Since the beginning NC as made it a habit, now and then, to publish a sermon. It’s an old form, not much thought of in literary terms these days — you don’t see many college courses on sermons. But it’s a form that was once immensely popular; books of sermons were published regularly and became bestsellers. I have friends whose fathers were ministers and I’ve loved listening to their memories of the weekly composition process — think of it, an ESSAY a week, 52 weeks a year! Kind of like a blog but with God as one of your readers.
Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont, runs a window-cleaning business, and gives sermons — in a sense, she has given her life over to helping people see better. This is her Christmas sermon delivered earlier this month to the UU Fellowship in Stowe. The subject is close to my heart because when I was six I played Tiny Tim in the school Christmas play. Picture this: rural, one-room, stone schoolhouse with a raised dais along the front for the teacher’s desk, Union Jack and the Queen’s portrait prominently displayed, and me with my theatrical leg-brace made (by my father) of soup tins and cut-down harness straps. Hilary quite rightly focuses on Scrooge, who is the reclaimed character, but still I love the line I got to say (raising my wine glass filled with apple juice), “God bless us, every one.”
The images are John Leech’s original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, via the wonderful Victorian Web.
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster….
Nobody ever stopped him on the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? when will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him, and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “no eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”
But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance….
Charles Dickens wrote his famous Christmas Carol in 1843, and from the very first, it sparked changes in the people who read it, momentous and generous changes. Robert Louis Stevenson for instance, wrote a friend this: “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money—I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”
The historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle was seized with his own verifiable fit of generosity. We don’t have an account of it in his own words, but his wife wrote her cousin, referring to her husband by his last name and saying this: “A huge boxful of dead animals from the Welshman arriving late on Saturday night together with the visions of Scrooge—has so worked on Carlyle’s nervous organization that he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties with only a day between.”
And yet another conetmporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, pronounced the book, “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”
But it wasn’t just other writers who were affected. Some years later, after the queen of Norway read A Christmas Carol, she sent gifts to disabled children in London, signed “With Tiny Tim’s love.” And an American industrialist, a certain Mr. Fairbanks of Massachusetts, having heard Dickens’ own reading of the book one Christmas Eve, was so inspired he closed his factory the very next day for Christmas, somehow managing to get a turkey to every worker he had.
Plain folks too, numberless people whose names and stories we’ll never know, were affected as well. For instance, in the spring after A Christmas Carol was published, one English magazine noted that charitable giving was up across the whole country, evidently a result of this one little book. People were moved! And moved to action.
Even Dickens himself was deeply moved by the act of writing A Christmas Carol, pushing through it in the midst of other projects in a remarkably short six weeks, crying and laughing as he wrote, taking long walks through London—and I mean long walks—supposedly fifteen or twenty-mile walks!—at a time of night when, as he put it, “all sober folks had gone to bed.” And when he reached the ecstatic, joyful end of the book, and finished it, he said he “broke out…like a madman.”
But of course acting like a madman is just how Scrooge behaves too in the joyful conclusion of A Christmas Carol:
“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel. I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”
He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded….
“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge, “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”
I don’t know about you, but whenever I get to this short section at the very end of the book, I always feel a little mad with joy myself, almost embarrassed by the sheer exuberance welling up in me too. And why is that? What is the power of Dickens’ little fable? Why has it touched and changed so many people?
One reason surely is simply because it’s a remarkably well-written book. If all you’ve done for years now is watch the various movie versions, I suggest this Christmas season, you go back to the book itself. It’s sheer pleasure. But there’s more to its effectiveness than its high level of craft. There are, after all, lots of well-written books. But very few of them have worked the kind of change in people that A Christmas Carol has.
So walking a little deeper into the story itself, let us next consider the book’s most obvious lesson, a lesson that can’t be repeated too often, and that Dickens himself thought of as the “Carol Philosophy,” which is simply to give, and to give in particular to those who don’t have the money or resources you do. But though this is, as I say, the obvious lesson of the book, and giving is itself a profound practice that has its own momentum in people’s lives, taken alone, it still can’t account for the singular transformational power this book has.
That power, I think, lies deeper in the story itself and is related to its more fundamental teaching—which is to open our hearts, or as E. M. Forster put it: “Only Connect!”
