“We bid you welcome to this house. It is a place we love and which we tend with care. We do not ask what you believe, or expect you to think the way we do, but only that you try to live a kindly, helpful life, with the dignity proper to a human being.
“Preachers here have the task of presenting religion fearlessly, freely and faithfully.
“Hearers have the responsibility of testing what they hear, not only with the critical mind, but also in the living of every day life.
“The members of this congregation welcome the support of all who believe that religion is wider than any sect and deeper than any set of opinions. And all might find in their friendships strength and encouragement for daily living.”
From the door of the Unitarian Church in Dublin, Ireland
Sermon: “The Day Scrooge Laughed”
On the Sunday before Christmas Eve when it has been my custom to read from Charles Dickens’ wonderful story about Scrooge’s ordeal and ultimate liberation from his repressed memories of the past, and his fear of the future, making him unable to be in the moment.
The reading has always been done without commentary. This year I want to try something different—I want to add some comments about the symbolism I see in the story of Scrooge—why it touches my heart as well as my mind, and how that combination of heart and mind ignites my spirit.
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.
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 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 church.
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 a traditional sense, or it can become overly sentimental by reminding us that those wonderful memories of Christmas past are no longer here, no longer available.
It’s a difficult season, the more so if you do have wonderful memories of Christmas past. Many of our wonderful memories are exaggerated; the nostalgia we feel for things that never actually were so wonderful. We all have a personal mythology—the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves.
Let’s dig in to Dickens’ marvelous myth of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable old miser. He had a partner, Jacob Marley, who pre-deceased him. Marley, I suggest, represents Scrooge’s shadow side, reminding us that we all have a shadow side, as Jung called it. Scrooge has become so very attached to his shadow side. Indeed, in 1843, when this story was published, the dead were referred to as ‘shades.’
What I’m suggesting is that Charles Dickens very cleverly tells us about Marley as a way of telling us about that part of Scrooge which, at the beginning of the story, is dead; but which later comes to life. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Here how the story opens:
“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.”
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 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, no 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. That part of him is ‘dead as a doornail,’ is the phrase Dickens uses to describe Marley, Scrooge’s alter-ego.
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. Memories are ignited by the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge revisits his childhood and learns something from that visit, or that dream. That’s what dreams do—that’s why they can be 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 deliver 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 confinement with this great, spontaneous laugh, like a genii coming out of the bottle, 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; the spirit, or soul, is born the moment the child has his first laugh. It’s a wonderful 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!
The story of the birth of a babe in a manger is one way of telling the story of the miracle of every person’s life—we’re all born into a kind of stable, the natural world, symbolized by a babe lying in a manger, a feeding trough, the place out of which the animals eat, and find their nurturance.
We all start out like that. We need to be received by loving hands. We need to be nurtured, and our need for nurturing never ends. We also need to be reminded that we’re part of nature, like the cattle who were lowing in that barn.
The story of transformation has a beginning, too, but the story of our transformation occurs in the midst of life; again and again. It’s called change or growth. In Scrooge’s case it doesn’t occur until he’s a senior citizen—it’s never too late. It’s about maturity; it’s about wisdom, as opposed to a simple accumulation of knowledge.
Dickens makes a direct connection between tears and laughter, between a sense of humor and a sense of compassion. Laughter and tears are twin brothers; compassion and humor are twin sisters.
After Scrooge’s dreams, his dark night of the soul, after his encounter with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, his sense of humor emerges. Now that’s therapy!
The day Scrooge laughed is the day he came to life, as it were—the day he began a new chapter of life. It happens to all of us, again and again, which is why we never outgrow the need for a good laugh!
‘The day Scrooge laughed’ is our Unitarian description of the true meaning of Christmas day, as told by the Unitarian writer, Charles Dickens. It’s a symbol of the birth of Christ as that spirit or soul-stuff which must be born in us, in each of us; it’s a symbol of our need to develop and nurture a good sense of humor—it’s not about a day on the calendar every year, it’s about the moments in our own lives when the soul is animated. Isn’t that what Christ is? Isn’t that what the Messiah means? Isn’t it about our own capacity for kindness, sympathy and compassion.
Christianity too often becomes a religion about Jesus because it’s easier to worship the gods we invent than to live the life we envision for ourselves and one another.
Dickens’ story demonstrates the religion of Jesus, as summarized on the sermon on the mount—be a good person. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Let’s look again at the way the story unfolds once his anima is animated…once his spirit comes to life on that marvelous Christmas morning—the day Scrooge laughed.
First he buys a big turkey and sends it to Bob Cratchit anonymously—the very idea of anonymous giving tickles him. He laughs when he thinks about making Bob Cratchit and his family happy without taking credit for their happiness.
