Bah, Humbug

A Christmas Carol, again and again

circa 1844: Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim on his shoulders / Getty Images

In the midst of all the new Christmas books that every year brings us, in the midst of the made-for-Netflix holiday programs, in the midst of the productions of The Nutcracker, in the midst of the seasonal movies (from It’s a Wonderful Life to Die Hard), in the midst of the Yuletide television specials, it might be worth remembering an indisputable truth about Christmas art: The single most successful bit of seasonal fiction is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Over 40 film versions of the thing exist, and it's been dramatized for the stage in dozens of different versions. Children's editions, radio plays, cartoon encapsulations, parodies, takeoffs, retellings: What Dickens achieved with A Christmas Carol is unmatched by any other attempt to add a little post-gospel storytelling to the season.

Of course, it's also a mess of a story—a fact that, once every four or five years, I seem compelled to remind readers, usually during that surfeited, frantic period when the season briefly inverts me into a grumpy, pre-transformation Scrooge. Come December, as P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster observed, and "Christmas was again at our throats."

Back in the days when Freudianism dominated literary criticism, the critic Edmund Wilson complained of those who gave psychological explanations of Scrooge's conversion. The story is essentially a fairy tale, and it's as meaningless to psychoanalyze Scrooge as it is to ask about penis envy and the death wish in Little Red Riding Hood. Dickens's friend and first biographer, John Forster, insisted that Dickens took a "secret delight" in giving "a higher form" to nursery stories, and that's probably the best way to read A Christmas Carol.

Still, even a fairy tale or nursery story, the plot is odder than it needs to be. Scrooge talks to Marley's ghost until "past two" in the morning and then goes "straight to bed, without undressing"—at which point he wakes up to see the Ghost of Christmas Past at midnight. Which is two hours before he fell asleep, and he's "clad but slightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap."

The ghosts in A Christmas Carol behave inconsistently even for ghosts. Nothing the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge actually comes true. Bob Cratchit won't weep over his dead son, since at the story's end we are assured that Tiny Tim "did not die." Scrooge's corpse won't be robbed on its death bed.

For that matter, isn't the Ghost of Christmas Present really the first Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come? Marley tells Scrooge that the ghosts will visit him on three successive nights, but they all seem to come the same night, which is Christmas Eve—and the Christmas Day events that Scrooge is shown are all actually 12 hours or so in the future.

Even at that, what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge doesn't come true. The guests at Fred's Christmas party won't mock the absent Scrooge, because Scrooge will be there. The Cratchits won't have their little goose, "eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes." They'll have instead the enormous "prize turkey" Scrooge has sent. And while we're at it, how did the Cratchits get the thing roasted? Purchased after Scrooge's conversion—and what is the butcher's shop doing open at six in the morning on Christmas morning?—the huge bird wouldn't have been done till midnight. "He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped 'em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax."

That description of the turkey is from Scrooge himself, of course, and for a miser he invests far too much work into describing his miserliness. His linguistic energy is exhausting, and his joy at his joylessness is boundless. "If I could work my will . . . every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart," Scrooge wastes time explaining to those who have just wasted his time by wishing him a Merry Christmas.

Or think of his response to Marley's ghost: "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato." That's an awful lot of work to explain to a ghost that he's only a phantasm caused by indigestion. "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Of course, that feature of Scrooge is a feature of Dickens himself. Always in his stories he expends more energy than necessary. The most Dickensian moment early in A Christmas Carol comes when Scrooge arrives home in the evening to see Marley's face in his door-knocker: "He did pause, with a moment's irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley's pigtail sticking out into the hall." As I've noted of Dickens before, English literature has had perhaps a dozen authors who could or would have done the door-knocker. Only Dickens is capable of the pigtail.

And yet, there are things that even all that Dickensian energy cannot obtain for us. The most sentimental moment in A Christmas Carol is also its most explicitly Christian, when Tiny Tim "hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see." But mostly Dickens seeks what he imagines is the Christmas spirit rather than the Christmas meaning.

G.K. Chesterton remains the greatest reader of Dickens, and most of the time he defends the Victorian author against the Edwardians for whom Dickens had become passé and unfashionable. But Chesterton suggests that A Christmas Carol proves how separated from the deep religious, artistic, and intellectual traditions of Europe were Victorian England in general and Dickens in particular. Taking up the event the world has wrapped in the largest amount of cultural mythology, Dickens had to invent his own Christmas mythology. He didn't use shepherds and Wise Men and managers and donkeys and blazing stars. He didn't use Christian symbols and sacramental references. He used only his own high spirits.

Which isn't enough. As sentimental art, A Christmas Carol may well be the greatest creation the West has ever produced. But the sentiment and spirit of Christmas are only a spume, a delightful iridescent spray, that plays above the theological reality of the claim that, on Christmas, God entered history.