Tag Archives: Fred

Humbug and the Spirit of Christmas

FredIn 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.

Fred continues:

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.

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God Bless Us Everyone – Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” Part VII

In the final stave Scrooge is relieved to find himself alive in his bedroom on Christmas morning.  He has time to make amends for his prior acts.  As he frantically dresses he looks around the room and remembers the events of the previous night.  He laughs for the first time in many years and realizes he does not know what day or time it is.  As the church bells toll he opens the window and yells down to a boy on the street.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit illustrated by John L...

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit illustrated by John Leech in 1843 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When asked the boy tells him it is Christmas Day.  He realizes the spirits had transacted their business all in one night despite what Marley had told him about when to expect the ghosts’ arrival.  This is a strange discrepancy, the significance of which has never been explained to my satisfaction.

He sends the boy off to get the prize turkey in order to send it anonymously to Bob Cratchit.  Scrooge is delighted by the boy.  This seems to be the culmination of a theme starting with the caroler Scrooge mistreated on Christmas Eve, Scrooge’s child self, Tiny Tim, and the children duo Ignorance and Want.   As Scrooge waits at the door he sees the knocker says he will love it forever.  The poulterer arrives, Scrooge pays for the turkey and sends him in a cab to Bob’s house.  Scrooge also pays the boy.

Scrooge then returns to his room, shaves happily and dresses himself in his best clothes.  He walks through the streets addressing everyone happily.  He meets the two men he had rebuffed on Christmas Eve seeking money for the poor.  He apologizes and tells them he will give them money.  He then goes to church and walks the streets.

In the afternoon Scrooge arrives at his nephew’s house. Fred welcomes him happily.  This scene has always been very powerful for me.  I always react emotionally when Fred welcomes Scrooge to his party.  It is the Biblical scene where the father welcomes home the prodigal son.  It is the scene where God welcomes us home after our struggles on Earth.

The next day Bob Cratchit arrives late to work.  “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?” Scrooge asks him pretending to be angry.  Bob confesses that he was “making rather merry” the day before.  I suppose this means he drank too much and overslept or was hung over.  But Scrooge tells him he will raise his salary and help his family and that they will discuss his affairs over a “smoking bowl of Christmas Bishop” (whatever that is).

Dickens tells us that Scrooge was as good as his word and Tiny Tim did not die.  He also mentions that some people laughed at Scrooge for changing.  In other words they tried to shame him for changing.  This certainly fits the pattern of shame-based people.  They fear change themselves and become jealous when they see other people change so they try to stop other people from changing by shaming them.  Scrooge, of course, was unaffected because through the intercession of Marley and the three ghosts he had surpassed this shame-based circle.  He was indeed a new man.

Were the three ghosts real?  That is, were they separate entities intervening in his life for his benefit or were they parts of his subconscious mind fed up with the status quo and affecting their own healing?  The fact that Marley had no one intervene on his own behalf suggests the latter.  This is certainly a topic that can be explored in greater depth.

Anyway, I think I am done with “A Christmas Carol” for now.

God bless us.  Everyone.

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The Ghost of Christmas Present – Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” Part V

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...

Scrooge’s third visitor, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scrooge wakes again at 1:00 am and pulls back all the bed curtains to avoid being surprised as he was with the Ghost of Christmas Past.  He lies in bed for fifteen minutes waiting and feeling anxious.  At this point he becomes aware of light shining from under the door to an adjacent room.  He gets up to investigate and as he approaches the door a booming voice bids him enter.

The voice belongs to the Ghost of Christmas Present.  When Scrooge enters the room he is surprised to see it brightly lit, richly decorated and full of food.  The ghost is clothed in a robe with a crown of holly atop his head and sits on a throne made of various meat products.

You have never seen the like of me before,” says the ghost.  Scrooge has not.  The ghost tells Scrooge that he has more than 1800 brothers who have walked the earth before him.  This story, of course, takes place in the 1800’s.  It is a fairly obvious assumption that the ghost has had one brother a year walk the earth since the birth of Christ.  This is yet another indirect reference to Christianity.

Scrooge admits that he has changed since the Ghost of Christmas Past’s visit and has a certain level of faith in this transformational program the ghosts have set up for him.  He tells the Ghost of Christmas Present that he is in his hands essentially and goes forth with him.  Suddenly they are walking forth in the busy city streets of London.  It is a bright Christmas Morning.  There is an air of cheerfulness among the people.  Dickens goes at great length to describe an abundance of food.  People are carrying their dinners to the bakers and going to church.  As they mingle the Ghost sprinkles water on people making their mood alter for the better because different rules of civility apply on Christmas Day.

Scrooge asks the ghost why he sprinkles water on the people’s food.  The ghost tells him it is his own blessing that applies to any kindly given dinner and to a poor one most of all, because it needs it most.  Scrooge then asks the ghost why he would close all the bakers shops on Sunday denying people a dinner on perhaps the only day of the week when they can dine at all.  The ghost takes issue with this question and denies that it is his doing.  He then states:

There are some upon this earth of yours … who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.

This statement (one of a few lectures to Scrooge made by this ghost) may solve the riddle as to why Dickens only indirectly references Christianity within the spiritual universe existing in this story.  I would guess he sees Christianity as good and true in its essence but perhaps corrupted in its practice for the most part.

