One of my all-time favorite movies for the holidays is The Muppets Christmas Carol. I believe I’ve seen this movie a few
hundred thousand times. I’ve worn out three VHS tapes and at least three DVDs. I play the movie over and over, mainly because, well, duh, MUPPETS! I drive my husband nuts playing this movie over and over…and over.
I’m worse than a three-year-old.
Muppets aside, I also can’t get enough of the music. I love the story of A Christmas Carol no matter how many times I see it, no matter how many renditions, and I am certainly not alone. Charles Dickens’ story of a redeemed miser is a staple for holiday celebrations around the world and across the generations.
This story is virtually synonymous with “Christmas,” but why is it such a powerful story? Why has it spoken so deeply to so many? Why is it a story that never grows old? Today, I want to talk about a couple of the elements that speak to me, because they rest at the heart of great writing.
A Little Background
A Christmas Carol is a beautiful story, but I find it’s true beauty when it’s explained in the Christian context that inspired it. My son was watching Bubble Guppies and they tried (dismally) to tell the same story inserting “holiday” so as not to offend anyone, I presume.
Yet, the story fell flat.
The PC had ruined the beauty of this tale and made it more of a lesson about embracing shallow commercialism once a year than a story of love’s power to redeem the irredeemable. Thus, this post will use scriptural and religious references to explain why I believe this story is so moving and timeless.
The Power of Names
Naming characters can be vital. Great writers use the power of parsimony. Each element should serve as many purposes as possible. A name is more than a name. It has the power to be a story within a story.
I recall the moment I was first introduced to what would become my favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings. One verse stood out:
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home.
Ebenezer? Raise an Ebenezer? I needed to know more. Ebenezer is actually ??? ????, Even Ha’Ezer, which literally means stone of help or monument to God’s glory and is referenced in the book of Samuel.
Thus, when Dickens chose a name for his protagonist, he chose the perfect name for the redeemed sinner. What is a better testament to a God of grace, than the hardened heart melted by the power of love? The current climate of political correctness aside, A Christmas Carol is most definitively a Christian story and the theme is reminiscent of Proverbs 25:22:
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat
and if he is thirsty give him water to drink
for you will heap burning coals on his head
and the Lord will reward you.
Very often this verse is misunderstood. “Yeah! BURN ‘EM! THAT’LL TEACH THEM TO MESS WITH ME! COALS! BURN BABY BUUUURN!” Yet, if one looks to the ancient Hebrew, the heaping burning coals is literally the holy fire of LOVE that melts the hardened heart so it can be remade (think of melting a weapon of war to remake it into something of beauty or a tool for healing or farming).
The path to redemption is love, for only love holds the power to redeem those who have committed grave wrongdoings. Only love can repair what’s been broken and “remake” it into something entirely new.
The Christian story is a story of love, of redemption, of second chances and not because one has earned it or deserved it. Scrooge is a dreadful man, yet as the story unfolds, not only does Scrooge’s heart begin to melt as he’s faced with the truth of who he is, but our hearts melt toward Scrooge as we travel through the past, present and future and see what has created such a embittered, cruel person. We empathize and start to have compassion and love the unlovely.
Scrooge has done nothing to earn redemption, but his redemption is precisely why we cheer at the end.
The spectral visits serve to show Scrooge the truth, which again is reminiscent of scripture; and then you will know the truth and it is the truth that will set you free (John 8:32). Scrooge cannot change what he cannot see and it is the three ghosts who come to reveal what he’s failed to see on his own.
Repentance is not the mumbled and counterfeit “Sorry.” Rather, it is finally seeing the truth of who we are and what wrong we’ve done. It’s a decision to make things right and turn away from wrong.
By the end of the story, Ebenezer is truly repentant. He’s a changed person determined to share the love and grace that was freely given to him when he didn’t deserve it.
Again, what a wonderful testament to God’s love. What a lovely “Ebenezer.”
