A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite tales of all time and I try to watch a version of it every year, not out of rote habit but as a solemn and sanctified ritual. To me it’s not just a book or movie, you see, it’s a spiritual experience (for all great stories are).
If I’m particularly busy around Christmas time, I get tempted to skip the annual tradition because it inevitably moves me to tears and inspires some serious introspection and, well… ain’t nobody got time for that. But if I manage to do the ritual anyway I am always glad that I did because it becomes a kind of yearly spiritual cleansing and an opportunity to recommit to certain values and ideals. And if you stick with me on this post I’ll suggest a particular mindset with which to watch it so that it perhaps it can provide the same kind of cathartic renewal for you. (I’ll be citing specific plot details but I won’t bother with *spoiler alerts* because, seriously, who doesn’t know the story?)
Charles Dickens was one of our greatest humanist authors and while he expounded his most important themes with great depth in novels like Great Expectations (another personal favorite) and David Copperfield, for me A Christmas Carol is the great summation of all his highest ideals because it’s so simple, accessible and easy to understand for both children and adults alike.
Because it’s been adapted so many times and is such an embedded part of popular culture, some of the genuine profundity of this tale gets undermined by an inaccurate perception of it as being cheesy or maudlin. But don’t let the simplicity fool you. Every time I read the book or watch one of the better-made movie adaptations I marvel at how it manages to pack in so many important spiritual and psychological lessons that we all forget and fail to consistently practice, despite however obvious we may think these lessons are.
We all know how Scrooge is overcome with joy and relief at the end of the story. Well, I experience the same emotions vicariously pretty much every time I finish watching a good adaptations – not as dramatically as with Scrooge himself perhaps, but important nonetheless. But in order for the viewing or reading of this tale to become a genuinely transformative experience you have to approach it differently than you might be accustomed to doing, and you have to shed your preconceptions of it as being just another overly sentimental Hallmark-type movie.
The approach that I use, both while watching the movie (whichever version) and for the period of introspection that I undergo when it’s over, is to essentially visualize a journey into my own past, present and projected future just like the journey that Scrooge is taken on. I’ll talk more about this in a bit.
Another thing I do while watching the film is to project myself onto Scrooge and to recognize and acknowledge all the ways in which his qualities represent aspects of me. This isn’t easy since the common perception of Scrooge at the beginning of the story is that he is the Mean and Terrible Other. This carries over in real-life when we joke that so-and-so is such “a Scrooge.” Never do we say, “I am such a Scrooge.” But that’s what I suggest you do the next time you watch or read a version of this tale. Find aspects of yourself in him. You are Scrooge. Like him, you can be greedy, mean-spirited, bitter, and self-centered.
No doubt Scrooge is an archetype of extremes but we are, all of us, in danger of potentially becoming what he is at the beginning of the story. Remember that when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him on a tour of his memories we see him as a young man who was once sensitive, caring and emotionally attuned.
The old Scrooge’s famous stinginess is just one of the more visible expressions of a deeper-rooted problem which was his youthful perception of the world, which worsened as he got older, as a cruel and vicious place (and of course he was partly right) that would destroy him and his loved ones if he didn’t harden himself. As often happens, his darker qualities were born out of love and good intentions that unfortunately did not have wisdom to guide them.
None of us start out as a Scrooge. We gradually, year by year, become one. The common perception of “a Scrooge” is of someone who’s overly stingy or lacks a festive holiday spirit. That’s a gross oversimplification.
The true meaning of a Scrooge is one who has, in any number of ways, to any degree, hardened his heart out of fear.
A Scrooge is therefore one who is miserly with his heart, compassion, and empathy due to fear. The fear can be of any number of things but it is usually, at its root, a fear of losing or not getting something that he wants, be it love, acceptance, recognition, safety, luxury, pleasure, or comfort.
When you look at it this way you can perhaps start to recognize how you yourself, at this very moment, might be a Scrooge. What fears, both large and small, have occupied your mind this year? And what coping mechanisms did you adopt to try to keep yourself safe from these fears? How has this, in any way however subtle, put a rift between you and other people, both the ones you love as well as people in general? If I am honest enough with myself, and if I peer inward long enough, I can almost always see the ways that I have done this, even if only slightly. And if you are truly honest with yourself, you’ll see the ways in which you have done this as well.
This isn’t too suggest that you kick yourself for doing this, for almost everyone does it to some degree. And surely you started out with good intentions. Most of us do. But the trials and struggles of life make us forget. We forget our promises, values, and ideals as they succumb to entropy while coldness and complacence coat our hearts. Even the most vigilant among us need reminders. That’s the only real purpose of the three ghosts for Scrooge: to serve as reminders. And in the same way that they remind him, they can remind us as well—the story as a whole, in fact, is one big reminder. The story itself is our Jacob Marley, our ghost of Christmas, pleading with us to break the heavy chains we’ve forged with our own words and actions.
This is the value of recurring sessions of ritualized introspection every year, every few months or even every week. Much can be said for taking some sort of weekly break from the noise and distractions of life to go inward—a Sabbath, if you will, which doesn’t have to be religious so much as simply contemplative. A periodic break from work or a Sabbatical serves the same principle on a larger scale. You can spend a Sabbatical entirely on recreational pursuits, but it’s really supposed to be a spiritual period of looking back and assessing yourself, realizing where you need improvements and resolving to make those improvements. And, of course, at each year’s end we have Christmas which, if you are willing to see past all the crass cultural baggage, is genuinely an opportune time for reflection that doesn’t have to be related to religion or commerciality unless you want it to. One reason why it’s useful to ritualize sessions of deep introspection like this is that unless we ritualize them, we tend to forget to do them or we rationalize why we don’t need to do it this week, or this year, or this decade.