Next the Ghost blesses Bob Cratchit’s house.  We see Mrs. Cratchit preparing the Christmas dinner.  Peter, the eldest son wears a shirt with a giant collar handed down to him from his father.  There are two young children as well.  Martha, the eldest sister arrives home from her factory job.  The family conspires to hide her from Bob when he arrives home from church with Tiny Tim.  Dickens does not explain why only Bob and Tiny Tim go to church by themselves.  Bob is upset when he hears that Martha is not coming but she soon reveals herself and sets things straight.  Bob tells his wife that Tiny Tim was as good as gold in church and that he gets philosophical telling him that it was good that he was a cripple because it would remind people of the man who made lame beggars walk and blind men see (another indirect reference to Christianity).  The dinner is prepared, table set and grace said.  The goose arrives and then the pudding.  They then settle around the hearth drinking some Christmas mixture.  Bob says, “A Merry Christmas to us all” and Tiny Tim replies, “God bless us every one.

Scrooge is interested in the smallest, weakest member of the family.  He asks the ghost if Tiny Tim will live.  The ghost tells him he sees a vacant seat and a crutch without an owner.  Much like his compassion for his own child self, Scrooge feels compassion for Tiny Tim.  The ghost uses Scrooge’s own words against him and remarks judgmentally that if Tiny Tim is going to die he should do it and decrease the surplus population and then continues with another lecture:

… if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.                                                                                                                                                                                         

The scene shifts from the ghost to Bob Cratchit toasting Scrooge as “the founder of the feast.”  His family does not agree and lets him know it, but Bob persists remarking that it is Christmas Day and different rules of civility apply.  The family reluctantly toasts Scrooge and in a few minutes the good mood returns to this poor but happy family.

Outside the Cratchit house people are out visiting.  Then the ghost takes Scrooge on a journey visiting various peoples celebrating Christmas.  They see miners, men isolated in a remote lighthouse battered by storm, and men on a ship at sea.  Each celebrated Christmas with a warm heart despite their rough environment.  Once again Dickens makes an indirect reference to Christianity mentioning its “mighty Founder [who] was a child himself.

And then they were in Fred’s house at the dinner party Scrooge was invited to.  They laugh at Scrooge and how he disdains Christmas.  Fred mocks him too but then reveals that he pities his uncle and intends to keep inviting him to dinner.  Later they play games and Scrooge becomes involved and does not want to leave.  Eventually, the ghost removes Scrooge and they continue their travels.

At some point Scrooge notices that the ghost has grown old.  He tells Scrooge that his life on the earth will end at midnight.  Scrooge sees a hand protruding from the ghost’s robe.  Upon Scrooge’s inquiry the ghost reveals two retched children hiding under his robe.  The boy is “Ignorance” and the girl is “Want,” the ghost tells him.  They are the result of greedy men designing social structures that leave people behind.  If ignored, these children will eventually bring about the doom of mankind.

Have they no refuge or resource?” asks Scrooge.

Are there no prisons?” mocks the ghost using Scrooge’s words against him.  “Are there no workhouses?”

The Ghost of Christmas Present then disappears as the clock strikes midnight.

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Fellow Passengers to the Grave – Thoughts on “A Christmas Carol” Part II

Before Scrooge heads home for the night on Christmas Eve, he has three earthly visitations to his office.  The first (and most important in terms of the circularity of the story) is his nephew Fred.  Fred is an affable fellow and is Scrooge’s only living blood relation in the world.   He has a positive energy about him and wishes his uncle a robust “Merry Christmas.”  Scrooge rebuffs him with his first “Bah Humbug” of the novella.  Fred then launches into a diatribe about the positive things about the Christmas season.

… 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 — 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.  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!

I love the line about people being “fellow-passengers to the grave.”  By this he is saying that life is like a roller coaster ride that we all hopped on to at one point and we are all destined to hop off when the ride is over.  This begs the question, where and who we are when we are not on this ride.  There is also a subdued reference to Christianity but the spiritual universe that eventually unfolds in this story is somewhat different than (but not altogether incompatible with) the spiritual universe typically conceived by traditional Christianity.

Scrooge somewhat out of left field demands of Fred the reason why he got married.  Fred responds, “Because I fell in love.”  Scrooge objects to this reason for financial reasons.  That is, it would be irresponsible to get married if someone did not have enough money to support the family that the marriage generated.  It is funny that despite Scrooge accusing his nephew of being poor and his nephew tacitly agreeing with this description, in every version of “A Christmas Carol” I have ever seen Fred is depicted as well dressed and living in a very well apportioned house.  Perhaps he was living on credit.  At any rate we know that Scrooge’s real (but perhaps subconscious) reason for objecting to Fred’s nuptials is that Scrooge himself had missed out on marrying the woman he had loved for supposed financial reasons.  More on that later when I get to the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Fred then invites Scrooge to dinner on Christmas Day.  Scrooge rejects the invitation thus setting the stage for the story to resolve itself in the end by Scrooge accepting the invitation.  On his way out Scrooge wishes Bob Cratchit (who sympathizes with Fred’s view of Christmas) a Merry Christmas.  Bob is conflicted because he wants to be both loyal to his employer and to his heart at the same time.

The next Earthly visitors are the two gentlemen seeking money for the poor.  Scrooge rudely rebuffs them.  They also set the stage for Scrooge’s eventual redemption.  I don’t consider them as important as Fred in this regard but they do add some extra bulk to it I suppose.  The same is true with the last Earthly visitors, the children caroling outside.  They are also rejected by Scrooge.  There may be a parallel here with the boy outside Scrooge’s window on Christmas morning but I suppose I am getting ahead of myself.

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