Could the Three Ghosts of Christmas Save the Scrooges of the Trump Era?
Why "A Christmas Carol" is especially poignant today
Every year at about this time, Americans gather together in the dark to tell ourselves the story of a rich and powerful man who has his heart broken and rebuilt by the spirits of Christmas. It’s an English story, but it has held this country rapt for centuries. It’s a ghost story, but it works to ease our fears, not raise them. And we are, at present, very afraid.
It’s mid-December, 2017, I’ve never been so acutely aware of the whims of old rich men with power over me, and I am thinking about “A Christmas Carol.”
In the current moment, there’s almost something degenerate about being moved by this overworked Victorian yarn. In other, more American Christmas stories, the populace — aided by the power of love or belief or whatever — bands together to defy their oppressors. But in this story, supernatural forces rip the oppressor from his bed, force him to confront himself, and use the magic of theater to turn him into some kind of twinkly proto-socialist. I happen to be a playwright, which means as a matter of doctrine I believe in the transforming power of a narrative in the dark, but this is going a little too far. Humbug, if you’ll pardon the reference.
Still, the story gets to me, sometimes in weird ways. A few days ago, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer posted a picture of FDR’s copy of “A Christmas Carol” on Instagram. He labeled it “FDR’s book of Christmas carols.” His apparent total ignorance of Dickens spurred joyous mockery from most of Twitter, but what I felt was a momentary pang of rapture. I was seized with a wild hope that he hadn’t read it—yet.
The fantasy of “A Christmas Carol,” that the hearts of the powerful can be magically changed, has never felt more seductive than it does this year — and it’s never been clearer that it’s a fantasy. Rich old men (and not so old) with boggling power are dismantling even the insufficient traditions of charity and care that we used to have. Can we imagine something — a ghost, a magic trick, a story — that would change their minds?
In his preface, Dickens writes, “I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” Another thing about being a playwright is that you know a lot of theater people. And since a Christmas Carol, in one form or another (Burlesque, Klingon, etc.) is the most produced play in America, that means I know a lot of people who have worked to raise this particular Ghost of an Idea. Despite the parody versions, there is usually a strict traditionalism in these productions. Actors will gossip about who got which role, but no-one is expecting a new production to turn the world on its head. For an actor, “A Christmas Carol” is as reliable as weather.
But what is this ghost? I’ve been thinking about what my friend Molly Brennan, (a noted Chicago clown currently playing Past in Chicago’s big traditional “Carol”), said, only a bit sarcastically, while celebrating her big new role: “Aren’t you happy the rich old white man is happy?” She was, I think, positing this as the story of a single soul’s conversion and redemption. Viewed in this light it is ridiculous. A man who has no right to be happy learns to be happy.
But no one identifies with Scrooge at the beginning — or even at the end. We are always among the sensible people that Scrooge cheats, stymies, and insults in the book’s opening pages, when he plays comedy villain to a succession of Christmas-loving straight men. Rereading those pages, I realized that Scrooge was not the busy, dismissive, repressed Englishman I remembered, but a flamboyant and witty asshole who is in markedly better mood after getting off a good zinger about decreasing the surplus population. In short, a troll. Dickens tells us in so many words that Scrooge likes the negative reactions he gets, and provides a typically vivid description of him edging down “the crowded paths of life,” scowling at strangers, owning the libs.
The mechanism of the story is not to bring us closer to him, but to bring him closer to us. It’s not about Scrooge being happy, it’s about him finally agreeing with the basic philosophy outlined by his nephew Fred in the first scene. As a child, this scene gave me the vague idea that Scrooge disliked Christmas—that he somehow objected to presents, or tinsel, or just the phrase “Merry Christmas” itself. But it’s not that. Scrooge disagrees with what Dickens makes Christmas represent. Fred lays it out plainly: “Christmastime is 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.”
