The lessons of ‘A Christmas Carol’
By Orlando R. Barone
The Philadelphia Inquirer
As holidays go, Christmas is a modern anomaly. A casual observer of the goings on around the holidays would guess that this is an unapologetic celebration of frantic, grasping acquisitiveness, well-suited to flash sales termed “door busters” in honor of the break-and-enter mentality of ravenous shoppers pounding with fury at store entrances and screaming, “Let us in!”
Yet the stories we narrate, the carols we hear and the movies we cherish tell a contrary tale. I am rereading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a live version of which I attended recently. Scrooge is seen as despicable because he insists his debtors pay their debts, he does what he wants with his own money, and he suggests that poor people who wish to die should get on with it and decrease the surplus population.
In the “holiday classic” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey wishes to die because he is too poor to pay off a $8,000 shortfall at his Building and Loan. He learns soon enough that he has led a terrific life precisely because he put his own wants aside to help others.
On it goes. Oddball Charlie Brown shows his peers that the skinniest tree deserves care and attention. Oddball Rudolph teaches the bullies that he is a reindeer of value. Oddball Drummer Boy gets the nod to play for the newborn king, and the one with no gift to bring brings the finest gift of all.
Anger, greed, and self-seeking are enemies of the Christmas spirit, while peace, generosity, and kindness are its hallmarks. Our secular carols tell the story with images of dreaming by the fire where chestnuts are roasting, of meeting smile after smile on bustling sidewalks, of dashing through the snow, of getting home for the holidays, if only in my dreams.
Gosh, even commercials announce the joy of giving, be it a diamond-studded kiss that begins with Kay, a Lexus wrapped in a giant bow or a gift card for a meal deal at Wendy’s.
Ebenezer Scrooge is the real oddball in this scenario where the impulse to care and to share outpaces the urge to reap and to keep. In fact, as a management consultant, I used to advocate for high salaries for CEOs and other top executives. I argued that keeping them well off pretty much guarantees that they will work for the benefit of the company and its workers.
I didn’t account for the dazzling attraction of covetousness, an attraction that seems to intensify rather than weaken its grip as more and more is procured. Scrooge, it appears, is a hero to some.
As a person who has rarely yearned for luxury, I have a difficult time comprehending the obsessive drive to add wealth to wealth in infinite measure. Then, on a recent night, I arrived at an interesting passage in “A Christmas Carol.”
The Ghost of Christmas Past has delivered Scrooge to a bench where a young Ebenezer sits with his erstwhile fiancee. The woman is distraught as she is about to break the engagement. Ebenezer wants to know why. She tells him she has been replaced by an idol, a golden one.
“You fear the world too much,” she says. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. … The master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.”
Christmas, well understood, frees us from the insanity of accumulating without end in order to ensure against the horror of destitution. Each year the Ghost of Christmas Past rouses us from that fearful slumber and shows us the hope and power of a helpless baby born in the poorest of circumstances, friendless, penniless, his bassinet a feed box. And so we are challenged, once again, to envision a Christmas Yet to Come when every child born to us receives the gift of hospitality, a smile from a welcoming world and plenty of room in the inn.
Orlando R. Barone is a writer in Doylestown, Pa.
Readers may send him email at email@example.com. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.