Jacob Marley is another symbolic name. Jacob Marley is the name of Scrooge’s old business partner, and it is he who intervenes to try and redeem his old friend before Ebenezer is sentenced to share Marley’s fate. The name “Jacob” actually means “thief and liar.”
In the Bible, Jacob stole his brother Esau’s blessing, then manipulated, lied, stole and connived until it came back to bite him multiple times (Jacob later wrestled with an angel until he could be given a new name, Israel and he’d become the father of a great people). What better name to give someone sentenced to roam as a specter for eternity carrying the weight of his ill deeds than a name that literally means thief and liar?
The Power of Symbol
When the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge:
The chain he drew about his waist was clasped about his middle. It was long and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel…
Why cash-boxes? Why deeds? Why purses? In life Jacob was a money-lender. He was ruthless in his dealings and never forgave a debt. Yet, Matthew 6:12 (part of The Lord’s prayer) reads: Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.
Jacob forged his chains in life. He refused to show mercy, compassion, or kindness. He was ruthless and legalistic, thus he has sealed his fate. God has promised to forgive us the same way we forgive others, which is why the scripture pleads for grace, compassion and mercy. Also, forgiveness of debts is the heart of what Christmas is about, for unto us a child is born.
Christians believe God sent His only begotten son (God in the form of Man) to pay a debt we cannot hope to pay. God loves us as His children, and our actions have left us hopelessly out off our depth, incapable of paying our debts. Yet Love cancels the debt. Christ’s last words on the cross, “It is finished” literally translate “Paid in FULL.” Jacob turned away from the grace freely offered, so now he wanders, burden by the debts he cannot pay.
Jacob now finds opportunity to warn Scrooge of the chains he is now forging with his actions (and inaction), chains that are longer and heavier than even his. The only way for Scrooge to free himself is to learn to value himself and his fellow human beings.
Smaller Truths Reveal Larger Truths
Dickens makes it a point to show us that Scrooge is a miser. Scrooge shows no mercy, has no warmth, shares none of his wealth…with anyone, including himself. Scrooge is a very wealthy man, yet he wears old clothes, lights no coals for warmth because coal costs money. His home is threadbare and his food measly and meager.
The full story of redemption is that Scrooge not only sees his fellow man differently—worthy of compassion, love and generosity—but in changing how he views his fellow man, his view of himself changes (and heals) as well. The three spirits not only heal Scrooge’s relationship with his Maker, but with himself and others. Scrooge, for the first time, becomes part of the human experience, no longer content to be “solitary as an oyster.”
The POWER of WORDS
This point should resonate particularly with writers. There is a REASON the Ghost of Christmas Future refuses to speak. Words have creative power. If one looks at the first chapters of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth and all living things by speaking. “And God said…”
It was only humans he breathed life into. Everything else was created by speaking. Throughout the Old and New Testament, there are countless scriptures referencing the power of the tongue, of words, and warning they carry both the power of life and death.
This idea carries into Ebenezer’s story because, by the time he has this final visit, he still has choice over what his future will be. The specter cannot speak because words would cast his future and it isn’t for the Spirit of Christmas Future to decide.
Scrooge deserves the death he’s shown by the Spirit of Christmas Future. He deserves to die alone with those “closest” casting lots for his garments. This is what he has sown with his lifetime of greed, hate and spite.
Yet, he is pardoned.
Scrooge is the resurrected heart, the dead brought to life. When God promises “everlasting life” it isn’t a promise that we get to float around on a cloud in Heaven after we die. Rather, it’s a promise that life begins at the moment we decide to accept mercy and love.
Scrooge has been “alive” but not “living.” He was existing. When he is redeemed, given a new chance, he changes. Out of gratitude for the mercy he is given, he reaches out to give what he’s been given. LOVE, MERCY, GENEROSITY.
Sure, God could have rained down a miracle that healed Tiny Tim and landed Bob Cratchit a better job with a better boss, but Dickens saw God as a God in the business of finding and changing the lost, miserable and broken. Instead of giving the miracle to Cratchit and his family, God, instead, gives it to Scrooge, the least deserving of a miracle.