Our current Scrooges are actually big fans of the phrase “Merry Christmas” — only Christmas, of course, not “holidays” — but they still reject everything that, for Fred and Dickens, Christmas really means. The fantasy of “A Christmas Carol” is the fantasy that people who reject this worldview — what Dickens called his “Carol Philosophy” — can be taught to “open their shut up hearts” and recognize that we are all “fellow passengers to the grave.” This is not a concept alien to the Cratchits. Death stalks their hearth in the tragically cute form of Tiny Tim. But something about Scrooge — his wealth, his cussedness, his tedious childhood rich boy traumas — makes him consider himself exempt. Until, of course, the ghosts show him his final destination.
Once Scrooge is brought into line with the Carol Philosophy, he fixes everything within his personal sphere of influence, implementing a living wage, universal Cratchit healthcare, and major wealth redistribution. Does it matter to the Cratchits if he does this out of fellow feeling or rank terror? Are they happy that the rich old white man is happy? (In the process, of course, he does become happy, but that’s not the point. Of course he’s happy. If we could all agree that no families should go bankrupt providing healthcare for sick children, we’d all be happy, wouldn’t we?)
There is evidence that “A Christmas Carol” was political from its inception. In 1843, Dickens, after reading a parliamentary report on child labor, wrote to the report’s commissioner with a plan for a pamphlet “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” He wrote again a few days later, teasing a different project: ”You will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force — twenty thousand times the force — I could exert by following out my first idea.”
He gave no details, but many people enjoy thinking that this is the origin of “A Christmas Carol” (even though it happened in March, months before he started writing it). It’s appealing to imagine Dickens stomping down the streets of London, feeling helpless and infuriated, planning a think piece and then pulling back, remembering his powers, deciding no, no: a story.
It is a story about a rich old man who is confronted by his place in the world, and changes, just as we would want such a man in our own world to change. The audience for “A Christmas Carol” is mostly Freds, hoping and hoping to get this narrative in front of a Scrooge. “I think I shook him,” says Original Fred, after standing up to his uncle with the full force of Dickens’ philosophy. And lo, Scrooge was shook.
Are there magic words that will summon Christmas spirits? Or at least give old men bad dreams? The question keeps us up late, writing, or walking the streets of the city (like Dickens did when he was racing to finish his story for a holiday printing), and I think it will for all the years to come.
Dickens, not offering us a secret to take back the Senate or to rebuild the strength of the unions, did find magic words of a kind. Few stories are better at summoning grace on the page. If, like me, you’re not a believer, grace is the bone-felt knowledge that you are lucky to be alive, that out of the .04 percent of matter that can even interact with itself, you are part of the tiniest and most privileged fraction that can think, speak, and feel. The three spirits, who seem to respectfully acknowledge the “Christ” in Christmas as one does a well-regarded colleague who works in another department, are optimized to engage my atheistic idea of grace. Past, the white-haired recording angel, with its duty to treat each human existence as a precious history. Present, with its magical table of food, demonstrating life’s generosity. And Yet to Come, the kicker, here to remind you of the alternative.
Reading “Carol,” we remember that the earth is bountiful, and that humans are kind, gracious and capable. We remember that none of it — simply none of it — has to be this way. And we remember it for the same reason that that Scrooge does. We have been shown the alternative: the bony pointing finger, the stripped bed, and the grave. There is no buffer of wealth or luck or sociopathy that can make the specter of death a problem for other people. Scrooge is shown pity and love, and swears that he has learned his lesson, but he will not be done until knows fear — the hideous prospect of dying alone and hated. The spirits grab him from his insulated pile of wealth, and pull him down to our level, and we embrace him — a fellow passenger.
Do the Scrooges of 2017 know about the alternative to life? Is the problem that they need to learn the fear of death, or that they are too afraid to acknowledge its possibilities? Are we comforted by this story because it tells us that such men can change, or because it reminds us that they can die?
Scrooge jumps out of bed in the morning, and asks what day it is and then he fixes all of his bullshit just like that. Why? Because it’s Christmas Day, and it is not too late. The spirits perform a little theater — the kind of thing I believe in, the kind of thing Dickens believed in, a story in a darkened room — and suddenly Scrooge is feeling exactly what we feel. Our fear. Our love. Our gratitude. It is almost Christmas. It is always almost Christmas. All it would take is one sleepless night, one story, one song to take us to that morning. I just want the spirits to come. I just want to have faith.
Originally published December 21, 2017