Episodes: Why A Christmas Carol endures



When I interviewed him at the end of The Leftovers' second season, Damon Lindelof said something that's stuck with me ever since. The best stories, he suggested, are all about transformation on some level. I'm sure if you and I sat down, we could come up with some really great stories that have no transformative aspects to them, but the reason we talk so much about "arcs" in stories is because what we're looking for is the point B that emerges from everything that happens after point A.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most famous stories every written. Long after everything else he was responsible for has become something only of interest to literary scholars (something that has arguably already happened, though it shouldn't have), Charles Dickens will have attained immortality entirely because of Ebenezer Scrooge, three ghosts, and a miraculous Christmas morning. It's a tale that's been adapted hundreds of times, and those adaptations almost always work, because the core story is so damn good.

And what is that core story? It's about a man who — to those observing him — completely transforms overnight. (From Scrooge's perspective, it took a handful of nights, but it was still a pretty compressed time frame.) And Dickens doesn't just have Scrooge transform via supernatural means. He earns it.

The Christmas ghost story is a long-standing tradition, one I wish would come back into vogue. Ghosts have mostly been shipped off to Halloween, where they fit a little more uneasily than they might. Sure, ghosts are spooky, but their animating emotion isn't really fear in the way it is for, say, zombies. No, ghosts are all about regret, memory, and the pain of the past. Christmas is so often about looking backward — at past holidays, or at the year wrapping up from underneath you, or just at the people you've lost along the way — that ghosts are a natural fit for it.

But what's interesting about Dickens's tale is that he doesn't really use ghosts in the traditional sense. Sure, Marley is an old-fashioned visitor from beyond the grave. But the story's other apparitions are either eerie manifestations that act as set dressing — like the hearse that follows Scrooge upstairs as he heads up for his late Christmas Eve reverie, or the wailing spirits out in the street, longing to help a woman shivering in the cold — or the three famous ghosts at the story's center, who are perhaps more properly explained as something closer to the Christian notion of angels. (They are not so very far from how Clarence functions over in It's a Wonderful Life, come to think of it.)

But they are unearthly, and they are spooky. Christmas Past isn't quite stable. It shimmers in the way a memory does, not solid and a little hazy. Christmas Present has that whole thing where he ages as he and Scrooge embark on their journey and he's hiding the specters of Want and Ignorance beneath his robes. And I don't need to tell you why Yet to Come is such a creepy figure.

What's fascinating to me when I revisit Christmas Carol is how much of it is, yes, about having charity toward your fellow man year-round, and not just at Christmas, but also about how it involves Scrooge's reconnection with a world he'd voluntarily checked out of. The early portions of the book, which mostly involve him puttering about to establish the "humbug!" of it all, are filled with sections where life is going on around Scrooge, and he is the rock that forms the rapid, the bump in the road everyone must work around. Think, for instance, of how he takes his dinner in a little pub, but doesn't seem to interact with anyone there, or how he treats everyone he meets with snide condescension.

I happened upon a thing Ronald Reagan once wrote about a "conservative" Christmas Carol, which would involve Scrooge telling Bob Cratchit to pull himself up by his bootstraps and stop asking for extra time off or something like that. And while I'm guessing if Charles Dickens wandered into the modern American political landscape, he'd skew more toward the Democratic Party than the GOP, Reagan's bromide largely misses the point of Scrooge's true change of heart, which has no real political context — or shouldn't, rather. This is a story about a psychological deep dive, designed to force one man to think about why he shut off the parts of himself that could love other human beings, realize that there's a wealth of people who would love to know him, and show him the natural end of someone who is disconnected and unloved.

The central argument of A Christmas Carol isn't "be kind to your fellow man" or "don't horde your money" or even "ghosts can do amazing things" (though all of that is in there). No, the central argument of A Christmas Carol is don't miss what's happening. Christmas is a time to take stock, a time to look back, a time to realize that the ghost who's haunting you has always been yourself. (The one thing I like about the 2009 CG version of the story is that Jim Carrey plays both Scrooge and the three ghosts.) People need other people, Dickens suggests, and to deny this is to deny your humanity.

It's fitting this story has endured, then, because this idea is at the center of the secular Christmas that is increasingly the dominant version of the holiday around the world. Once a year, we can put aside our differences and appreciate those around us. Once a year, we can look back at our past selves, take stock of our present selves, and imagine our future selves. Once a year, we find a way to make time for reflection, for a few days at least. And it's only after we take that time that we can truly transform.

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One more newsletter for the year, with a Christmas special tomorrow. (I realize that most of you are reading this on Christmas Day, but I'm still up from Eve and, thus, will consider the next post to be the official Christmas one.) Then, I'll be taking the next week off, returning on January 4, possibly with a slightly lightened posting schedule.

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.