Few stories have been so obscured by their own success as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. You’ve no doubt seen one of the many film adaptations (of which the Muppet version is indisputably the best). Maybe you own a “bah humbug” sweater. Or you have a Scrooge McDuck ornament hanging on your tree.
Like so many things about Christmas, it can be hard to see through the accumulated detritus and spot the shining original. For, make no mistake about it, A Christmas Carol is a joyous, brilliant book, as fresh today as it was in 1843.
I’m particularly grateful for its portrayal of a cheerful and openhanded giver. In the age of data-obsessed philanthropy, Ebenezer Scrooge shows us a different way to practice generosity.
It’s a great irony that, despite Scrooge’s dramatic change of heart, his name has come to be associated with greed. To call your boss a “Scrooge” does not mean that he knows “how to keep Christmas well,” as Dickens says of Scrooge in the story’s closing passage. It means he’s a miser, and probably a killjoy. It means he’s like the Scrooge of the novella’s opening chapter, not its last.
But the qualities that Scrooge exhibits following his encounter with the three spirits are the qualities that have come to characterize the Christmas season itself: kindness, good cheer, gratitude, delight. More to the point, Scrooge’s transformation of character would not be complete—indeed, it would almost be unremarkable—without his newfound generosity.
Dickens reminds us that generosity is integral to the well-lived life. For Scrooge to be “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old City knew” was inseparable from his philanthropy. Goodness and giving—Dickens knows and Scrooge demonstrates—are one.
Giving is also, for Scrooge, inseparable from joy. In his repentant state, Scrooge “found that everything could yield him pleasure.” And for him, pleasure takes the form of an almost profligate philanthropy. He takes delight in raising the salary of poor Bob Cratchit. He takes delight in shocking a local fundraiser with a generous donation.
Such delight—even a dialed-down and less Dickensian version—is not often to be found among modern philanthropists. It’s almost inimical to the cerebral, intentionally disinterested approach adopted by so many donors.
Less than 50 years after Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Andrew Carnegie famously wrote that the responsible “man of wealth” should “consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.” The philanthropist is to use “superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for [others] better than they would or could do for themselves.”
You and I would be hard-pressed to come up with a more patronizing and bloodless credo for giving. Yet Carnegie’s ideas can still be seen in the workings of so much contemporary philanthropy.
The great and wonderful truth at the heart of A Christmas Carol is that being generous to others is not merely a way to stimulate “beneficial results” in the community, and there’s nothing superior about it. Generosity is coeternal with joy, and it’s a path to freedom.
A Christmas Carol is fundamentally a story of Scrooge’s liberation. The ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, is weighed down by a chain made of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” Marley warns Scrooge that he has been hard at work fashioning his own chain: “It was full and heavy and long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is a ponderous chain.”
It’s haunting indeed to imagine a chain fashioned from the literal artifacts of wealth. The last of the three ghosts—The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—reveals the indifference and derision with which Scrooge’s death would surely be met by those who know him, given the selfish trajectory of Scrooge’s life.
Yet Scrooge is freed from such a fate. The chains are cast off. In the book’s closing pages, Scrooge calculates nothing. He has left careful calculation behind, in favor of philanthropy, that is, love of neighbor. He gives in hilarity.
May we be so joyful, every one.