What would Christmas be without Charles Dickens’ wonderful story about Scrooge? The first four ‘staves,’ as Dickens called the chapters in his story, led up to the fifth stave when Scrooge wakes up – I doubt that Dickens had the Buddha in mind, but it strikes me as an example of the kind of ‘waking up’ talked about in Buddhism…to be awake is synonymous with being enlightened; to be enlightened is, first and foremost, to appreciate the life you are living here and now.
At the beginning of stave V, Scrooge wakes up. In staves two, three and four Scrooge, alone in his bed chamber, where he has an encounter with his past, present and future. I’m reminded of the story in Genesis 32:24: “Jacob was alone and he wrestled with a man until the breaking of the day.”
Scrooge was certainly alone – his behavior and attitude guaranteed that he’s be alone…and he wrestled with a man – the man with whom he wrestled was an unhappy man, and unfulfilled man, characterized by a stingy, negative, sour attitude summarized in that immortal exclamation, ‘bah, humbug!’
Scrooge wanted to run away from his over-night ordeal – he was afraid of facing himself, but his dreams demanded attention, which dreams tend to do, even in our sleep.
In his dream of Christmas Past Scrooge wrestled with oppressive memories of a road not taken; in his dream of Christmas present be wrestled with the man he had become; and in his dream of Christmas future he wrestled with his fear of where he was headed.
His fears made unable to be truly alive, or ‘awake,’ in the moment.
In the Biblical story, Jacob woke up after wrestling all night long and he was given a blessing — in the morning his name was changed from Jacob to Israel.
Scrooge woke up and he, too, felt blessed – he was a changed man, he ‘got it,’ as we say, he understood something that he never understood or appreciated before, which suggests a Buddhist kind of enlightenment – to be awake is to become the Buddha.
Scrooge woke up on Christmas Day, which suggests, to me, the deeper meaning of Christmas – it’s about a miraculous birth, your own, and a kind of rebirth, a chance to try again – to try living in the fullness of the time we’re given, which we need to experience again and again, in a lifelong process of liberating ourselves from regrets and fears – to live with regret is to be locked out of the moment; to live with fear is to be denied access to living as fully as it is possible to live.
Let’s look at the story again and see what has been added since last year’s exploration, what new insights jump out, what new meanings emerge from the sharp symbolism in the story of Scrooge’s ordeal and to see again why it touches the heart as well as my mind, and how it takes that combination of heart and mind to ignite the Holy Spirit, if you will, to be awake!
Dickens prefaced his well-known story with this brief statement:
“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” Their faithful Friend and Servant, C. D. December, 1843
To haunt is to inhabit, to visit, to come to mind, to be continually present. ‘May it haunt their houses pleasantly,’ he says; may it be a reminder of deep truths about being a person.
We don’t use that old English expression ‘out of humor with themselves,’ but we know what he meant—he didn’t want his story to put you in a bad mood. Quite the opposite; he wanted his story to put us in a good mood by getting in touch with the deeper meanings of the Christmas season, told with poetry, songs and legends.
Charles Dickens was a member of the Unitarian Church in London. He said that he got the idea for A Christmas Carol after attending a Christmas Eve service at his Unitarian church in 1842.
He acknowledges that there are things about the Christmas season that can, indeed, put one ‘out of humor.’ The holiday season is intended to inject some cheer into the dark cold days, but it can easily become too commercial, too religious in the sense that it causes arguments or disagreements about the truths in it; or it can become overly sentimentalized by reminding us that those wonderful memories of Christmas past are no longer here, no longer available.
When the story opens we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable old miser. He had a partner, Jacob Marley, who pre-deceased him. Marley, I have long felt, represents Scrooge’s shadow side, reminding us that we all have a shadow side, as Jung called it. Scrooge was very attached to his shadow side. Indeed, in 1843, when this story was published, the dead were referred to as ‘shades,’ reminding us of shadow.
What I’m suggesting is that Charles Dickens very cleverly tells us about Marley as a way of telling us that the most important part of Scrooge was ‘dead as a door nail.’
The story begins with these words: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was dead as a doornail. Mind I don’t mean to say that I know myself what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I’m more of a mind to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile, and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it or the country’s done for. Therefore, permit me to repeat emphatically that Marley was dead.
“Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did, for he and Scrooge were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner.
“And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.”
Do you see what I mean about Marley representing an aspect of Scrooge? ‘They were partners for I don’t know how many years.’ Marley is that part of Scrooge which is dead, or so dormant that it seems to be dead. He is completely without sympathy, compassion or humor.
