Charles Dickens’ short novel A Christmas Carol has become a staple of American culture during the holiday season. It’s almost as if Dickens himself predicted this would happen. In his opening note to readers of A Christmas Carol in 1843, he wrote, “I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly…”
The story haunts us—usually pleasantly—year after year. From live performances, radio plays, and new adaptations in films and on television, we consume a constant flow of A Christmas Carol during this time of year. I’m sure plenty of people get tired of it, but I imagine a great deal more enjoy the repetitiveness and predictability of the story. My personal favorite would probably have to be Jim Henson’s The Muppet Christmas Carol from 1992, with a cranky Michael Caine playing Ebenezer Scrooge and with a catchy, kid-friendly soundtrack.
With the barrage of A Christmas Carol adaptations underway, I’ve been thinking more about Scrooge. What’s his deal, anyway? At the beginning of the story, he acts in such a way that most find repulsive. We learn about his past, but we never really learn about why he became so greedy and miserly. Some parts of Scrooge’s life remain hidden from view—Dickens never gave us a full biography of Scrooge’s life.
But what we do get from Scrooge is an example of how history actually works. I think for many, history is just stuff that’s already happened. But as I teach my students, history isn’t simply the past…history is actually the process of interpreting the past. Sort of like how chemists use different chemicals in their work, historians use different sources to interpret, reinterpret, and make new arguments about how and why the past unfolded as it did.
Scrooge is stuck in the present when we first meet him. He’s forgotten his past, and he cares little for the future. He only wants to count his money and focus on his wealth. All that matters to Scrooge is the present—his own present, no one else’s—and so he’s wedged in a trap of his own making.
But then, as we all know, the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, pays him a visit. Marley tries to scare Scrooge and make him see that he’s heading down a similar path, and that if Scrooge doesn’t change, he’ll forever regret it. But of course, Scrooge doesn’t believe it. He’s told of what must happen, but until Scrooge is shown, he can’t understand why he must change.
And so, three ghosts visit him—one of Christmas past, one of Christmas present, and the last of Christmas future. They each spirit Scrooge away to experience scenes from his own life and the lives of others to jolt him into changing his selfish ways.
The ghost of Christmas past really does a number on Scrooge. The ghost takes Scrooge to his old school, shows him how he became a workaholic, and makes him relive his rejection of Belle. Scrooge is miserable, and then the ghost of Christmas present shows him how other people in his community are celebrating Christmas that very night. And then, finally, when Scrooge can hardly stand any more, the ghost of Christmas future shows Scrooge his own lonely grave. But, thankfully, it was all a dream (or was it?), and Scrooge remakes himself into a kind, loving person who thinks of others before himself.
History isn’t just present during Scrooge’s tour with the ghost of Christmas past, but history is also central to the purposes of the ghosts of Christmas present and future. Each ghost makes Scrooge reinterpret his own life—to practice history—to discover why his life unfolded as it did. Scrooge learns the past to understand the present, and then, to shape his future.
In a way, all of us are just like Scrooge. We can explore our past, reconsider our present, and if we don’t like what we see, we have the opportunity to make changes and improve our future.
Happy holidays, and may Scrooge’s example pleasantly haunt your house.
This article appeared in the Cortland Standard on December 26, 2020 in my monthly column, “A Historian’s Take.”