This approach to life of course, the way of connection, is entirely the opposite of how Scrooge conducts himself at the opening of the book: Dickens makes that abundantly clear in the description I quote earlier of Scrooge as a man who is “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” edging “his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”
That is to say, Scrooge is a man who has disconnected himself as much as is humanly possible. He may have a business and a good reputation as a businessman, but in the beginning of the book, he has no authentic intercourse with anyone, spurning even the one surviving relative he has, his nephew Fred–and on Christmas Eve no less.
Fred however, a plucky chap, never loses his good humor in this early scene, giving his uncle a fine little speech about the particular value of Christmas, calling it
a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, 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.
Scrooge’s response is to belittle his nephew. Then, after Fred, still persisting, invites him to dinner the next day for Christmas, Scrooge turns even uglier, vowing to see him in hell before ever he comes for Christmas dinner.
So then, think about it. How does this work really? How does Ebenezer Scrooge shift from a miserable, money-making oyster, poking his head out of his shell only to insult people, to a man who frisks about his rooms and heads right out the door, engaging right and left in handsome acts of generosity? What can actually account for his new, miraculous and permanent habit of connecting whole-heartedly with people everywhere he goes?
Another place to look for the answer I suppose lies with the power of the spirits who visit Scrooge. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story after all, and who wouldn’t change their tune faced with these visitations? Scrooge, you could say, is scared straight.
But now I’m really setting up straw ghosts here, because clearly, this is not the whole answer either: Scrooge is plenty afraid at various points along his journey, but it’s not fear that is the most potent catalyst for his change. It couldn’t be. For though fear may change us, its primary effect is not to open our hearts, but to close them.
I think the key to Scrooge’s transformation lies in something else.
So let us start with him after Marley has gone, at the beginning of his journey with the three spirits. As you recall, Scrooge’s first companion amongst these spirits is The Ghost of Christmas Past, who confirms, as Marley foretold, that he has indeed come for Scrooge’s reclamation.
What you might not recall however is that just before they fly from Scrooge’s dismal rooms, the spirit, having compassion for the fear Scrooge is feeling, places his hand on the man’s heart. And his hand is still there when they make their first stop, a “gentle touch,” Dickens writes, that though “light and instantaneous,” is “still present to the old man’s sense of feeling.”
Where they are now when first they alight, is on an open country road, in a place that catapults Scrooge into a wholly different frame of mind as he recognizes countryside from his boyhood, happily recollecting and relishing the old familiar sights as they walk along. But soon they are not alone: the road is filled with boys Scrooge also remembers, boys who are traveling home for Christmas on horseback, on gigs, and on carts. “All these boys,” Dickens writes, “were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.”
In the midst of all this, we see a side of Scrooge we haven’t seen before, a side that no one has seen, evidently, for years: “Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds…why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past!”
But this opening jaunt, pleasant as it is, is just an ice-breaker, a little warm-up before the next step in Scrooge’s reclamation. Because a whole nightful of recreated happiness would not have the power to thaw the deep freeze Scrooge has packed around his heart. Not permanently anyway. That will take something else.
And that something else comes soon enough, the Ghost of Christmas Past going on with Scrooge to the school building the boys have just left, a mansion of “broken fortunes”: desolate, shabby, damp, and cold: “There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.”
Surprisingly, as moving as this scene is, Dickens, in the theatrical readings he used to give in later years of A Christmas Carol, dropped it. No doubt he had good reasons—the whole book, for one thing, couldn’t be read in one sitting, and it is also said that Dickens’ contemporary audiences favored Tiny Tim and the merrier feast scenes in the story too.
But I wonder if perhaps another reason Dickens declined to share this passage with an audience live was because it touched too painfully on a similar kind of desolation he himself had experienced as a boy during a period of acute family crisis.
Dickens’ father went into a financial freefall that ultimately landed him in debtors’ prison. This resulted in two things: while most of the family actually stayed in the prison along with the father, the young Charles Dickens, who considered himself a gentleman in the making and who had been going to school, instead now found himself at the age of twelve living alone in rented rooms and working, trapped, ten hours a day, six days a week, in a broken-down factory pasting labels on pots of shoe blacking.
And this went on for months, an experience so traumatizing for the boy that years later, as a grown man, he could not walk past the place where the factory had once been, without crying.
Strikingly Scrooge has the same reaction when he is confronted with the sight of his younger school-boy self: “They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be.”
It’s a painful moment, but a momentous one, because it’s the point where Scrooge’s transformation truly begins. For it’s not only the house that’s broken–it is the boy himself who is broken too, the boy whose heart Scrooge still bears within, that same heart the Spirit has laid his careful and abiding hand upon.
