It is but a few weeks before Christmas, and the air is rife with the sounds and sights of the season. People are out buying gifts, be it the mandatory Kris Kringle exchange of tokens, or the selfless giving to loved ones. Already, we hear of many discussions about the true meaning of the season, and it is normal for each of us to dwell on the matter.
Contemplation about Christmas always brings me back to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the literary classic was first published in 1843 but continues to captivate readers. Not only is the book a hugely popular literary masterpiece, but it continues to be socially relevant.
The story is set on Christmas Eve in Victorian England, when industrial capitalism was in its early years. It tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man enamored with the accumulation of wealth. Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s employee, was overworked by his boss, and underpaid, too. As was normal at the time, Cratchit had no additional remuneration other than his wages.
Scrooge did not like Christmas, for among other things he had to pay Cratchit “a day’s wages for no work.”
His dislike for the holiday not only stemmed from his miserliness but also from an antisocial nature that rejected the festivity and goodwill that accompanies the celebration of Christmas. He discards the greetings of his nephew, and the nephew’s invitation to a Christmas dinner. He chases away carolers even before they finish the first line of their songs.
When Scrooge was visited by charity workers soliciting donations for the poor, Scrooge coldly rebuffs them, intimating that he is paying enough to government for the maintenance of prisons, poorhouses and welfare offices. If the poor would rather die than avail of welfare, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” Scrooge says.
So it was that on Christmas eve Scrooge was visited by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, bearing with him a long and heavy chain, a punishment for his errors when he was still alive, for having the very same character as Scrooge’s. Marley then tells Scrooge that he will have other ghostly visitors.
The first visitor is the ghost of Christmas Past, who reminds him of how he was. The ghost of Christmas Present shows how things are, and the ghost of Christmas Future shows him how things will be if he continues with his ways.
Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day, learning the lesson that the ghosts endeavored to teach him.
He then proceeds to rectify his wrongs, and becomes all the happier for it.
The book may have been written a century and a half ago in far away England, but it remains socially relevant in 2010 in the Philippines.
We have many Scrooges in our midst, those who overwork their employees, and unwilling to pay them for holidays and days off. Employers who think that the payment of the minimum wage entitles them to drive their workers like slaves.
Many present-day workers would identify with Bob Cratchit and his tolerance for his employer, nevertheless endeavoring to be happy with what they have, no matter the difficulties in life.
Our country at this age also has so many of the poor and the destitute, partaking of the very little that government has to offer in terms of service and welfare, despite the taxes that the Scrooges pay with regret. Our Scrooges would even evade taxes if they could, and then government officials and functionaries would misuse the funds. The Scrooges in this place and time include these government people.
We even have a government that discourages the giving of charity to carolers.
Perhaps one difference that these present-day Scrooges have with Dickens’ character is that many of them do engage in the festivities of Christmas, and lavishly. However, the lavish celebration is reserved for themselves and their families, and if it includes ordinary people like you and me, it is done for the purpose of improving how they will exploit us further. Many a party in the coming weeks would be overflowing not only with food and drinks, but more so with hypocrisy.
Scrooges, if they do give to charity, do it niggardly, and mostly for the benefit of image building and improved business.
It is no comfort that the situation of the Scrooges, Cratchits and the poor in the Philippines is the same the world over. It is no comfort that the rich exploit the poor the world over. It is no comfort that the exploiters avoid giving back to society in every nation on Earth. It is no comfort that workers are overworked and underpaid everywhere, and government efforts to help the poor remain inadequate even in rich countries.
Rather, it is a condemnation of the failure of human frailty, succumbing to the temptation to accumulate worldly wealth, even as this is only possible through the exploitation of fellow humans.
This makes Dickens’ story not only classic, but eternal. This makes the story not only fitting for Christmas, but ever relevant.
Dickens’ story ends with the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, who repents his ways and proceeds to correct his wrongs.
It is unfortunate that the many of the real-life Scrooges of the past, present and future, will not be visited by the ghosts of Christmas. It is unfortunate that the Cratchits and the poor and destitute will continue to suffer.
It is unfortunate that the much vaunted “spirit of the season” is temporary and cosmetic; in all likelihood Dickens’ story of exploitation and the lack of charity would remain a reflection of the times forever.
Yet the story touches us all, and there is hope that Scrooges will see the error of their ways and redeem themselves, else they will suffer the punishment and ignominy that Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future showed Ebenezer.
It is this hope that the season gives, and the true spirit of the season.
May we all exorcise our own ghosts of Christmas and have a meaningful celebration of the holidays!