Because God is about working through people. Many of His miracles come from ordinary people performing extraordinary acts of kindness and sacrifice. By changing Scrooge, God could create a man who would become a benefactor. Cratchit has now a kind and generous boss, the community now had a passionate philanthropist, and Tiny Tim lives and the family thrived because one man’s heart could be melted.
It is no great feat to love the lovely. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much (Matthew 5:46). This story is so powerful namely because it shows that every human has value and is worth and an opportunity for redemption. God is in the business of changing hearts, and Dickens wanted to show that. A Christmas Carol is a masterful exploration of the true nature of Christianity, what it should be, what it was meant to be. Love. Above all.
What is your favorite version of A Christmas Carol? What do you love about this story? What is your favorite part? I love The Muppet’s Christmas Carol (already told y’all that), but THIS is my FAVORITE part!
Also, here is my favorite hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I cry every time I hear this:
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Without hate and indifference as alternatives, love would not be the choice, the motivation, or the orientation it is. A bit of old magic follows wherever it appears. Merry Christmas, Kris10!
What an amazing enlightening blog! A Christmas Carol has long been my favorite movie to watch and book to read in December. I thought I owned every version of this timeless tale, but I don’t have the Muppet version. Gasp! I will have to order it today to make sure my collection is complete.
A friend of mine who is turning 40 told me she has never seen A Christmas Carol. Gasp again. For Christmas I am giving her a DVD of the movie along with a large jar of popcorn.
Thank you for this blog.
Not only this the story of Scrooge so powerful in Christian doctrine, it is also a wonderful example of the character arc that is so important to story. I love the story and we do my adaptation of Scrooge at the Winnsboro Center for the Arts frequently. Every time I mount it, I see more nuances in the story, and you are so right about it being a classic.
Hmm…. still on my first cup of morning coffee, so maybe my brain cells haven’t kicked in yet. I read this twice and didn’t get the answer as to what Scrooge can teach us about great writing. Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on love and redemption. Those are universal themes. In fact, I’d have to counter your thesis and say that it is the universal HUMANITY that Dickens’ tapped into to make such a classic, forever story. If he had presented it in the exclusive, limited Christian format you overlay, I don’t think it would have near as much power.
He uses names with their own stories behind them to add depth. Yes, it is a Christian story, but there is no Christian “banging over the head” preaching. If you wrote a book, say, set in India, and understood the history and the faith, certain name choices could add a whole new layer to the surface story. Make sense?
And it is PRECISELY because he DIDN’T write it in the limited Christian format that it IS so powerful. It is a wonderful STORY, not a soap-box.
Wow! I LOVE that analysis of the timeless classic! I especially like how you described the significance of words and names in stories. Isn’t that why we’re writers? We love the power of words.
I completely agree that God works usually THROUGH other people rather than by direct intervention. More amazingly, he chooses the most unlikely instruments to bring about His great plans. Many theologians have commented on this. But I think I’m preaching to the choir here! 😉
The Muppets version is my favorite Christmas Carol adaptation, too! 🙂
Thanks for this post! It really made my day!
Thank you for this post. You’ll never know how much it meant to have it appear at the moment it appeared.
I find the real world far more fascinating than the fantasy worlds even good writers create: because of the depth of human experience, it is easier for a writer to connect to resonances in readers’ minds when she takes advantage of the fullness of what has already existed.
Although I have to be careful of details (I found that a huge number of people who read have no idea of the existence of the Book of Job in the Old Testament, much less of its contents – which totally flabbergasted me), the Christian story is alive 2000 years later BECAUSE of where it came from, and how it continues, with its many flaws in the human side, to give us what we need: Hope.
Preaching won’t do it – people automatically tune most of it out, unless they’ve already opted in. Stories which show characters with the same problems in life as readers, dealing with those problems with faith and without, can make it through that barrier.
I am so grateful to you for this timely post – having information consciously (rather than knowing it way down deep somewhere) is the writer’s best tool. I don’t discount the subconscious – it has thrown up some mighty ideas – but I like my tools where I can choose them, not when they decide to leap to hand.
