After you try your hand at composing a haiku, take a chance on writing a Christmas story. All you have to do is supply the ending: a crotchety old cop is assigned to supervise a Christmas shopping trip for two needy kids, and after grudgingly performing the act of service he finds himself–you guessed it, of course–pondering the true meaning of Christmas, experiencing a change of heart, and arriving at the children’s doorstep Christmas morning laden with gifts and treats.
During the festive ritual space between Thanksgiving and Christmas, everyone loves to hate Scrooge. All rituals require myth, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol supplies the narrative–the beginning, middle, and end, the good guys and bad guys–of contemporary Christmas. The present-day Scrooge, like his partner Marley, roams the Christmas season thinly disguised as the Grinch or more subtly rendered as the narrator of Christmas Box; Scrooge is alive, to begin with. Each new version of the Carol registers a new set of collective anxieties, shared values, and cultural contradictions, and in this sense Scrooge himself is the truest ghost of Christmas present.
When Dickens relocated the Christmas festival of agrarian feudalism to the industrialized city, he intended neither to rescue Christmas from frowning Puritan sobriety nor to transform the holiday into a frenzied seasonal circus of buying and spending. Rather, he wrote the story in response to an 1843 expose of child labor abuses, the miserable revelation of which properly shocked middle-class Victorians. The Carol represents Dickens’ imaginative resolution of the real contradictions–the horrific images of naked children pulling coal carts twice their size to which they were chained in mine shafts to narrow for the children to stand–under which industrializing England labored.
For Dickens, the most egregious social problem turns out to be the economic alienation dissolving human relationships at the levels of class, family, and individual; like Shylock, Scrooge’s miserly prototype who cannot distinguish between his ducats and his daughter, Scrooge cannot conceive of human relationships in non-economic terms. Concepts like “family” and “community,” describing nonmarket relationships, have no meaning for Scrooge. And if economic alienation causes social machinery to seize up, then love allows it to run smoothly–according to the Carol. For Dickens, Christmas works as a sacralized time set apart from the rest of the year, a time of transformation during which the law of love replaces the iron laws of economics, allowing social good and self-interest to coexist. Christmastime abundance–represented in the astonishing excess of the marketplace and in Dickens’ own linguistic abundance–replaces the scarcity model that governs the unredeemed Scrooge. In the copious world of the Carol, supply always exceeds consumption, so that the laws of supply and demand need not pinch the pockets of generous Christmas givers. Christmas is reimagined from the perspective of affluence as a universal festival of giving and getting among the new urban family, a unit not linked by blood or property but imagined as a microcosm of the human economic community. The story of Scrooge, then, suggests that social reform must be achieved through personal conversion, for the Carol, after all, is the quintessential urban conversion narrative. In enacting Scrooge’s Christmastime conversion, the Carol links the Easter springtime narrative of spritual death and rebirth to the Christmas winter ritual.