Thinking Anew – What Ebenezer Scrooge can teach us
Illustration: Dave Rheaume/iStock
This month marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Dickens was involved with social issues throughout his life, and at the time of writing A Christmas Carol he was particularly concerned for poor children. He believed that education could provide a way to a better life and was a strong supporter of the Ragged School movement in England which provided free education for children. The movement got its name from the tattered or ragged clothing usually worn by the children.
In September of 1843 Dickens visited the Field Lane Ragged School in London and in a letter to a friend described what he saw there: “I have very seldom seen, in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.”
The following month he began writing a story, and A Christmas Carol was published just weeks later on December 19th.
The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge is legendary. This greedy, selfish miser who has a total lack of concern for the rest of mankind, is transformed into decency after a ghostly night when he is haunted by shadowy figures.
In that letter to his friend, Dickens saw danger ahead for a society that remained indifferent to so many neglected and exploited young people, suggesting “that in the prodigious misery and ignorance of the swarming masses of mankind in England, the seeds of its certain ruin are sown”.
There has been much reporting of the plight of homeless people in Ireland in recent times, mostly about individuals who for a variety of complex reasons are in that situation, mostly not by choice. There are children too caught up in this national tragedy who even if not without somewhere to sleep are without secure homes, shunted as they are from place to place. (Official figures show that last summer there were 3,867 children in emergency accommodation countrywide.)
The Child of Bethlehem has more in common with children who are poor or in danger than the children of affluence and privilege. The nativity begins with a young woman, unmarried and “great with child” and a society that had no room for her or her baby; echoes of the Magdalene era. The only good thing about the stable scene is the man Joseph who stood by the woman he loved.
The Christmas story connects with real social and political issues that confront us to this day.
In the Christmas season the church reminds us of another part of the nativity story, of Herod and the threat he was to the infant Jesus and other children. Ruthless leaders to this day have no scruples when it comes to the slaughter of children when they feel threatened. The use of chemical weapons in Syria and an airstrike on a school bus in Yemen prove that, the latter using weapons supplied by America.
The nativity story also tells us that the infant Jesus with Mary and Joseph became refugees and sought sanctuary in Egypt. People, many with young children, still seek refuge but are often met with hostility.
No one should pretend that there are easy answers to the challenge of immigration but too many politicians exploit fears, some claiming they do so to protect their Christian heritage when in truth they violate fundamental principles of Christianity.
People say that Christmas is for children, but the Christmas of affluence is not for all children.
The authentic Christmas is for everyone, being the promise of God with us, whatever our circumstances. It is also a challenge to confront the social injustices of our time which include homelessness and the needs of people fleeing poverty and persecution.
We need to embrace the values of the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge of whom it was said, “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!”