If I call you a “scrooge,” that’s not a good thing. We all know that a scrooge is a miser, a misanthrope, a bitter wasted soul. “Bah, humbug!”
It’s a word that goes back to Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character of A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens in 1843.
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!” Dickens writes, “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.
When asked to contribute to a holiday collection for the needy, Scrooge says such people should go to the workhouse or to prison. In response, he is told, “Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.”
To which Scrooge asserts:
“If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Not a nice guy. And no wonder that his name has become synonymous with a particular kind of mean and prickly greed.
But wait. We do Scrooge a disservice. Think about it. What’s the heart of his story?
The heart of Scrooge’s story
It’s not Scrooge the meanie. And it isn’t the visits he receives from three spirits who basically show him a mournful and ultimately terrifying home movie of his past life, capped off with a trip into the future to learn of the death of Tiny Tim and see his own bleak grave.
No, the heart of Scrooge’s story comes when he wakes up and realizes that, as bad as he’s been in his past, he can and will be better. Dickens describes it this way:
“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath… “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”… Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!
Indeed, Scrooge goes out from that moment to give money to the poor, to give gifts to those he’s shunned and to give a raise to Bob Cratchit and his beneficence to Bob’s family, particularly Tiny Tim.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world….And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one!’
This conversion experience
In many ways, the story of Scrooge is much like the story of St. Paul or St. Augustine or St. Francis of Assisi. But this sort of experience — this conversion experience — is known to all religions. Indeed, it’s known to all people, whether believers or not.
Most, if not all, of us have had a conversion experience of one sort or another. We probably haven’t been knocked off a horse like St. Paul or visited by three spirits like Scrooge, but we’ve come to see, in some manner, the error of our ways and made changes in our lives.
That’s the heart of the Christmas story. Isn’t it? Glad tidings of peace and joy in a world of violence and sorrow.
Whether a believer or not, each of us knows that this season is emblematic of the choices we face every day — to bring peace or pain into the lives of others, to bring joy or sadness.
Scrooge, that old meanie, ended up making his choice — for peace and joy.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 19, 2014.