We need a new Christmas Carol story

Cross-posted at Flaming Moth.

When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol he had a very specific goal of awakening people’s hearts to a belief in the virtue of abundance and of sharing. He knew his audience, but he was working to the scale of his time, a smaller population, a more restricted but conversely more impactful circle of influence. Dickens’ seminal story of realisation and repentance has ceased to be the right curative myth for our society. Scrooge’s failing is in being disconnected from the people around him. The failure of today’s Scrooges is the belief that connecting with the people around them is enough.

Painting of a Russian old man being presented with a cake.

Ivan Bilibin illustration of a Pushkin fairy tale

A key moment in the original story is when the ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a pair of beggar children. “The boy is want, the girl is ignorance. Beware the girl.” But ignorance is not our problem. The people with the most power are superlatively well informed. They are hyper aware not only of where lack exists in the world, but of how the resources they have could alleviate it. Our problem today is not miserly hoarding of physical gold in boxes that could be opened, it is the syphoning off of purely theoretical money, numbers channelled into nominal holdings in the Cayman Islands that have no real world meaning, and the hoarding of indulgence, keeping treats and beautiful experiences only for those designated as part of our own circle. Giving to our own children while feeling no responsibility towards anyone else’s.

Dickens’ story has become a comfort instead of a prickle. It is too easy to buy redemption by indulging those around us, and reach the end of the story feeling it has told us something we knew all along. The modern Scrooge is not redeemed by the gifting of a metaphorical goose to a nephew. The Murdochs and Reinhardts, Morrisons and Hockeys are no doubt sitting down to lavish spreads right now, and feeling generous because of the gifts they have given their friends, and probably even their closest advisors and employees. Today we need a story that makes it clear that a generous spirit is not one who looks for happiness on the faces of the people at their table, but the one that will not accept that those left behind must stay so.

It is not enough to connect only with those you see, to share a generous spirit only with those for whom our responsibility is immediately visible. Until a new story is written, our text for Christmas is better taken from John Donne:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne Meditation XVII

Blessings of a humble atheist upon your Saturnalia. May our tables be ever-expanding.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, history, parenting, relationships, religion, social justice, work and family

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2 replies

  1. “Oh we guard our homes with locks and guns
    And we guard our fine possessions
    And once a year, when Christmas comes
    We give to our relations
    And perhaps we give a little to the poor
    If the generosity should seize us
    But if any one of us should interfere
    In the business of why they are poor…
    They get the same as the Rebel Jesus.”
    (“The Rebel Jesus”, by Jackson Browne; 3rd verse)

  2. Excellent post, Orlando. Thank you for sharing it.
    I can think of a few songs which urge a rethinking of Xmas priorities, but none that have anything approaching Dickens’s reach. Geldof perhaps closest but shall we enumerate the problematic?
    Part of the problem boils down to the “one day of the year” rhetoric – the problems of poverty and lack of opportunity and loneliness and marginalisation etc persist every day.

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