The call of the beautiful is a call that recalls itself to us by recalling us to ourselves. To wound us in the heart brings its utterance to life. It draws us out of our poise and makes us lose our immobility.
There are better ways to celebrate Christmas, and there are worse ways. Our man Charles Dickens often comes in for criticism under the latter heading, as a proponent of inferior holiday culture. His novella, A Christmas Carol, may present itself as a celebration of the season, but in fact it’s more snowglobe than Nativity pageant. Like a gumdrop (it is said), the Carol looks promising, but on penetrating the sugary surface, we find no mysterious depths—certainly no Incarnational gateway to the Infinite. I recall at least two seasonal essays last year making such a case, but we need go no further than Dickens’ own day to find compelling witnesses: the Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant called Dickens “the first to find out the immense spiritual power of the Christmas turkey,” and the art critic John Ruskin wrote that, for Dickens, “Christmas meant mistletoe and pudding—neither resurrection from the dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherd.” On this account, A Christmas Carol has forgotten what our bumper stickers call “the reason for the season,” and must be held accountable, or at minimum, written off.
On the other hand, I prefer to take A Christmas Carol’s attractiveness more seriously. Why has it been so unceasingly popular, as it has been ever since its publication in 1841? Why have we patiently sat through innumerable retellings of its story, for better or worse? The answer has something to do with the Providential opportunity at the heart of the tale, an opportunity presented both to Ebeneezer Scrooge and to ourselves. It is an opportunity to come out of oneself and remember—relearn—how to love again. On this account, Dicken’s Christmas Carol presents a dramatic pedagogy in how to respond to the call of creation, and ultimately, creation’s God.
First, though, let us consider an alternative interpretation of the story, one that supports the “mistletoe and pudding” objection. Call it the stoic reading, according to which Ebeneezer Scrooge is a jerk who must be scared into taking his duty seriously. By the end of the Carol, he knows his responsibilities and carries them out, taking care of his fellow men instead of remaining a cold egoist. If this stoic reading is correct, the trappings and sentimentality of Christmas in the story are extrinsic to the fundamental drama of Scrooge learning how to do his duty to mankind. Oliphant and Ruskin are right: Dickens’ tale is a moralistic farce preaching altruism, dressed up in tinsel and a bunch of maudlin kitsch that has little to do with Christmas itself. The formula is duty plus artificial sweetener.
Such a reading is not without textual support. After all, Scrooge is scared into all of this: he is “very much dismayed” and quaking “exceedingly” at the sight of Marley’s ghost in Stave One. He is also shivering, perspiring freely, and sleepless (49, 54). The abstract terminology of some of the moral appeals in the book also make it sound like Scrooge is simply being persuaded to follow a set of rules: ‘Mankind was my business,” says a penitent Marley; “the common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all, my business” (49). These all sound like abstract rules to follow, duties to be taken up: moralism with a steaming plate of turkey. The allegorical specters of Ignorance and Want at the end of Stave Three seem to function similarly, making real social problems impersonal, abstract, and formulaic (94). The story is of Scrooge being made to learn that this set of abstractions is good; that is bad; live your life according to these; carefully shun those.
Fair enough, as far as it goes; but the stoic reading simply fails to account for the full experience of reading the book. As I have said, a better interpretation frames Scrooge’s moral drama in terms of the call placed on him, made to him, by everything around him.
Consider the first part of the Carol (“Stave One”): in it, everything, and especially every one, around him is trying to draw Scrooge out of himself, out of his isolation. They call with words, but especially with their attractive vibrancy. His nephew Fred, for example, enters Scrooge’s counting-house with “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” (35). Genial in spite of the sarcasm and bitterness with which he is received, Fred is a lover, with gratuitous affection and joy outstripping the conditions: “what right have you to be merry?,” his uncle asks (36-37). Turned away by the vituperative old man, Fred reiterates the gratuity of his offer: “I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?” (37). He is attractive, giving, but Scrooge cannot see or receive; calling, but Scrooge cannot hear.
The same is true of Bob Cratchit, the philanthropic gentlemen who stop by the office, and the caroling child who sings through Scrooge’s keyhole. The same is true of all Scrooge’s surroundings, human and nonhuman. Men stand round a fire, “in rapture” at its blaze. Everywhere,
The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers’ and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and blood-thirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow’s pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef. (39-40)
Amid darkness and discomfort, there is so much attractiveness, all calling to a palpably deaf man. The rest of the story will concern his emergence out of that deafness.
In Stave Two, under the guidance of the first spirit, Scrooge begins to hear a call from outside himself: the call of his own past self. The first stop is his childhood boarding school, where Scrooge finds himself as a neglected child. “They went,” he and the Ghost of Christmas Past,
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. (58)
Here the old man sees what he himself had deserved as a child, what his being had called out for, and yet had not been given. By extension, these are needs for which his being is still calling out, even now.
