The Cross-Shaped Hole in A Christmas Carol

A Christmas time hardly ever rolls around that does not find me enjoying Charles Dickens’ delightful tale in some form or other, whether for private reading pleasure, in a read-aloud gathering, as an adaptation for stage or screen, or at the very least in many shared allusions and quotations scattered liberally over family festivities, like drops from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch. It is, of course, one of the best of books for inspiring holiday hospitality. It encourages readers not to look on the poor as strangers, but “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” (42). The story closes, memorably, with Scrooge’s overflowing acts of charity and generosity, as he provides food, warmth, and medical care to the poor from whom he was formerly estranged. He no longer desires to banish the unwanted, unknown masses of the poor into prisons and workhouses, for now he knows them as individual human beings. He knows them as friends.

And yet, in some ways A Christmas Carol is a strange book to incorporate into a Christian holiday celebration, because it does not “keep Christ in Christmas.” While it might make the poor appear as friends, it makes Jesus into a stranger. It banishes him to the corners of chapters, leaving Him to shiver in the margins of the pages like a refugee outside a border-wall, looking in. It seems odd that in a book whose quintessence is the birth of Christ, without which event the story could not in any sense exist, the name of Jesus is never evoked. Not once is His name mentioned. Nor is the title “Christ” used anywhere except in formations such as “Christmas.”[1] There are no sermons given. No one recounts the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus. There is no stable, no manger, no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds.[2] Indeed, the Jesus-shaped hole at the center of the story is called out by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round,” he exults, “—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” (42). Those em-dashes contain the whole question I am asking: How can this book, framed and invested, as it were, with that sacred name and origin, fail to mention them? How can it leave Jesus out in the cold?

Not only is Jesus never mentioned and His salvation never laid out plainly in this novella, but it may even preach an anti-Christian gospel. Rather than faith in Christ, A Christmas Carol appears to credit good works with the ability to reconcile people to God. In begging the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to give him a chance to change the future, Scrooge cries out: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” (117). When he awakes and finds that he has been granted that chance to repent, he repeats his resolution, then faces this new Christmas morning “glowing with his good intentions” (118). Rather than trusting Jesus’ atonement to save him, Scrooge immediately and busily sets about saving himself by the works of his hands. “He did it all, and infinitely more” (123). Not only does Dickens appear to make Christ a stranger to the reader; he seems to go further and banish Him as an outsider, replacing His sacrificial crucifixion with a rich man’s alms-giving actions.

Why, then, this cross-shaped hole throughout the book, filled up with human works rather than God’s grace? Why so many casual exclamations referring to God—such as “God save you!” “God bless it!” “Lord bless ye!” “Lord bless me!” “God forbid!” “God bless my soul!” “God love it” “Oh God!”, or “God knows”—throughout the text, but so few serious ones that might point readers to a God they may not know? Why do characters so often go to church, but there is no report of what they heard there? Why does the cold caroler at Scrooge’s door sing “God bless you, merry gentleman! /  May nothing you dismay!”, but Dickens stops before quoting the next lines: “Remember Christ our Savior / Was born on Christmas day”?

There are certainly cultural explanations available for this lacuna. Anglophone readers in 1843 would have been extremely familiar with the Biblical story of Christmas’s “sacred name and origin.” They would not need accounts of what church-goers would hear, because they were likely church-goers themselves. At the very least, England was still culturally a nominally Christian country in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the Bible occupying a central place in standard education. Dickens could not predict that his book would be popular years later with a biblically uninformed audience.

Furthermore, Dickens himself was not enamored of what we now like to call “organized” religion, and perhaps held some less-than-orthodox beliefs himself. In The Life of Our Lord, he rewrote the birth of Jesus heretically, making the angels say to the shepherds: “There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love him as his own son.” And while the doctrine of good works can perhaps be ascribed to denominational differences (historically, Anglican preaching has focused more on outward than inward signs of regeneration), Dickens himself went even further, arguing that “because [Jesus] did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour.” This is the heresy of adoptionism or dynamic monarchianism. Dickens concludes The Life of Our Lord with this unmistakable adjuration to his children: “Remember! – It is christianity [sic] TO DO GOOD always.” In short, Dickens’ stated version of Christianity posits a non-divine Jesus and a works-based soteriology.

With these concerns in mind, it almost seems as if it is erroneous to read A Christmas Carol as a Christian book. However, whether by design or in spite of himself, Dickens did include the saving shape of the cross in his story in the form of an important chiasmus. When Scrooge awakens after the three marvelous encounters with the spirits and cavorts joyfully around his room, “He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!” (119). This beautiful palindrome with its arrangement of words crossing in the middle creates a cross-shape out of the sounds of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, thus telling the whole Gospel story from Jesus’ birth through His death and resurrection down to the church as His body in that day. And of course, the most-quoted line in is Tiny Tim’s “God bless us every one!” (89), which the narrator echoes to conclude the book, expansively: “Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

In short, while there are still valuable questions to be asked about the orthodoxy or denominational nature of A Christmas Carol, it really answers my concern itself, in Fred’s wise words: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that.” With these words, Fred welcomes Jesus as friend, family, and savior who both gives and receives Christmas hospitality.