Look again at Dickens’ wonderful description of Scrooge:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.
“He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him.
“The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
“Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”
“But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance…”
Scrooge has no sympathy, no compassion, no humor – no humanity; no sense of belonging, no sense that he had ‘promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.’
Dickens first points out his lack of sympathy with his servant, Bob Cratchit, then with his nephew, with whom he refuses to have Christmas dinner. He underscores the point with the story of the gentlemen who are raising money for the poor. One says: “At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population…Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Later we learn about the ‘wars that are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone’ in Scrooge. Remember the poem by Miller Williams:
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
The visit of the three ghosts gives us a look into that place where the spirit meets the bone in Scrooge. It is symbolized by the ghosts, his repressed memories, to use the psychoanalytic term. When we look inside we see how the spirit of sympathy was repressed in his childhood, and how the spirit of compassion and love was repressed in his young adulthood.
Those memories are sparked by the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge revisits his childhood and learns something from that dream. That’s what dreams do—that’s why they can be healing…therapeutic.
Dickens is saying that Scrooge was numbed by early experience—his compassion is not really dead, but it lies dormant, waiting to come to life—waiting to be ‘animated,’ as the Greeks put it; waiting for the kiss which brought Sleeping Beauty back to life. It’s an old theme.
Scrooge’s dreams are powerful—they’re like jumper cables that charge the dead battery—the battery that went dead in those early developmental years.
I like the image of Scrooge sleeping, but not the kind of sleeping we do at night. He was sleeping in a Buddhist sense. His insights caused him to wake up. The word Buddha literally means ‘one who is awake.’
Scrooge’s visits by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future turn out to be his Bodhi tree experience, from which he emerges as a Buddha—a man of compassion.
Here’s the passage about Scrooge waking up on Christmas morning:
“Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!”
Now that’s a perfect description of the story of the Buddha emerging from his forty days of darkness under the bodhi tree, the day he ‘woke up.’ It’s the addict’s experience of hitting bottom, then finally getting sober. Many an alcoholic marks their mental calendar with that date!
Scrooge asks a boy outside his window what day it is: “Why it’s Christmas day, of course.”
Scrooge says, “I haven’t missed it. Yes, the spirits did it all in one night—they can do anything they want to do.”
Then he sends the boy on an errand to buy the biggest turkey, which he plans to have delivered anonymously to Bob Cratchit as a gesture of his newfound generosity, and his regained sense of humor; he’s not going to tell Bob Cratchit who sent it; anonymous giving is high up on the ladder of giving.
He says to himself, “I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s! rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!” With his new-found sense of humor he compares himself to Joe Miller, who was known for his gags, his sense of humor.
Then comes one of my all-time favorite lines:
“The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.”
Once his spirit is animated, released from its confinement, he lets out this great, spontaneous laugh, like a genii coming out of the bottle. Then Scrooge moves to a deeper level: ‘he chuckled till he cried.’
Tears and laughter are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the newly animated spirit. Tears and laughter are woven with generosity, sympathy and compassion.
The ancient Greeks believed that the spiritual life – the life of the soul – does not begin at birth; they say that the soul is born the moment the child has his first laugh. It’s a poetic idea.
Barry Sanders, in his serious book about the origins and meanings of humor: Sudden Glory—Humor as Subversive History, summarizes the Greek philosopher’s view:
“Through laughing, the anima becomes animated. The simple act of laughing is fraught with significance, for it marks the beginning, in the ancient world, of each person’s spiritual journey.” Every laugh animates the spirit, pushing endorphins through the body, bringing a relief to physical pain and mental anguish.
The anima is the soul; the true self; the inner self. In Jungian psychology the anima is the feminine aspect of the personality, which is present in men as well as women. Scrooge is a prime example of the person about whom the Stoics warned us: one who takes himself much too seriously.
G. K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
The story of Scrooge is the story of transformation—it’s a born-again story that even we Unitarian types can appreciate! It’s a dramatic representation of the opening lines of Stanley Kunitz’s poem, The Layers:
“I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I’m not who I was though some principle of being abides from which I struggle not to stray…”
The story of Scrooge’s transformation doesn’t occur until he’s in the final chapter of his life, suggesting that it’s never too late. It’s about maturity v. simply getting old; it’s about wisdom, v. knowledge.
I’ll remind you of the closing passage to the story, and use it to close this sermon. You recall that Scrooge promised to keep the spirit of Christmas, and Dickens writes:
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. “
“…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One”