From there, he begins to hear the call of past details and people connected with himself. Among others, there are the characters in his old books; his younger sister; the music, dancing, and comradery of an old Christmas party; and most gloriously — most surprisingly, most unaccountably—the calves of his former employer, Mr. Fezziwig. “A positive light,” we are told, “appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would become of ’em next” (63). Now, this is a classic Dickensian moment, in which the loveliness, the loveableness, of all creation emerges in one priceless, absurd singularity. The point is that Scrooge is beginning to hear the call of being: of every created thing, with its unique appeal.
In Stave Three, Scrooge continues to emerge, coming out of himself. Now it is the Ghost of Christmas Present’s turn to guide him, and this time, nothing is forced upon Scrooge. As the scene opens, a light shines from the next room, calling him closer. Then the ghost cries out (as one ought to do when someone else shows up late to a meeting), “Come in! and know me better, man!” (72). The old miser reciprocates, becoming notably more responsive: “Spirit,” he says, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have ought to teach me, let me profit by it” (74). On being shown a mass of Christmas Eve church-goers in the street, Scrooge rejoices, reflecting on the shame it would be disturb such a day with dissension and quarrelling: “And so it was! God love it, so it was!” (77). Later, with the Ghost at his nephew Fred’s, Scrooge is drawn out into the party’s games and fun, even though he is invisible to the others (90). He has begun to respond more naturally, more emphatically, to the calls all around him.
By Stave Four, we find Scrooge utterly affirmative, even in the face of the most fearsome spirit yet. Before the harrowing Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge admits, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?” (96). At this point, Scrooge sees the visitations as a gift, a good beyond his deserving, and he is determined to make a good response. Even though he does not understand what the ghost’s visions are leading toward at first, “he resolved to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw,” sure of it all (98). The allusion to Mary at the Nativity is on point, for both she and Scrooge now know where to find their treasure, and what to do with it (Luke 2:19). By the end of the Stave, Scrooge’s only concern is to have more time to respond to the call he has received: “Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse . . . Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! . . . I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year” (108-109). The call of being, of every good thing given to each person as a gift, requires one to respond with one's whole life, and Scrooge understands this now.
In the final Stave, he is therefore overjoyed to be given the time “to make amends in” (111). The last pages are a riot of literal call and response, with Scrooge shouting out the windows to all who pass by, engaging every person he meets: “A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!” (111). Having been drawn back into the world, Scrooge now begins making his own calls, responding to goodness he sees with his own goodness, his own appeals. Thanking, dancing, singing, shouting, laughing, giving: these and other effusions crowd the last pages of the novella, marking the culmination of its pedagogy (111-118). Scrooge has been recalled to life, and life is about loving response.
Still, one might accept most of the above and yet chide Dickens for diminishing Christmas: is the Nativity really about learning how to respond again to the glory of calves and figgy puddings and Tiny Tim? Is not Scrooge’s drama a piece of mere humanism, another tired example of the nineteenth-century “religion of humanity” that grew stale long ago, even before its first adherents had died? Au contraire, the living, pulsing heart of the whole book, and of Scrooge’s miraculous opportunity, is the call of Christ. We hear it, most centrally, in the gospel Scrooge hears Peter Cratchit reading in Stave Four: “And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them” (105; Mark 9:36). Scrooge wonders, “where had he heard those words?” and is thinking about the next verse: “Why did [the boy] not go on?” (105). Of course, a biblically literate Victorian audience would easily have supplied Christ’s immediate follow-up in Mark 9:37: “Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me.” In receiving, in responding to all calls with his own gifts, his own calls, Scrooge responds to Christ himself, the Creator within his creation. Here is the luminous heart of reality, and the source of Scrooge’s conversion. In responding to Christ’s call in all things, especially children and the least of these, Scrooge himself becomes like a child—“quite a baby,” as he says in Stave Five (112). As the narrator says in Stave Three, “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself” (89).
There it is: to discover again how to do the easiest, simplest things—hearing, then responding to the call of life; calling back to it oneself—is to become a child again. And that is Scrooge’s vocation, the vocation of everyone of us, and the reason we keep turning back to A Christmas Carol. At some level, we too want to become children again, that we might be suffered to come unto him whose call has never ceased sounding, whose carol of love for us has been unfolding since before the foundation of the world.
 Both passages quoted in Philip Collins, “Carol Philosophy, Cheerful Views,” Études Anglaises 23, no. 2 (1970): 158.
 Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings, ed. Michael Slater (New York: Penguin, 2003), 49. Subsequent quotations will be cited parenthetically in the text.