A Christmas Carol; an Atheist’s Perspective on Christmas

There’s an argument that this story is more responsible for the modern concept of Christmas than the Christian religion.  In brief, the Christmas holiday had actually gone somewhat out of fashion when Dickens wrote this novella, in no small part because fundamentalists had decided the holiday was too frivolous. There’s irony for you. It was a very common, folksy holiday that lots of people were above celebrating. This is why, while Scrooge asking his employees to work on Christmas was a bit mean-spirited, it wasn’t actually shocking. Dickens apparently did have a lot of affection for the holiday; A Christmas Carol is just the most famous of a series of short stories and novellas he wrote, all with the message that Christmas is a wonderful time of joy and goodwill that we should all celebrate more. And good god, did it work.

I was into Christmas specials before they were cool.
I was into Christmas specials before they were cool.

I’m sure most of you have seen any number of versions, from literal takes to one-off spoofs.  Two of my favorite versions are deliberately a bit silly; The Muppet Christmas Carol, and the Doctor Who special with Matt Smith. The formula is so simple, it’s easy to play around with and still produce something meaningful. Even Christmas stories that don’t follow the plot are often influenced by the story; what special doesn’t have a Christmas hating Scrooge?

One of the problems with so many modern Christmas stories is that the connection between the token Scrooge-stand-in’s meanness and their hatred of Christmas is tenuously established. The authors too often rely on genre convention rather than characterization. Dickens, being the originator of this trope, didn’t have this luxury. Instead, he uses Scrooge’s journey to the Christmases of his past to show how he grew up in relative isolation, and how Christmas has consistently been a time when he was offered chances to amend that, and connect to the people around him. Unfortunately, as life’s disappointments piled up and his business became the only meaningful part of his world, he fell into a habit of reflexively rejecting these outstretched hands. Dickens intuitively understood something that, years later, would become a key part of therapy; understanding where bad habits, broken thought patterns and faulty coping strategies came from is the first step in breaking them. That is why “tell me about your childhood” is a cliche of the first therapist session. It works.

While this understanding is still fresh in Scrooge’s mind, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the joy that is all around him. Whether poor or rich, all around him people are enjoying what they have, and most importantly, they are enjoying each other. Scrooge couldn’t see these scenes when he was a part of them. Like a physicist studying a quantum particle, his observations affected the results. Only by becoming an insubstantial, invisible, inaudible spectre could his cynicism be separated enough that he could truly understand what he was missing.

And then the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him what he was heading towards.

Christmas future

The nice thing about this is that he was not being threatened with death (it is inevitable for us all) or even with hell, at least not in Dante’s sense. He was simply being shown that if he died the way he was now, he would forever lose his opportunity to become someone different, someone who would be thought of in a different way. That’s what all of us are in danger of, all the time. There’s no way around it, being human.

Virtue is often taught as something reductive. It’s about avoiding this choice and not eating this food and resisting that temptation. Not so in this story. In fact, Scrooge is an extremely temperate and prudent man. You could even call him fair, in an extremely harsh, capitalistic sort of way. And yet, he is a mean-spirited, miserable old man. A Christmas Carol is designed to teach him additive virtues; to join in the celebrations and community, to waste money giving to somebody who might not be around forever, and do so precisely because they won’t be around forever. He didn’t need a lecture on the value of kindness. He needed to be shown why you would want to share in the experiences of others, and that made him want to be kind.

Alastair Sim
And dance around the room, naturally

That, I think, is the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas has different traditions all over the world, and it has cobbled together paraphenalia from various religions and mythologies, because what you celebrate matters less than that you celebrate. It’s an excuse to make us all call up friends and relatives who live far away, put hours into figuring out the gift that would make someone else’s face light up, and forget about the musical tastes that normally divide us in favor of joining together to belt “Jingle Bells.” It was said best in the Doctor Who version of A Christmas Carol; halfway through the dark, we need a bit of light to keep us going.

Doctor Who

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays, and have a wonderful season whatever you celebrate and wherever you are!

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