Scholar Michael Patrick Hearn, in The Annotated Christmas Carol (1976; New York:
Norton, 2004), notes that Dickens was a Unitarian. Unitarian Christianity, in Dickens'
day, focused more on morality and ethics than on traditional theology. Dickens wrote in
one of his letters, "I have always striven in my writings to express the veneration for the
life and lessons of our Savior . . ." (Hearn, p. 143). While silent here regarding the
traditional claim of Jesus' full divinity, Dickens clearly feels passionately about Jesus'
full humanity. For Dickens, Jesus is the perfect example of a godly, loving life. Jesus, in
Dickens' mind, teaches us what it is to be human. Given this background, readers may
consider A Christmas Carol to be an extended meditation on and illustration of one of
Jesus' central moral teachings, as recorded in the New Testament: "For what is a man
advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?" (Luke 9:25,
KJV). Scrooge has pursued the wealth of "the whole world" for his whole life-but, as
his ghostly encounters prove, Scrooge's real life is in grave danger. And while details
surrounding Marley's Ghost (e.g., the hot breeze stirring his hair) suggest that Scrooge's
eternal life is jeopardized, the whole of A Christmas Carol emphasizes the importance
and urgency of a life-giving, life-changing engagement with our fellow human beings
(not, one notes, the adherence or lack thereof to "orthodox" religious doctrine!). The
book leaves its readers with the understanding that Scrooge-and, by extension, we
ourselves-ought to be more concerned with the quality of our lives here and now. The
narrative often touches on these questions: What constitutes a real life? What does it
mean to be human? Its answer: to be human is to love-and to love, as Dickens knew
the Scriptures taught, not with mere words, but in concrete actions (see, e.g., 1 John
3:18). As Marley's Ghost tells Scrooge, our spirits must "walk abroad," among our
fellow human beings, doing what acts of love we can.
Generosity of Spirit
Scrooge's nephew Fred first sounds this theme when he praises Christmas as "the only
time . . . when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely . .
. ." Fred's language indicates that, for Dickens, generosity involves more than the giving
of money. It requires the giving of one's goodwill and compassion. Throughout A
Christmas Carol, the examples we see of generosity are more about the spirit in which
something is given than the thing itself-from the schoolmaster's offer of food and wine
to young Scrooge and Fan, or the modest but joyful celebration sponsored by Mr. And
Mrs. Fezziwig, or even Fred's offer of assistance to a bereaved Bob Cratchit in a future
that does not come to pass: as Bob says, "Now it wasn't for the sake of anything [Fred]
might be able to do for us, so much as for his kind way, that this was quite delightful"
(Stave Four, emphasis added). And, of course, the Ghost of Christmas Present, with his
cornucopia-like torch, is generosity personified. Generosity of spirit defines Christmas
for Dickens, and goes a large way toward defining true humanity for him as well (see above).
The Importance of Memory
A Christmas Carol is a largely nostalgic work: as discussed in comments on Stave One,
Dickens is not so much recording the "traditional Victorian Christmas" as he is restoring
ancient practices which became associated with the holiday thanks in large part to this
book. Unsurprisingly, then, memory is honored throughout the book, and is even
ascribed a salvific quality. The Ghost of Christmas Past is memory personified; the light
from its head allows Scrooge to see and learn from both the good things and the bad
things in his past. The task of keeping alive Tiny Tim's memory, in the future of Stave
Four that does not transpire, allows the Cratchit family to move on in life: in Bob's own
words, "[H]owever and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of
us forget poor Tiny Tim-shall we? . . . ." Dickens structures his story to show how
memory of one's past affects and-if but allowed to do so-can even transform one's
present and future.
Readers must remember that, as A Christmas Carol begins, Scrooge is not condemned for
his miserly ways alone. If he were simply a stingy man, whose penny-pinching ways
hurt no one but himself, he might be a pitiable character, but one about whom readers do
not overly concern themselves. Scrooge's miserliness, however, is symptomatic for
Dickens of the way in which his society ignored, exploited, and abused its poorest and
most vulnerable members. Remember Scrooge's objection to charitable donations ("Are
there no prisons," etc.) and his dismissal of the poor as "surplus population" (a phrase
coined by laissez-faire economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who represented a "hands-
off" school of thought to which Dickens objected [Hearn 24]). Such cynical and
calloused refusal to share (see also comments on generosity, above) is, for Dickens, an
outrage. The clearest call for social justice in the book occurs when the Ghost of
Christmas Present warns Scrooge to beware of Ignorance and Want, forces which, if left
unchecked, can spell doom not only for the poor but for the whole of society. Dickens
stresses the humanity common to all people, and demands that those who "have" act
accordingly towards those who "have not."