[1] There are several oblique—but important—references to Jesus without using His name. Tiny Tim told his father, coming home from church, “that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The narrator comments upon adults playing games, claiming that “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself” (96). When Scrooge enters the house of the bereaved Cratchits in one of the Christmases of the future, he hears a Scripture quotation read aloud: “‘And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them’” (Mark 9:36, qtd. in 112).

[2]  There is one mention of the Magi, spoken by Marley’s Ghost: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!” (56), and one rather facetious reference to “Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds” depicted upon Scrooge’s fireplace-tiles (50).

16 thoughts on “The Cross-Shaped Hole in A Christmas Carol

  1. Well you did it again & you always do it to me: you made me think, question, pause & then cause fountain of other questions. You make me dig deeper & reread & reread & then oh horrors think! I have thought the Christmas Carol was an example of the mixture of Christianity & hospitality of the 1950’s. or a water downed gospel.

    A cross shaped heart created by the ringing of the bells. Fascinating for sure but how did you get this image ? Is your conclusion that the Christmas Carol does indeed present the gospel through Fred’s words ? Or are you letting your readers come to our own conclusions.

    As a child I loved this story, loved Christmas but always tried to figure out where Jesus was & if He was there; what did He have to do with me. The Christmas I had my heart surgery, age 10 as I I watched the Christmas pageant at church I was aching to understand why this baby was so important. I had a keen sense of life/ death, as I seemed to dance near both often, and I struggled to grasp what this baby had to do with me & that I had lived through the surgery. The surgery was November 28th , and this was first outing after my operation. Somehow , I sensed that this Baby had something to do with me and that I was still alive. It took me 10 more years to find out who the Baby Jesus is & His love for me.

    Guess I am rambling on . Sorry
    Love the way your write and that you stir the mind.
    Many thanks m

    • Thank you for sharing your story! It is amazing that the Christmas pageant mapped onto your own experience when you were 10 years old.
      What do you think? Do you think that Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” shares the Gospel?

  2. Agreed. I love this story, and I have actually read Dickens’ text as well as many versukns from the Alistair Sim classic to Bill Murray’s ‘Scrooged’ plus the Muppets’ Christmas Carol. In an essay I wrote somewhere I described the story as ‘pseudochristian but loveable’.

    I suppose Dickens was reflecting the steady decline in lively faith that has now gone so much further.

    Well written.

    • That is a good perspective to add to our readings of Dickens. Your description, “pseudochristian but loveable,” seems perfectly apt to me!

  3. Taking a stab here at questions about A Christmas Carol: From the standpoint of the writer concerned with structure of storytelling, and other comments you made on a recent podcast about perichoresis, Dickens has perhaps taken a hint from the Trinity and divided the Ghosts into three, so that he can take the story where he wants in Time and teach morality by this mechanism. So could the story not be about Jesus at all, but rather about the third part of the Trinity, the one about which we do not hear as much, the Holy Ghost? He may be saying, this: the purpose of the Three Ghosts in his story is to teach us, as a parable does, and as well as Time does through conscience and self knowledge through Life experience, through the memories and dreams which we all have about the past and regrets and the future hopes and intentions, and what we might do better if given the chance of a do-over. It is this mysterious link made by us in our minds, when we consider it, between the people we were and who we are becoming. So I think it is an intriguing question: Are the three Ghosts in “A Christmas Carol” a means of simultaneously dividing and pausing Time in order to make it possible to examine consequences of our actions by subjecting Time to our consciousness and having freedom of action back and forth in it with the author’s control of its speed? I always understood the Holy Ghost as Breath, for breath comes and goes from the souls it blows through, but when expired in death, becomes united with the wind and keeps circulating and so we all share the same breath and we swim in it and it in us, and by it, through each other and through those we knew or loved (both human and animals) and will know as physical and spiritual occupants of the planet, circulating over and round for eternity or for as long as the Earth shall exist and over it winds may blow. So Breath, Being and Time are related through our bodies and minds. It is very physical, yet as fleeting and chimerical as thoughts, or our struggle to understand and explain the ineffable nature of the Holy Ghost.

    • It’s a fascinating idea that “A Christmas Carol” might be about the Holy Ghost — but if the three ghosts represent the Trinity, wouldn’t the novella then be about all three Persons of the Trinity?

  4. More on the bell, and as a sort of parallel, in G M Hopkins poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, the poet uses some images like water ringing across rocks and bells tolling to show us how sounds or voice through action, caused by human and natural forces applied like hands to strings or bows to things like bells made with a human purpose for ringing or with a more mysterious intentionality which originates from a more godlike source, to make a noise through action. In this poem, the individual is like the bell, having his or her own voice or being to ring. But the ringing is not a solitary or individual act. It continues apace through many voices (and he also says through other ways of toning for good like through seeking justice) and is repeated throughout time in many faces. Multiplicity, repetition in many ways and forms is key. So are actions.
    “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
    Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

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