And of course, Muppets and Muppet Christmas Carol – a perennial favorite. Can’t forget the Muppets. Though I think our favorite is Muppet Treasure Island.
I too drive people mad playing the muppet version over and over and over and over and over and over and…well, you get the picture!
Thank you, Kristen. This is my favorite of all your posts through the years. I’ll be saving it and rereading it over and over 🙂
I agree. I often think that writers these days spend too much time thinking about what’s popular this minute, and not enough about the stories that last. I read a lot of theories about what protagonists need to be like, and I always compare them to Sherlock Holmes, easily the most popular fictional character in the English-speaking world in the last century. If your theory doesn’t fit Sherlock Holmes, who currently has two successful TV series and a popular movie series, well, then I regard your theory with skepticism. 🙂
My first Christmas Carol was the cartoon Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which I still remember fondly.
I have never heard that great story broken down as you have here. I think I will print this one out and tape it to my wall for inspiration. Great job! And hope you get over those shingles soon!
I loved this post, Kristen. What a great example of what makes a story truly timeless and transcendent. The muppet version is classic! And I too, am always moved to tears by the hymn, Come Thou Fount. Thank you.
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Love you to pieces, Kristen. I really never comment cause I usually read at work, but I never miss a blog. This one was very special and enlightening concerning the redemptive message of A Christmas Carol. Thank you for your refusal to be “politically correct,” more people need to take that stand. Oh and by the way, I’m praying for you to get past your shingles. I had them in my airways earlier this year – the illness and the cure were equally brutal but I did manage to get a lot done on my WIP while in the hospital. There’s a bright side to everything. Thanks again, and Merry Christmas to you, Hubby and Spawn (love that name)!
I too had never thought to analyze Dickens’s Christmas Carol, but I find this analysis fascinating. I also feel that Scrooge presented an opportunity for a better character arc through redemption–it’d be boring to see Cratchit go through the same journey.
A bunch. Being a child of the nineties, there were no shortages of cartoons who nodded in homage to this tale–The Tiny Toon’s It’s a Wonderful Christmas Special and Scrooge McDuck in Mickey Mouse’s Christmas Carol, were both great examples. My favorite live action versions are the ubiquitous “It’s a Wonderful Life” because it captures the spirit of the original so well. I guess i’m contradicting myself because Jimmy Stewart’s character is rather like a Bob Cratchit, undergoing the ‘Christmas Spirit Visitation Ritual.’
I like Dr. Who’s Christmas Carol because TIME TRAVEL!
And I really like Blackadder’s Christmas Carol because it tells the heartwarming story of a generous, virtuous man who, through the visions of a spirit, learns to be mean and nasty to everyone–I really like how it turns the tale on its head. It’s definitely worth a watch!
Thanks for the great post!
Never heard the David Crowder Band version. Gave me chills.
Thank you so much for your posts full of the distress of living, with a twist of irony and comedy, yet love and concern for all us fellow writers, fighters, followers. Some or more like most of the time my identity as a writer is more fragile than the ice on the puddles an early frosty morning, slowly crystallising whilst the children get feet in boots ready for their morning walk to school. (Yes, I live in Sweden; children walk to school al by them self.) You inspire and make me laugh. Whilst Christmas time is sneaking up on us, I wish you peace and prosperity.
I, too, have never thought of A Christmas Carol as a “Christian” story, but rather a human story of all that Dickens was so good at relaying to us: poverty, want/need, suffering, the plight of your fellow man. To me, Scrooge was always the epitome of all that is wrong with the world in terms of greed and classism. Even as a youngster who held tight to Christian beliefs, the movie/book was about the redemption and forgiveness of humanity. And, seriously, Dickens was so eloquent with his words while at the same time ripping your heart out with his characters genuine cries for acceptance and equality.
