferings, especially at Christmas:
“At this time of the rolling year I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”
For Scrooge the light conducted him to the home of Bob Cratchet. The Ghost of Christmas Present foresees a time when there is a crutch without an owner – meaning that Tiny Tim, the crippled Cratchet child, will die. And it is the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come who allows Scrooge to see the Cratchet home where Tiny Tim is mourned and spoken of as “patient and mild” with an essence from God. Tim is the Christ child of the story as well as the representative of those children in England who suffered.
Whether England in 1843 or the United States of 2020, there are children who suffer. They are the invisible and expendable, the ignored and unwanted, the abused and aborted. That blessed Star, visible this week for the first time in eight hundred years, is still a sign that in a world of disease – medical, social, and spiritual – the only way to real social progress and true personal conversion is by following that light to the newborn Babe.
God bless us, everyone.