Remember . . . Christmas Day

 

A broadside ballad containing several Christmas carols. This particular version was printed and distributed on the streets of London between 1813 and 1838. Held by the Bodleian Library.

In all the renditions of A Christmas Carol I’ve experienced over the years, from plays, to movies, to cartoons, to audiobooks, to—of course—Dickens’ original text, I don’ t think I’ve ever paid adequate attention to the actual “carol” of A Christmas Carol. The story has become so thoroughly a part of western holiday culture that, I suspect, many of us don’t give the title a second thought. I won’t make the same mistake again.

The “carol” in A Christmas Carol is, presumably, the one the little boy attempts to sing outside Scrooge’s keyhole:

The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of
“God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!”
Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost. (46-47)

This action of Scrooge is the third and culminating inhospitable action he commits during the scene at his counting house. He has turned away his nephew’s invitation of hospitality and also turned his nephew out forcibly with his repeated “Good afternoon!” (43) in response to his nephew’s holiday well wishes, he has rejected altogether the request for donations to charity, and now he completes his tripartite rejection of the Christmas spirit—foreshadowing the three spirits that will later visit him—with his frightening away of the young caroler, who is stopped after only two lines of the song.

Dickens centers a great deal around these two lines that are present—and the rest that are absent—from this mid-eighteenth-century carol. By the book’s publication in 1843, dozens of versions of the carol were available in broadside printings, many of which still survive in the Bodleian Library’s physical and digital archives. Dickens’ version, however, does not match the text of any of these printings, but he instead trades the word “rest” for his own word, “bless.” The word “bless” becomes central to the tale, and it is prominently featured in Tiny Tim’s benediction at the close of the story: “God Bless Us, Every One!” (125). Dickens does not intend for Scrooge to “rest,” and he is certainly not “merry,” but through the playing out of the carol in the rest of the novella, he is indeed blessed, and he becomes merry. The switch to the singular “gentleman” likewise indicates a personal benediction. This carol and its blessing are meant for Scrooge. Scrooge loses rest—literally and figuratively—over the next several nights in order to be blessed by the results of the visitations by Marley and the three ghosts of Christmas.

Although Scrooge chases the boy off before he can start the next line, the rest of the carol resonates in the readers’ minds and is also extended in the themes of the book itself. The book becomes the carol in several ways. According to the original title page, A Christmas Carol is not merely the title of the book, but also its designation. Beneath the title are printed the words “in prose,” signifying that the story itself is not merely about a carol—it is one.

The title page of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, held by the British Library. 

Furthermore, in most versions of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” that were circulating at that time, the next line begins with “remember,” a command that becomes a key part of Scrooge’s transformation. Dickens emphasizes the theme of memory as Scrooge visits his former self with the Spirit of Christmas Past, and it is at that moment he recalls the caroler regretfully:

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” (66)

When Scrooge empathizes with the lonely boy, remembering the emotions of his own boyhood, he also remembers his failure to exercise charity. Dickens even capitalizes “Carol” this time, further cementing the connection with the title and highlighting the importance of the act of remembering in truly celebrating Christmas.

But why does Scrooge seem to have been brought full-circle after only one spirit’s visitation? There are two remaining visitations that appear to be vital to his transformation, but it seems there must also be a reason for returning to the carol after only one ghost. It is never again explicitly mentioned.

Perhaps part of the answer may be found in the next lines of the carol that are not sung by the caroler, which Dickens’ readers would have known and filled in automatically. It continues, “Remember Christ our Savior/ was born on Christmas Day.” Christ, however, is oddly absent from this novella that purports to be a song about his birthday celebration. Whereas the broadside versions of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” are typically adorned with engraved images of the nativity or depictions of Christ’s life, Christ is all but missing from this “prose carol.” The song is cut short before reaching his name, and he is not named elsewhere in the story. Scrooge does indeed “Remember . . . Christmas Day,” but his acts of remembrance are not actually about Christ—or are they? Although the babe himself is never mentioned, opportunities for kindness to the least of these abound. The biblically literate reader cannot help but recall Matthew 25, in which Christ commends those who have shown mercy or charity as having done so unto him, although they did not recognize him. Even without recognizing Christ in fellow humans, one can still feed, clothe, visit, and otherwise remember them.

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge completes the unsung lines of the boy’s carol by remedying his series of inhospitable actions and attitudes from the beginning of the novel–a task he completes with the aid of memory. It seems to require different uses of memory in all three visitations to enable Scrooge to change enough that he can complete all of these tasks. Memory is not only a tool for empathy with those we see, but it is also a reminder of those whose needs exist but cannot be seen, as Scrooge learns from the second ghost, as well as a tool for considering the legacy we will leave behind us when we are gone, as Scrooge learns by encountering the contrasting deaths of himself and Tiny Tim. Each of these uses of memory enables Scrooge to “remember . . . Christmas Day” in a different way. The carol cannot be completely fulfilled until he has been kind to those he encounters and knows who are less fortunate, given to charity to help the poor he does not see or know, and entered into relationship with his family by accepting his nephew’s hospitality. In keeping Christmas Day in this way, Scrooge fulfills the unsung lines of the carol. Through his participation in both charity and hospitality, he becomes the blessed and merry gentleman from the first line of the boy’s song. By remembering his fellow man, he is  remembering Christ and aptly celebrating Christmas Day. 

Is it possible to celebrate Christmas in a way that honors Christ without mentioning his name or acknowledging his presence? Dickens seems to make that case in this story. The closest we find to a mention of Christ comes through Tiny Tim’s comment that “it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The needs of the poor, lame, and otherwise less fortunate should remind people of the one who met their needs when he was on earth—needs that the church, as Christ’s hands and feet, are now charged with meeting through Christian charity. With this in mind, Dickens writes a new Christmas carol that works to exemplify the spirit of Christmas rather than merely singing about its guest of honor. Without the spirit of charity in Christmas, all the carols in the world cannot adequately remember or worship the infant Christ.

*All quotations from A Christmas Carol are taken from the 2003 Broadview edition, edited by Richard Kelly

2 thoughts on “Remember . . . Christmas Day

  1. Oh, LaJoie, you’ve increased my love of this “carol” with your words. I’d not thought of that part of it. Dickens wrote a masterpiece of human misery and confliction, ending it with the joy of serving and loving others in Jesus name. I must find my copy of the one which has side-bars describing the connections to Scripture and Christianity so I can share with you its thoughts. I loved how it showed another side of Dickens, one not often shared. Blessings!

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