A 2009 Christianity Today article reminded us of the setting in history:
“Published in 1843 as a statement against harsh child labor practices, A Christmas Carol carried poignancy in its original context that is difficult to fully grasp today. The severity of living conditions in 19th-century London, combined with the ambivalence of its “paternalistic” legal courts, illustrated so well in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), is hard to exaggerate. The disparity in standard of living between the top quarter of London's population and the bulk of its citizens was stark.” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/december/3.44.html
For the “Tiny Tims” of those times, conditions could be quite miserable.
“Children growing up in London during the Hungry Forties—a depression coupled with poor harvests—were steeped in these disparities. The skyline was a sea of profitable smokestacks puffing clouds of sooty grit that covered rooftops and the cheeks of young chimney sweeps. Coal was the energy source du jour, and the resulting London fog often hid the real picture. The streets were covered in rainwater, the contents of chamber pots, and animal waste. Rats abounded. Small, often emaciated, children sold flowers and matches, while the wealthy class’s horse-drawn carriages swept past, throwing grime and muck on those too poor to afford transportation. Despite the horrid conditions, the birth rate rose as mortality rates fell: more children now lived than died. And as the population grew, so did the price of food.”
Charles Dickens had a heart for action. His life portrays a reformer with a conscience. It’s recorded he set up a house for rescuing, reforming, and educating prostitutes in 1845.
For many social issues of the day government provided little relief. The church in England at that time also seemed weak in efforts to meet the cries of human need.
One can see why a clarion call to many uncaring elites would capture Dickens’ writing imagination. And what better name to attach to a penny pinching, self interested miser than Ebenezer Scrooge! Who could not feel the tension in the absence of helping a family with a poor crippled boy like Tim Cratchit?
It should be noted that Tiny Tim was just one of many seemingly innocent, angelic, and victimized small children who had grim futures in several of Dickens’ works. There were many more characters he included that faced deep suffering.
The stirring messages conveyed in A Christmas Carol reach us at many levels. We feel sensitive to the burdens of workers who perhaps feel overworked. We have some anger at a seemingly cruel boss who could not care less about his employees. We feel the pain of parents who struggle with raising a child with special needs. And our own souls are troubled by the stark challenges the ghosts of past, present, and future might lay upon us.
Yet in the end, we also see a redemptive message. We find a changed heart and renewed sense of purpose in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge. It isn’t just in his clearly refined attitude; it is in his actions as well. This is the telltale sign of what spiritual renewal is all about.
Charles Dickens’ personal spiritual life is somewhat hard to fully pin down. He attended an Anglican church. Yet his beliefs were Unitarian.
A Christian History story titled “No Humbug” observes:
“His God blessed all, his Christ was a very good man, his religious countenanced no creeds, and his Bible yielded only noble precepts for living.”
In his own words: “It is christianity to do good always—even to those who do evil to us. It is christianity to love our neighbor as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them do to us. It is christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love him by humbly trying to do right in everything.”
The article concludes with a reminder that no Christ appears in A Christmas Carol, adding that this perhaps explains why network television and school productions find it acceptable. Perhaps if we asked Dickens, he might offer some variation on the idea that the Gospel can be preached without laying out a specific theology.
Our favorite version of this classic seasonal story seems to be The Muppets Christmas Carol with The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens and Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit. Who else but Miss Piggy could play Emily Cratchit? I personally like Rizzo the Rat in his role. And we’re also fond of all the little mice—or “meeces” as they are called.
Despite the somewhat less serious approach to the Muppets production, the message is clear. Hope abounds at the conclusion of the film. Which is the way it should be.
Christmas time is about hope. And it’s to be found regardless of how bleak circumstances can appear.
The apostle Peter reminds us of this:
“Let us thank the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was through His loving-kindness that we were born again to a new life and have a hope that never dies. This hope is ours because Jesus was raised from the dead. We will receive the great things that we have been promised. They are being kept safe in heaven for us. They are pure and will not pass away. They will never be lost…With this hope you can be happy even if you need to have sorrow and all kinds of tests for awhile.” (1 Peter 1:3-6, NLV)
With that in mind, may you experience the hope found in Christmas.
And God bless us every one.
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