I have seen probably a dozen versions of Charles Dickens’s short story “A Christmas Carol.” I’ve seen the Alastair Sim version, the George C. Scott version, the Patrick Stewart version. These are the “straight” versions. I’ve also seen the derivatives, including A Muppet Christmas Carol, Scrooge (a musical starring Albert Finney), and my personal favorite holiday film, Scrooged, in which Bill Murray plays the Scrooge-esque character Frank Cross, a miserly, self-important version of Scrooge who helms a TV network.
Scrooge is shown his past, present, and future, courtesy of three ghosts sent on behalf of his former partner, Jacob Marley. Marley died seven years ago and is most likely in hell for being such an uncaring miser. By the end of the story, Scrooge has learned the true meaning of Christmas and “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.”
The story of Scrooge is presented as the story of a man who has learned the error of his ways. Having watched so many versions of this perennial holiday fare, one thing has become clear: Scrooge has learned nothing except that he should fear death.
The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge how happy he used to be, and how his love of money overtook his love of his fellow man (and women; Scrooge chose the accumulation of wealth over his fiancee). But at the end of this chapter, Scrooge returns to being his bitter self.
The second ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, visits Scrooge and shows him that, even though people out there in the world — Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew — have less money than Scrooge has, they are nevertheless happier. Scrooge expresses genuine concern for Tiny Tim, who will probably die if the Cratchits continue to live in poverty. It’s hard to know whether Scrooge has changed at the end of this chapter because the next ghost appears immediately and without the light banter of the other two.
Then comes the climax: Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The ghost, described as “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand,” is reminiscent of the Grim Reaper. Scrooge learns that his own death will not be mourned — indeed, it will be celebrated — and Tiny Tim will die. Many adaptations will, at this point, depict Scrooge descending into hell (with Scrooge being the most eventful and hilarious).
At the end of the story, it appears that Scrooge has become a new person. But as with any good Christian story, what is Scrooge’s motivation? Has he genuinely rediscovered a charity and humanity long forgotten? Or has he merely been frightened into charity by the prospect of a grim death? At the end of the Ghost of Christmas Past’s chapter, Scrooge appears ready to return to his old ways. It’s just a dream, he convinces himself. If seeing his old self making merry at Fezziwig’s party really had changed him, wouldn’t he have changed by now?
Scrooge returns from his nightmare on Christmas morning, excited at the prospect of being alive. Essentially, Scrooge was threatened with death, and now he’s happy just to be here. As I said above, this is a recurring problem with Christianity: do people do good works because they genuinely believe in doing them, or do they do good works to avoid hell? It’s a distinction with a difference: morally speaking, the person who does good things for the sake of doing good things is better off than the person who does good things because punishment is the alternative.
As a morality tale, this isn’t promising. Scrooge is threatened into proper behavior; what does that mean for the rest of us? Sure, the spirits — specifically the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come — got the job done, but it feels a little slimy. Wouldn’t even the worst of human beings change his or her tune if faced with the prospect of immediate death? Scrooge’s about-face is not so impressive.