So set a day for an annual introspection of the state of your heart. For me it’s usually been the day before Christmas Eve. Next, set a specific trigger activity. The premise of this post has been that reading or watching a version of A Christmas Carol can be a great trigger activity. What the trigger activity should be designed to do is evoke the emotional motivation you’ll need to take a good, hard look at yourself. Without that emotional motivation, you simply won’t do it. Dickens’ story moves me to catharsis every single time because as many times as I’ve seen it, I still forget some of the many lessons within it (again, the need for periodic reminders). And it is those post-viewing/reading emotions that motivate me to sit and reflect long after I’ve pressed the “Stop” button on my video player or closed the book.
Next, there’s an optional imaginative exercise that, if you like, you could try doing after watching the movie:
Imagine yourself old and withered. Or imagine that you’re not even old, necessarily, but that you’re on your deathbed. What would you regret having done? What would you regret having not done? Imagine loved ones that you take for granted on a daily basis suddenly dying or being taken from you. Again, what would you regret having done or said to them (or having not done and said)?
If you do this sincerely and without distractions it can be a pretty emotionally intense and, for some people, uncomfortable experience. But uncomfortable in a good way. Finally, once you’ve reminded yourself what’s most important and what isn’t, you resolve to focus on the things that are most important no matter what.
In my mind, the true measure of greatness is how kind and compassionate one can remain even in situations in which one’s own comfort, and perhaps even one’s own survival, are potentially threatened. Scrooge wasn’t able to accomplish this when he was young, but that’s also what makes him a relatable hero since most of us aren’t able to do this when we’re very young. The older Scrooge, however, has no excuse and neither do we.
But as with Scrooge, if you begin to allow yourself excuses for why you cannot be kind, there will be no end to the invention of such excuses. The mind with its ingenious ability to rationalize will always find reasons why you can’t be kind and generous now. “Later,” you’ll tell yourself, “just a little bit later. After I’ve gotten to this place, or after I’ve accomplished this one thing.” Always later.
Here’s an example of how you can overcome such mental inertia. It worked for me and maybe it can work for you:
Back when I was able to hold down full-time jobs (I’m taking time off now for health reasons), I used to donate 5 to 10% of my monthly salary, even if it was quite low, to various causes that I found worthy. This was because I believed in the Now-or-Never principle: Be the person you want to be now or you will probably never become that person even if your life circumstances were to improve dramatically.
In general, I’m not too impressed when mega-corporations or celebrities donate millions of dollars to good causes. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful when the do. I’m just not impressed by it. What does impress me is when regular, struggling people share what they have despite worrying if they’ll have enough themselves. But money isn’t even the only way to do this. There are so many other ways to be kind in everyday life that are arguably even more powerful than money. One of the great lessons of A Christmas Carol is, after all, that all the money in the world is worthless without love and compassion. But if love and compassion are present, just a little bit of money or even none of it can still go a long way.
Regardless of your belief system about existence, one thing must be universally agreed upon: once your life is over you cannot change anything about it. It’s too late to do anything for anyone you may care about, be it your friends and family or humanity as an abstract whole. One of the most powerful scenes in the book that most adaptations are faithful to is when Marley shows Scrooge a vision of unseen spirits walking among humans on earth, mourning and lamenting because they wish they could do something to help the people they love. But of course they can’t; it’s too late.
But until your very last breath, it is truly never too late to do good and this is why Dickens intentionally depicts Scrooge’s transformation and redemption occurring in his twilight years. It isn’t just some clichéd sentiment that has no bearing in reality. It is absolutely true. Even with your very last breath you could forgive someone, for instance. Or conversely you could ask for forgiveness from someone. Or best of all you could just tell people you love them and that nothing else matters (because nothing else does).
And so the overwhelming, giddy joy that Scrooge feels upon realizing that he’s still alive and been given a second chance is a joy that is all of ours to claim anytime so long as we still draw breath. But don’t wait until the last breath because it may arrive when you least expect, usually sooner than you expect.
In this way, the fate of the hero in A Christmas Carol is the polar opposite of the antihero from another classic movie, Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane’s fate in the latter film is what happens when we never learn. In the blink of an eye our time is up and we are left, in our final moments, whispering the name of a childhood toy, longing for the innocence of a life long gone. Being old, Scrooge is not too far from that same fate but by the grace of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – or you might say by the grace of the spirit of Christmas itself – he alters his fate and, in so doing, shows us how we too can redeem ourselves moment by moment, day by day, year by year.
And so it’s with complete and utter sincerity that I close with Tiny Tim’s much-parodied line:
A Merry Christmas. And God bless us, everyone.
Recommended Versions of A Christmas Carol
• A Christmas Carol (1843). The original novel by Charles Dickens. It’s a quick read and definitely worth it.
• A Christmas Carol, (1951) starring Alistair Sim who delivers a truly delightful performance in this classic from Hollywood’s golden age. You can’t go wrong with this one.
•Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). I think this is actually the first version I can remember seeing and it’s a sentimental favorite.
• Scrooged (1988). I still so vividly remember all the feels I had while watching this one for the first time. One of my favorite Bill Murray movies.
• The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). The Muppets plus Charles Dickens equals a perfect combination. The musical numbers are a bonus.
• A Christmas Carol (2009). The Jim Carrey animated version. I approached this one with skepticism but again found myself moved by the faithfulness of the adaptation and Carrey’s soulful voice performance.
• A Klingon Christmas Carol (2007-present). If you’re lucky enough to have a version of this being staged in your city or town, do not hesitate to go check it out. The movies (and book) are great and all, but there’s nothing quite like seeing a living person transformed before your very eyes.