In Stave I of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Fred debates the value of the spirit of Christmas with his uncle Ebenezer Scrooge. The debate takes place in the evening on a dark, cold Christmas Eve in his uncle’s office. Fred invites his uncle to dine with him on Christmas Day and his uncle declines calling Christmas a “humbug.” I have always thought the term “humbug” meant something frivolous or devoid of meaning. It turns out the definition is a little more specific than this. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary “humbug” is defined as “language or behavior that is false or meant to deceive people.” If this is the definition of humbug Charles Dickens intended it casts a slightly different shade on why Ebenezer Scrooge chose this word to describe Christmas.
Throughout the novella Scrooge retorts “humbug” to various things he encounters. For example, when Marley’s ghost appears in his room he utters “humbug.” It seems clear that by “humbug” he means that he does not believe what he sees to be actually real. But according to the definition of the word it would seem that he does not believe what he sees because he feels that someone or something is trying to deceive him. In the same respect he tells his nephew that “Christmas is a humbug” which I therefore take to mean that he does not believe in Christmas because he sees it as some sort of grand deception. Given his material preoccupation I assume he sees Christmas as a deception by the people who profit from the economic activity associated with the holiday. But perhaps he also senses a more spiritual deception going on. This would explain all the ghostly activity to come later that night.
In reaction to his uncle’s branding of Christmas a humbug, Fred begins to defend the holiday’s good name by saying:
… I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that…
Here he pays a winking acknowledgement to the reason for Christmas (i.e., Christ’s incarnation) but does so in a way to suggest that this is not the thrust behind this story (i.e., A Christmas Carol). I do not believe this is a Fox News “War on Christmas” type of thing. It is merely to say that the story Dickens is telling, although set within a Christian context is not about Christianity per se. Rather, it is the story of one man’s spiritual redemption from himself. In a sense Scrooge in this story has pulled the wool over his own eyes. He is perpetrating a humbug on himself, so to speak.
Fred further describes Christmas as:
… as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
I assume most people recognize the childlike spirit of the season he describes. I remember feeling this more intensely when I was younger. Essentially, there is something about the Christmas season that makes people want to be nicer to each other, to relax their egocentric judgment and to pay less attention to false excuses for division such as politics, race and indeed religion.
Children are not as fixated on these things. They only come to value them when they are taught to value them by adults. Jesus himself said, “… Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (MT 18:3). Perhaps this childlike spirit of Christmas is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps this childlike spirit is revealed when one pulls back the various humbugs of adulthood.
Clearly Scrooge is the antithesis of the childlike spirit Fred describes. For one thing, he is old. I have often heard people react to “A Christmas Carol” by saying that even though Scrooge redeemed himself he must have been disappointed or regretful that his redemption did not happen earlier in life. But this observation misses the point, I think. It is precisely Scrooge’s age in spirit that required redeeming. He had to become more childlike to enter the kingdom of heaven. As such, his physical age is symbolic of his spiritual age which exudes all the traits of ego dominated adulthood.
And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
Here he contrasts this childlike spirit of Christmas with the materialism with which it stands in opposition to. A childlike spirit is not cynical. It does not suspect a humbug around every corner. It is not greedy, grasping or full of ego. It is not mean spirited, judgmental or racist. Rather, the childlike spirit of Christmas is open hearted, compassionate, full of life, anticipation and excitement. It exposes the humbug of division and reveals the true fact that we are all “fellow passengers to the grave” and this earthly existence and our physical, skin deep appearances are not what is ultimately important.