Understated as the scene is, compared to, say the later scenes with Tiny Tim, this moment conveys a kind of human miracle. Though utterly sunk in his old, overwhelming desolation, Scrooge now has a companion, a calm and deeply accepting witness to his anguish.
So now it’s no longer a question of how long Scrooge will take to thaw: his melting is instantaneous. And why? Because of the power this kind of witnessing has, the ghost’s compassionate spirit bringing clear-eyed acceptance, allowing Scrooge the boy and Scrooge the man to reconnect with the whole truth of himself.
And this, I’d say too, is the underlying dynamic in the transforming power of the book itself. One word for it of course is connection. But more specifically, the process that Dickens is enacting on the page for us is the process of vulnerability. Because it’s not just that the spirit connects with Scrooge—there’s more going on, an ultimately mysterious, paradoxical process, one I think that quietly runs beneath all the rest of the story, through all of Scrooges’ journey through the Past, the Present, and the Future, through all the wrenching scenes and the boisterous ones too.
But wait, just what do I mean by vulnerability?
Well, as I was saying before, the fundamental truth of being human is that we need to be connected—like it or not, we come wired for it. Without connection, we’re stifled; with it, we thrive. But in order to be connected, we have to let others see the things in us that make us feel like we’re maybe not good enough for anyone to connect with. It’s like Brene Brown, the researcher whose TED talk on vulnerability went viral, says: “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
What Scrooge discovers when he revisits his abandoned younger self in the company of the spirit, is that he must embrace his vulnerability in order to live again. Not only that, he must have the courage to do it with others. But courage, as Brene Brown reminds us, is not to be confused with bravery. If you look at the original root sense of the word, courage means having the heart to tell your whole story.
This of course, at the beginning of the Christmas Carol, is exactly what Scrooge doesn’t have. All he has is money, lots of it. But ironically, given the ways he has compensated for his extreme lack of connection with others, it turns out he is no better off than he was as a boy. He has in fact, recreated the hateful circumstances of his younger years with an unwitting fidelity. Whereas the young Ebenezer was left alone on Christmas day huddled by a small fire in a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building–Scrooge, on Christmas eve, rich as he is, takes himself home to a large, dilapidated, poorly lit and cold building. His fire too, is the same fire, a dispiriting thing, a “very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night.”
But as ironic as the situation is, it’s natural too—in fact it’s exactly the kind of thing lots of us do, recreating the old wounding dynamics of our childhoods and imprisoning ourselves in the process.
For Scrooge himself is certainly in a prison, as the spirit of his former partner Marley recognizes. He sees that Scrooge needs drastic spiritual reclamation, a kind of crash course in vulnerability, and that of course is what Scrooge gets, the ghosts with their spirit of compassion handling him not with kid gloves, but compelling him simply to see things as they are. And that’s what does the trick: the spirits usher our man Scrooge into a fuller vision of himself, one that makes the prison of his own construction finally visible to him. Once he has seen that, the process of reclamation really takes hold in him, and he makes reconnection his own habit, his own philosophy, his religion really. For Ebenezer Scrooge is a man joyfully resurrected.
No wonder then, he goes frisking about his rooms! It’s not just because he finds he’s still alive, but because he finds at last he truly is alive. And what else to do then but make his reunion with mankind manifest, not only through giving spontaneously and generously, but by going forth to join the world on the streets of London? And here is how Dickens, who was himself his whole life a great walker of the streets of London, describes Scrooge’s jaunt that Christmas morning:
“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows; and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.”
Yes, it has taken a long night of work, but here at last, rejuvenated on Christmas Day, Scrooge has found out the wisdom of his nephew Fred’s words the day before—that is, for all that we continually fail to see it, other people really are our fellow-passengers to the grave: they are the only companions we have.
Now I know Christmas certainly is not always the festive occasion Dickens painted. It truly is not. And it can be a time of particular and pointed anguish. But at the same time, it is also a time of year when, again, as Fred claims, “men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” In that way, Christmas offers precious opportunity, a chance for us to disregard what pains us most about the holiday and do instead what we’re here to do: connect.
So may the spirit of the past, the present, and the future be with you this Christmas season. May you have the courage to reconnect yourself with others and to find yourself whole. And may it bring us all joy.
Amen and blessed be.
Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.