The Real Transformation of Scrooge
Growing up, the CBC would play a family movie every Sunday night and every year around Christmas time, that movie would be Mickey's Christmas Carol. I looked forward to it every year. Goofy as Jacob Marley, the silly giant as Ghost of Christmas Present, and the heartwarming message of good will to all men (and mice).
The Dickens classic formed a significant a part of my childhood Christmases as any other holiday cultural phenomena and I'm grateful to Disney for introducing it to me; but I think there is a key lesson from the tale of Scrooge that I missed thanks to Mickey Mouse's interpretation.
I have read the original version a number of times and in a number of languages. But this year I attempted to read it to my 5 and 3 year old daughters. It took about a week of reading every night with them, and I'm not going to pretend like they loved every minute of it either! But we accomplished the goal and I gained a fresh perspective on the classic by reading it aloud.
My first observation was that when reading 'A Christmas Carol' out loud to children, you gain an appreciation for how terrifying it is. Read this and then read 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' and tell me Dickens isn't ten times scarier! Charles Dickens' words construct a frighteningly tormented Jacob Marley that is sure to make your kids hide under their bed sheets. More so than Goofy or the old guys from the Muppets would, that's for sure.
My second observation had more to do with the moral of the story. I had always interpreted the existential lesson from the three ghosts of Christmas to be one of charity vs. selfishness. That Ebeneezer needed to use his abundance to reduce the human suffering that surrounded him instead of being a penny pinching miser. That keeping Christmas in your heart all year meant being giving and charitable to those less fortunate. This is obviously one of the purposes of this timeless story: that we all have something to give, especially but not exclusively at this time of year. This is the message I always derived from the Mickey version. In the end Scrooge had learned his lesson and we knew this because he was giving his gold coins to charity and buying toys for Bob Cratchit and his family.
If this were the only moral then it would be a fine story and would be worthy of being in the holiday canon all on its own, but there's something else to the psychology of Scrooge's transformation and how Dickens describes it. Most of the modern interpretations of 'A Christmas Carol' focus on Scrooge's change of heart towards his clerk Bob Cratchit. This makes sense because there isn't a character more sympathetic than Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit's son. As an audience we rejoice in the fact that Scrooge not only saves his soul but does so by caring for the Cratchits and saving Tiny Tim from whatever it is that ails him.
There is some psychological research that supports this moral. Money spent on others will, in general, increase our happiness more than spending it on ourselves. Just look up Liz Dunn's research at UBC. However, I'm not certain there is enough transformative power in charitable giving alone. Scrooge's charitable giving is a consequence of a deeper, more significant psychological shift. He isn't happy because he now gives, he gives because he is now happy.
Then, what is the crux of his change from misery to bliss? For one, he has the fortune of a truly existential experience. When faced with death we tend to rediscover that which is most meaningful to us. It's one of the reasons why I believe that taboo of death is one of the most psychologically damning. Discussing mortality leads to living life more meaningfully.
But what is more meaningful to Scrooge? While popular versions of 'A Christmas Carol' focus on Scrooge's shift with Cratchit, I believe the more significant transformation is with his nephew, Fred. Scrooge's redemption, in my opinion, after reading the original text aloud, is a social and familial one. He adored his sister Alice but neglected his familial duties and ties to her only child, Fred. He lived his life in seclusion and isolation. Sure his obsession with money effected his well-being, but nothing made him more miserable than his loneliness. It was a positive feedback loop, what Freud called 'projection identification.' Scrooge assumed people hated him so he acted in a way that made it so, further isolating himself from the warmth of any human relation. It was this mentality that was leading him to his demise; it was this illness that required the intervention of the Spirits.
When Scrooge has his change of heart, promising to keep Christmas all year round, he was not just pledging to be selfless and giving but to also foster human connection in his day-to-day living, particularly that with his nephew Fred, his only remaining kin. The climax of the book has very little to do with the Cratchits. He sends them a turkey and then on the day after Christmas he pretends to be mad at Bob for being late, and then raises his salary. In this reading, it seemed to me that the real apex of his change was his going to Fred's house for Christmas dinner. He was willing to make merry with his family. Honouring the past, respecting the future, and living joyously in the present.
The next time you hear the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, whether it be Mickey, Alistair Sim, or Bill Murray, maybe this time you can apply the lesson of spending your resources on relationships rather than the material.
That the New Year may bring you more connection and love!
God bless us everyone!