Charles Dickens’ cautionary tale about the emotional
blackmail behind Christmas is often misinterpreted.
December is here and yet again Christmas makes its horribly garish intrusions onto our winter horizon. The nightmarish swindle now infests every nook and cranny of daily life so perhaps we should take a little time to remind ourselves of
the real warning behind Dickens’ obliquely crafted tale.
It is the night before Christmas and at the end of a working day Ebenezer Scrooge, a thrifty and conscientious businessman has a few words with his clerk Bob Cratchit who timidly but firmly insists on having Christmas off with full pay.
"You'll want all
day to-morrow, I suppose?" said Scrooge.
convenient," said Scrooge, "and it's not fair. If I was to stop
half-a-crown for it, you'd
think yourself ill-used,
I'll be bound?"
The clerk smiled
Later that evening Scrooge encounters the ghost of his
erstwhile partner Marley. As any good friend would do, Marley’s ghost warns
Scrooge that three more spectres will try to entice his old friend away from
the paths of sober competence and do their supernatural best to persuade him to
initiate the welfare state single-handedly. Lots of dismal wailing and rattling of spectral chains hammer
home the message. Understandably Scrooge is somewhat uneasy as he takes to his
bed that night.
The first spectre to appear as foretold by Marley is the ghost
of Christmas past which appears at Scrooge’s modest bedside during the night.
This first spectre takes Scrooge into his own past, showing him how he first set
foot on the rungs of the business ladder, wisely ditching a clingy and
potentially expensive fiancée at an early stage.
Unfortunately these pleasant scenes of his early years only
serve to upset Scrooge’s moral equilibrium to such a degree that he almost
regrets his outstanding success as a businessman. In particular, a former
tightwad employer named Fezziwig is shown in a highly favourable light as he
entertains his staff on Christmas Eve with minimal expenditure and no lost
matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so full of
The Spirit signed to
him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in
praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said, "Why! Is it not? He has
spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so
much that he deserves this praise?"
A small matter indeed. Crafty old Fezziwig - although by now
Scrooge is so stunned that he does not see that it is indeed a small matter.
The second ghost of Christmas present is initially more
promising in that he is introduced as being surrounded by a vast heap of Christmas
goodies of the edible variety. It is worth mentioning at this point that
Scrooge’s diet is possibly a little narrow so the abundant if ghostly Christmas
fare may contain a reasonable dietary message.
Heaped up on the
floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn,
great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies,
plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples,
juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of
punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon
this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch,
in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light
on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.
exclaimed the Ghost. "Come in! and know me better, man!"
However the initial promise is not maintained as the ghost of
Christmas present manages to insinuate the suggestion that such goodies and
much, much more might be given away to feckless folk who have not paid for
them. Still stunned by the whole experience Scrooge seems inclined to agree with
such reckless extravagance.
The third ghost of Christmas future in more of a realist who
by dramatic devices manages to suggest that Scrooge is surrounded by thieves
who after his death would strip his dead body, steal his bed hangings and sell
everything they could lay their hands on. So far so good but there is a sting
in the tail. The ghost of Christmas future somehow manages to leave Scrooge
with the impression that he may as well give things away now because after his
death they will be stolen anyway.
For some unaccountable reason all this ghostly propaganda
leaves Scrooge in a state of manic elation when he finally wakes up on
Christmas morning. Neither narcotics nor alcohol are involved because Dickens
clearly intended to highlight the perils of the most intense and unrelenting propaganda
on an otherwise sober mind.
By Christmas morning Scrooge is so out of it that he even
sends a large turkey to that financially feckless employee Bob Cratchit. Small
income but a large family – that’s Bob Cratchit. If only we had imbibed this
key message from the master story teller, but we never did.
And so began the first stirrings of emotional incontinence.
One might almost suggest that Dickens invented it as a warning to us all, but
somehow we turned it into soppy sentimentalism and have suffered for our mistake ever since.