I’m still stunned that people actually like the Muppets version! For me, and most around me, the 1951 version with Alistair Sims will always be the best telling of this story; chilling and simply minimalistic in the way it portrayed Victorian England all dark and shadowy! Just love it!
It IS a human story, but the Christian elements make it all the more deep (to me). Most people who aren’t Christians wouldn’t know an Ebenezer is from the Book of Samuel. Would just float past. But those who KNOW?
Sort of like the series, DUNE. If you are like me and studied politics of the Middle East, it is a FAR deeper story. The SPICE is actually oil and the empires fighting over Arrakis are colonial interests wanting total control of the region for the “spice” (crude oil).
Excellent points made here. Thanks so much for sharing this valuable insight.
Another thought provoking blog Kristen, thanks. It reiterated to me that as an author broadening my knowledge of the past and present can add depth to my fiction writing.
I also want to thank you, Kristen, for daring not to be “politically correct”. I have to admit I hadn’t thought of the story this way before but found myself saying “Yes! Yes”! I know neither you nor the story were being “preachy”, but as a Presbyterian minister, I just have to say thank you for such an enlightening and powerful “sermon”, so well said! ? This is a keeper! Oh .. and I, too, have always been facinated by the lifting of the Ebenezer in that powerful hymn. But now it will always remind me of Scrooge.
Love, hope, redemption. Absolutely 🙂
Interestingly, the word for ‘repent’ (in the New Testament at least) means something like doing a 180. If there’s no turnaround, it’s not repentance, and as you point out, the “sorry” rings a little hollow. As Archbishop Tutu said, you can’t say you’re sorry you took my pen if you don’t give it back.
If Scrooge had just apologised for his behaviour and left it at that, the Christmas Carol would be a much less satisfying story.
Again, Kristen, you’ve another ‘head-scratcher’, meaning it got me thinking. I had always thought ‘The Christmas Carol’ had been based on some aspect of Christian principle, but couldn’t pinpoint what it had been; until now! Thanks so much!
Reblogged this on ocjarman and commented:
This is fascinating and written very well, of course!
This was certainly one of the most beautiful of all I’ve seen you write, and a lovely example of Dickens’ use of allusion (and your own “parsimony/scrooge”). Thank you, and blessings this holiday season, Debbie M.
Reblogged this on DJ Marcussen and commented:
A lovely commentary on redemption and Charles Dicken’s story…
Reblogged this on Kenneth Leung, Thinking, Eating, Seeing.
Reblogged this on Cary Area Writer's Group and commented:
Too good not to share. I shared this on my own blog (djmarcussen.com) and now sharing on my writers group blog. Enjoy.
I would love to post a link to this post on my Facebook page if you are amenable. I am a traditionally published author in the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) and I know that a lot of my Facebook Friends would really appreciate your observations.
“…for you will heap burning coals on his head…”
I’m reminded of the (possibly true) story of the missionary to Africa who put that quotation in his sermon one Sunday. The next week, he had to treat several people who came into his clinic with second and third degree head burns, inflicted during the night by unknown parties.
I’m not sure how to explain my thoughts on this concisely so bare with me. I think you’re post is really good, but u just wanted to share my own personal thoughts. While the names obviously have that deeper meaning to Christians, I believe that the Christian aspects of the story are not why it is a classic. It is a classic because it’s a story of hope, redemption, love and forgiveness. And it just so happens that hope, redemption, love and forgiveness are also some of the common reasons for turning to religion, and not just Christianity. I believe the story is a classic because it’s themes are that which, aren’t just Christian, but which make people turn to religion in the first place. Somehow the story has captured themes, ideas and feelings that speak to us and that draw us towards religion in the first place. I hope I have explained myself sufficiently here.
Granted, and I don’t argue with that. My point is the CHOICE of names and also that the Spirit of Christmas Future does NOT speak adds another layer some might not see, but many will feel.
Just like millions loved DUNE. Those who understand the history of the Middle East and the war of colonial powered for dominance only get yet ANOTHER layer of depth.
I am very partial to the Muppets version, too, though the version with Patrick Stewart was my first introduction to the story and probably remains my favourite. I also listen to him reading the book around this time every year.
