Reflection on Stave One of A Christmas Carol

By Christopher Hall

scrooge_by_ravenscar45-d5lzal5Christmas celebrates a birth, the most amazing birth. So it would be odd to begin a meditation about the true meaning of Christmas by reflecting upon death. And yet that is precisely how Dickens begins A Christmas Carol. He even calls attention to the fact that this is how he is going to begin: “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Of course, this is mostly to underscore the strangeness, the creepiness, the unnaturalness of Marley’s ghostly return—as the narrator himself notes: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” It also underscores Scrooge’s own spiritual state illustrated by his insensate lack of reaction to difference in heat or cold, or the inclemency of the weather, by his lack of feeling for his fellow man and their purposeful avoidance of him. Scrooge is, as St. Paul would put it, dead in his sin. And only an encounter with the dead, with spirits, and with the possibilities of his own terrible fate can awaken him.

This confluence of Christmas and creepiness is no novelty on Dickens’ part, but falls in line with a tradition that stretches back to, at least, Gawain and the Green Knight in the 14th century, up to Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer of 2006. Writers like to dwell upon the strange and supernatural at Christmastime. Musicians put carols in a minor key (e.g., “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or “The Carol of the Bells”), or call to mind the horrors to which mankind can sink in his drive to protect himself, as in “The Coventry Carol.” Christmas creepiness is an old tradition, not just something Tim Burton pulled out of his hat with The Nightmare before Christmas. Why?

I believe it has to do with our consciousness of a few realities. First, it has to do with the in-betweenness (in literary theory we call this “liminality”) of the winter solstice, which lies between the old year and the new and marks the point in time where the darkness of the year reaches its climax and then begins to wane before the light. And this calls to mind the in-betweenness of humankind: we are homo viator, man on the way, neither wholly light nor wholly darkness, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but caught up between the two, and we must choose.

Second, it has to do with the way we awaken to what is generally called “the spirit of the season”—a term upon which Dickens plays quite skillfully. We are far too complacent. We need to be shocked, Scrooge more than most; and yet if we cannot see glimmers of the miser in ourselves, we are still asleep. If mankind is to be healed, he must at first realize that he is sick, and for that he must come to know himself, he must see what a strange creature he really is.

There would be little point to A Christmas Carol if all it involved was the collective scapegoating of the sinful Scrooge by Dickens and his audience. What better to shock us than a cadre of ghosts, with the terrifying specter or Marley to inaugurate the fearsome night during which Scrooge begins the contest for his very soul—and we, by extension, begin ours.

And so it is that we find the apparition of Marley’s dead face where Scrooge’s doorknocker ought to be. Marley is the door; creepiness is the door through which Scrooge must pass if he wants to discover true Christmas joy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s