“I’ll send it to Bon Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He shan’t know who sends it.”
Then, “He dressed himself all in his best, and at last got out into the streets. The people were by this time pouring forth, as he had seen them with the Ghost of Christmas Present; and walking with his hands behind him, Scrooge regarded every one with a delighted smile. He looked so irresistibly pleasant, in a word, that three or four good-humoured fellows said, “Good morning, sir. A merry Christmas to you.” And Scrooge said often afterwards, that of all the blithe sounds he had ever heard, those were the blithest in his ears.
“He had not gone far, when coming on towards him he beheld the portly gentleman, who had walked into his counting-house the day before, and said, “Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe.” It sent a pang across his heart to think how this old gentleman would look upon him when they met; but he knew what path lay straight before him, and he took it.
“My dear sir,” said Scrooge, quickening his pace, and taking the old gentleman by both his hands. “How do you do. I hope you succeeded yesterday. It was very kind of you. A merry Christmas to you, sir!”
“Yes,” said Scrooge. “That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness” — here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favour?”
“My dear sir,” said the other, shaking hands with him. “I don’t know what to say to such mun…muif…munific…”
“Don’t say anything please,” retorted Scrooge. “Come and see me. Will you come and see me?”
“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk — that anything — could give him so much happiness. In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew’s house.
“He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:
“Is your master at home, my dear?” said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl. Very.
“Where is he, my love?” said Scrooge.
“He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.”
“Thank you. He knows me,” said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. “I’ll go in here, my dear.”
He turned it gently, and sidled his face in, round the door. They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.
“Fred!” said Scrooge…
“Why bless my soul!” cried Fred,” who’s that?”
“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?”
Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He (felt) at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier…Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!
“…he was early at the office next morning… If he could only be there first, and catch Bob Cratchit coming late! That was the thing he had set his heart upon.
“And he did it; yes, he did. The clock struck nine. No Bob. A quarter past. No Bob. He was full eighteen minutes and a half behind his time. Scrooge sat with his door wide open, that he might see him come into the Tank.
“His hat was off, before he opened the door; his comforter too. He was on his stool in a jiffy; driving away with his pen, as if he were trying to overtake nine o’clock.
“Hallo,” growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?”
“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Bob. “I am behind my time.”
“You are?” repeated Scrooge. “Yes. I think you are. Step this way, if you please.”
“It’s only once a year, sir,” pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. “It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.”
“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again; “and therefore I am about to raise your salary.”
“Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.”
“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
“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”
The day Scrooge laughed he shook off the shackles of his past—symbolized by the chains that Jacob Marley lugged around. This is what real religion should do—it should be liberating. Too often it is the opposite of liberation!
That which was dead in Scrooge was alive again, that day, and he stuck his head out the window and saw the golden sunlight, and felt the brisk fresh air of a new day.
The day Scrooge laughed he was liberated from his shadow side and he became a good man. Then he knew that if there was ‘any good thing he could do or any kindness he could show, to any person, he’d better do it now, he’d better not defer or neglect it, for he knew that he would not pass that way again.’
And that’s the point of this little sermon, and really the point about all sermons: it’s about laughter and tears; it’s about the source of sympathy and compassion, which may be all we need to know about God’s presence. Scrooge laughed on Christmas day, animating his soul, or giving birth to his Christ nature.
What more do we need to know about God? Isn’t the presence of sympathy and compassion, indicated by tears and laughter, enough? We don’t need complicated theologies which become argumentative and divisive. Those old theologies not only divide us from one another, setting the saved against the unsaved, the true believers against the infidels, but that kind of theology divides us against ourselves. It divides us from our true nature—which knows nothing about God, but knows enough to feel God’s presence moving in our lives, at the deepest level.
Dickens paints a portrait of a deeply moving, religious, spiritual experience. In the end it’s all about being a good person, which is what we’re struggling to become, again and again.
‘May that be truly said of us, and all of us! God bless us, every one!’
‘Give us, Lord, a bit o’ sun
a bit o’ work and a bit o’ fun;
give us all in the struggle and sputter
our daily bread and a bit o’ butter;
give us health, our keep to make,
and a bit to spare for other’s sake;
give us sense, for we’re some of us duffers,
an’ a heart to feel for all that suffers;
give us, too, a bit of song
and a tale and a book to help us along,
an’ give us our share o’ sorrows’ lesson
that we may prove how grief’s a blessin’.
Give us, Lord, a chance to be
Our goodly best, brave, wise and free,
Our goodly best for ourself and others
Till we all learn to be sisters and brothers.”
– From the wall of an old inn, Lancaster, England