Summary: I once saw a sign outside a church that made me smile. ‘Merry Christmas,’ it said, ‘to our Christian friends. Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends. And to our atheist friends, good luck.’ Times are changing!
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‘I have endeavoured in this little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly...’ Charles Dickens, December 1843
I once saw a sign outside a church that made me smile. ‘Merry Christmas,’ it said, ‘to our Christian friends. Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends. And to our atheist friends, good luck.’ Times are changing! Today, we live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, and that sign said it all. Our society is like a melting pot, with all sorts of cultural and religious flavours thrown in, stirred around, and seasoned to personal taste.
Today, many people have developed a consumerist way of seeing religion, in which they ‘pick and mix’ their favourite faiths and spirituality like a selection of sweets. But even though I enjoy variety, I don’t completely buy the consumerist way when it comes to spiritual faith. Christianity, which began with Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem, comes with a price.
The Good News is that it’s a price money could never buy...
Christmas is here again, the festival that calls from its ancient past to our present. You might feel that you are familiar with the story that you know it and that you don’t need to take another look.
But we can all get so used to things that we ignore the detail. We think we know what it’s all about, but do we really?
Take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Published in 1843, it’s one of the best-loved stories to be set at this time of year. We probably think we know the story back to front. After all, it’s been adapted into over 200 films, and is such a powerful tale that it’s credited with helping to define our contemporary understanding of Christmas.
But a fresh look at this all-time classic, reminds us that it’s far more than just a feel-good festive tale featuring a miserly old humbug with one of the oldest catchphrases in the world. In fact, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his tormenting spirits helps us to consider what is of eternal value, here in the 21st century. For that reason alone, it’s worth a closer inspection.
Dickens set out to persuade his readers to summon the spirit of Christmas not just for a week in December, but also for all the year round. His message, sent deep from within the 19th century, resonates with us today. It has a timeless, universal quality, like all the best works of art.
The book’s main character, of course, is the mean and intimidating Ebenezer Scrooge, who lives to make money and very little else. He certainly has no use for religion or sentimentality.
One Christmas Eve, however, Scrooge receives a terrifying wake-up call. The spirit of his business partner, Jacob Marley, who died seven Christmas Eves previous and was a miser like Scrooge, comes to visit, bound and wrapped in terrible chains. Marley has been condemned to roam the face of the earth, tormented in death by the things he neglected to value in life.
He is desperate to give his old colleague a final chance to avoid the same fate. ‘My spirit never walked beyond our counting house,’ he warns Scrooge. ‘My spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money changing hole...’ This, he makes clear, is Scrooge’s last opportunity to turn from his ignorant, selfish, insular ways. Marley’s spirit instructs him to wait for three more spirits ¬of Christmas past, present and future. Reluctantly, Scrooge understands that this is for real, as he sees Marley float away to join a crowd of tormented souls who are wailing and moaning in the night sky.
On the stroke of one o’clock, the spirit of Christmas Past arrives, and draws back the curtain from around Scrooge’s bed to reveal his face. He takes him on an unforgettable trip down memory lane, on a visit to his own childhood. Scrooge is astonished to see old, familiar faces playing happily in the open air. As the spirit takes him into a schoolroom, however, they see a lonely little boy sitting by the fire, whose only companion is the book he is reading.
Scrooge remembers his loneliness, and how he longed for the presence and warmth of friends. He recalls his past desires for the love and approval of his family, but then sees all the people who tried to reach out to him, who attempted to stop his slide into self-absorption and an increasing preoccupation with personal security.