Waking the Dead with Dickens in Advent

Advent is a time for ghosts and graveyards. A time for skeletons to creak out of closets seeking burial. A time for cold spirits to be conjured and committed to the deep. A time for hoary phantoms of sin to be cast up and cast out. A time to look ahead at what is coming—what is dawning on the horizon—and a time to look back into the shadows at what has been together with the twilight at hand. A time to shake off ignorance and want and rejoice in the fullness of light and abundance. A time for earthly sojourners destined to give up the ghost to turn to that most beloved of all ghost stories, A Christmas Carol.

In the same way that Advent is no fluffy time to celebrate Christmas before it arrives, A Christmas Carol is no fluffy affair either though commonly demoted as such. This story is often prey to a prevalent attitude of humbuggery that Christmas suffers under woefully. Indeed, Ebenezer Scrooge is a sour soothsayer of the times, for, by and large, Christmas is a humbug these days. It preaches peace, but breeds pressure. The ritual of the mall has replaced the ritual of the Mass. Santa Claus is not really Saint Nicholas. The holidays are not really holy days. Christmas is not really Christmas. It is a lost and long-forgotten mystery in need of a great awakening, which is the work of Advent’s exorcisms, St. Paul’s exhortations—and Charles Dickens’ exhumations.

A Christmas Carol is a story that brews on a large scale as winter sets in, preparing startling spirits for men to imbibe in misanthropic weather. It is a story of spiritual challenge as chills settle in the bones. The thinning of air; the thickening of fog; the icy sting and snap: the very weather agrees with the weather in this story, bespeaking urgency towards something, like the tolling of a bell, imparting a need to move and arrive. It is, in fact, the climate of Advent that presides over this ghost story, where a strong punch (in both senses of the word) is precisely the ticket.

For this reason, A Christmas Carol is an important (if not indispensable) voice in the Christian preparation for Christmas, and unlike Christmas shopping, it is anything but warm and fuzzy. There is nothing really warm about the furnaces of infernal torture, heartbroken abandoned children, or cold naked corpses—of which it bears a terrible plentitude. There is nothing really fuzzy about the fulfillment of familial devotion, stout neighborly charity, or a changed heart—of which it boasts a great deal. And it is at Advent that people should face these realities for what they are, even if they are as disquieting as specters.

This holy time “is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” The two gentlemen collecting for the poor in Scrooge’s money-changing hole introduce something that is at hand. The haunted longing of Advent for the hunted splendor of Christmas resounds in their words: the desperate Want of the penitent for the remote Wassail of paradise. In these words of approach and assail, Christmastide dawns on pilgrim souls. Scrooge’s nephew salutes the Season “as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time… in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Amen; and sometimes a man must walk with the walking dead in order to learn that he is himself walking to his death.

The heartrending self-discovery of Scrooge and the desire to undo horrors unearthed is the work of a fruitful Advent. With Scrooge, all should realize a need to purge before answering the booming call, “Come in! and know me better man,” and discover the jubilant Incarnation of Him Who made lame beggars walk and blind men see. Mr. Dickens’ tale of ghostly visitation and salvation teaches the terrific challenge of Christmas, the goal of Advent, and does so with energy and emotion. A Christmas Carol flies with Scrooge across spiritual plains and steals through the secret chambers of the heart—and all are borne along, sharing the terrors and tears, the Fezziwigs and the Dilbers, the shame and the delight.

The remarkable power of this story is that it is about every one, awakening memories of who we are and why we are. But to live the lesson of examination and transfiguration presented by Mr. Dickens’ ghosts is indeed a lofty test. As the staves are sung, however, and we share the journey with Ebenezer Scrooge, the call to unclench tightfisted hands begins—a flight commences away from the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” we all know. People as solitary as oysters peer past their bed curtains into a larger world. They shiver helplessly in their nightshirts with Scrooge to face eternity.

A Christmas Carol is a song of preparation, passage, and praise. It is indeed a Christmas carol, and the process it initiates is not an easy one. Everyone knows in their own way that it is a steep path fraught with difficulty. But, as the ghostly mentors of Scrooge held up a mirror to him rigidly, relentlessly, and sometimes reluctantly, so too must we face our own ghosts, our own inward conversions and cleansings in order to face the Christ Child’s coming. Alongside Scrooge, groveling in the shadows of the tomb, all are beckoned to declare themselves not the creatures they were but for the holy intercourses of the Advent season—a declaration prompted by this haunting, happy story.

Many, hearkening to this call, swear to lead a changed life, an altered life that will honor the spirit of Christmas in their hearts, and try to keep it all the year, living in the past, the present, and the future. The thundering words of St. Paul concur, shaking us as the church bells shook Scrooge from his nightmare: “…it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. For now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is passed, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”

When, suddenly, folk begin to see their lives in the warming light of Christmas and watch their ghostly fetters melt away into so many insignificant bedposts, may all laugh with Ebenezer Scrooge. And though all the world laugh at such merriment, “let them laugh,” Mr. Dickens says, for “nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter.” Let the spirits of night come. Let them start us from slumber. They are harbingers of a greater apparition—an apparition of glory and gladness. A Christmas Carol, in the true spirit of Advent, prepares men and women not only for Christmas Day, but also for every day: for Life, in all its dignity and dirt, and its verses are consequently both beautiful and brutal—much like a graveyard.

Sean Fitzpatrick

By

Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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  • JMC

    What a beautiful article for what has always been my very favorite of Dickens’ works. Like Christmas itself, it’s a tale of God’s mercy, mercy just waiting for us to reach out and ask for it. Scrooge…just needed a little shove in the right direction. ;D

  • My favorite story at CHRISTmas time!…..

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Great observation!

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