I love this analysis. It’s not something I had ever really put much thought into, but it’s true.
Reblogged this on Charlotte Gerber and commented:
One of my all-time favorite versions of this Christmas classic! The penguin skating party has always been one of the best bits of the movie for me.
I’m a comparative religions and anthropology nerd, and I love this story. It touches many universal psychological buttons. There are lots of social sciences angles to dissect it with. I don’t love it for it’s nerd value, but there is that, too. The Christian interpretations and speculations aren’t why I love it– that aspect doesn’t interest me. It’s just a dang good story told well using solid, discernible literary devices. Like Avatar and other archetypal fiction, the message is no mystery– it’s core human stuff. Religion is not required to appreciate it. I’m atheists and I love it.
Interesting perspective – I never thought of A Christmas Carol having such religious undertones, but might you, I was much, much younger, and grew up watching the Disney version. Thanks for sharing this. I particularly loved where you mention the power of character’s names as that resonates with me a lot.
Reblogged this on The Path – J. S. Collyer's Writing Blog and commented:
Another great article about storytelling from Kristen Lamb
A Christmas Carol is one of my favorites. I will watch every version I can find at Christmas. I have never thought of it from a Christian view before. That was very interesting. I never thought of it this way before. Thank you.
Thanks for pointing out the Christian perspective on this timeless story. So many want to leave Christ’s love out of Christmas–and yet it is the only part that matters, when all is said and done. An unbeliever can enjoy the story, but it is illogical for them to appreciate what the story is about, for themes of generosity, love, peace, redemption, and goodwill have absolutely zero value if this world is all there is. Indeed, if there is no God to whom we are accountible, and no afterlife, there are no chains or bonds to carry, or any reason whatsoever for caring about anyone else. If survival of the fittest is the rule of nature, then it would be crazy to care about a greater good or benevolence to others. The fact that God’s perspective of love for our fellow men is written on our hearts is what draws even an atheist to the story.
If our good news speaks only to what happens after we “die” then it is no good news at all. Scrooge repented and we know this because of what he did beyond simply feeling bad about his actions.
Ahhh, Come Thou Fount is my favorite hymn too, although the last verse is the one that wipes me out..
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”
As for A Christmas Carol, you should check out the 1970 musical version, “Scrooge.” Albert Finney is the most crotchety old Ebenezer on screen, Alec Guinness is a thoroughly entertaining Jacob Marley, and the songs are both excellent and nearly impossible to dislodge from your head. Almost no one seems to even know this version exists, but it’s my very favorite and we watch it every year.
Lena, OMG, I CRY EVERY TIME on that EXACT stanza. ((HUGS MY SOUL PEEP))
Hugs right back. 🙂
Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
A very special post.
A great post Kristen. I reblogged it on Musings On Life & Experience.
A Christmas Carol is one of my favourites – have seen all the versions but Alistair Sim is my favourite Scrooge. Thanks for the detailed backstory – really makes themovie more precious.
Lovely and well thought out post. Thank you.
Awesome post about an awesome story! My favorite movie version is the one with Alistair Sim.
What a lovely analysis. Thank you so much for capturing the spirit of that story, and so many other great stories.
I still love the Muppets’ version, too. However, there’s a play that’s been out for several years now called The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, by Mark Brown (not Marc Brown – there’s a difference 🙂 ) where he takes the ghosts to trial for a whole list of crimes, including breaking and entering, and emotional distress. But it is a comedy, and it’s hilarious.
Reblogged this on Stacey Wilk and commented:
Even though Christmas has past, I’m still in the spirit. (I hate to see the season end.) I’m reblogging today a post from author and social media expert, Kristen Lamb. She’s done a fantastic job of breaking down one of my favorite stories – A Christmas Carol, and showing how Charles Dickens infused the Christian meaning of Christmas into his work. If you’re a fan of A Christmas Carol then I think you’ll enjoy the post too. I might be late, but Merry Christmas.