A Christmas Carol Is a Christmas Con

December 7, 2023 — I love A Christmas Carol. I think it’s one of the greatest stories in the language. But guess what? Its theme really has nothing to do with Christmas.

Wait, what?

I mean, Charles Dickens, in his successful quest to become a beloved Christmas character himself, wrote a lot about Christmas. And in this particular story, he seems to try to make it so Christmas that the pages almost smell of pine needles and roast turkey and crinkle like wrapped presents. It’s set at Christmas—in fact, multiple Christmases across time. It’s organized like a holiday carol in staves instead of chapters. The word is on almost every page. The point is Christmas, the story insists. And insists. And insists. The point is Christmas. When Scrooge awakes after his visit with the final ghost, he says, “Heaven and the Christmas Time be praised for this!”

But Scrooge can be forgiven for being wrong. On both accounts. After all, he had a rough night.

For while Christmas does make a nice backdrop to the story and good plot structure device by Dickens, providing delightfully parallel stanzas, this story could have taken place at any time on Scrooge’s calendar. In April. Arbor Day. Breast Cancer Awareness month. The return of the McRib.

I posit that Christmas isn’t important to the whole point of the story, which is Scrooge’s redemption. That A Christmas Carol is actually A Christmas Con.

Scrooge changes not because of some magical Christmas miracle. Not because he was convinced of its worth as a holiday by four spectral debaters. He changes because he got the shit scared out of him by Death. He did a decent job of swiping left on Marley by calling him Colonel Mustard or whatever, and the nostalgia and insight/voyeurism of the other two ghosts touched his heart, for sure, but there’s a reason Dicken’s carol has that darkly robed cleanup hitter, and it’s not just the rule of three. Had this been a Halloween story, it would have taken only a single terrifying ghost to get Scrooge to buy turkeys and give raises.

Christmas didn’t save Scrooge. It just, like it does every year, pretends to play a valuable role in our lives. Death saves Scrooge.

It’s kind of a cheating way to learn the lesson, too. It’s a threat. Do this or die. Or worse, do this or die alone and then float through the air in torment wrapped in chains forever. Us humans love to do that, of course. Put Jesus in your ventricles or burn in the center of earth for all time. But Scrooge really got his own burial dirt tossed in his face. Before that night of ghosts, death was an abstract thing in some abstract future. Even Marley’s death did little to remind him of his own. He kept his partner’s name on the company sign without any semblance of morbidity. But then he got his own tombstone smashed so hard down his head that he promised on his knees to that Ghost of Christmas Future, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Scrooge’s joy was an attempt at salving intense fear. And fear is the best motivator of anything.

Now, Christmas does have an actual important function in the story. I lied a little bit earlier. It’s important in that the story needed to be set amidst a time of national partying. That way Scrooge could be both literally asked to join the party by his nephew Fred, but also metaphorically by the ghosts. Christmas was a metaphor for participating in civil society.

Which is fine. Except that it isn’t asking Scrooge to come as he is, but to participate in it on its own terms and demands. Scrooge says at the beginning of the tale to his nephew, “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.” Nope. Society wasn’t having that. It demanded Scrooge conform.

But that’s a whole different topic.

Speaking of a different topic, I’ll leave you with a thought-starter: Why would the Ghost of Christmas Future be Death incarnate?

I've half a dozen copies of A Christmas Carol in my library, and the one I pulled out
to peruse for this piece is apparently one I haven't opened in a long time,
possibly over two decades, based on this hand-drawn Christmas card dated 2001
from someone I used to work with at a video store back then.
Talk about a Ghost of Christmas Past.