One of the most popular holiday traditions between Thanksgiving and Christmas is watching and re-watching all the great Christmas movies. “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Christmas Vacation,” “The Christmas Story,” and yes, the perennial favorite, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But before all of them came Charles Dickens 1843 novella, “A Christmas Carol.”
The famous story came to the big screen for the first time in 1938. The original film production was set to star Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life) in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Barrymore had brought the role to life through a radio production and was the obvious choice to play Scrooge in the film adaptation. But Barrymore had to drop out due to laryngitis and the role fell to Reginald Owen
(Owen, I am sorry to say is no Lionel Barrymore! On a personal note if you have never listened to the radio production with Barrymore find a copy! When I worked as a radio Disc Jockey many years ago at WPXN-FM in Paxton, Illinois we would play the radio production every Christmas Eve and it truly is incredible!).
Since 1938 the tale has been filmed some 200 times, with actors as varied as George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, and even cartoon character Scrooge McDuck playing the leading role.
Being familiar with and telling (and re-telling!) the story each year is as much a part of the Christmas tradition as nativity sets and caroling in neighborhoods. But why does this little story remain so popular? The answer lies within the themes of Dickens classic tale which resonate with the reason why we celebrate Christmas to begin with.
The story begins on Christmas Eve and surrounds Ebenezer Scrooge and his greedy ways. From his poor treatment of his impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit to his, “Bah Humbug!” attitude that was directed at anyone who would take up his time or dare to mention anything at all associated with Christmas. But at the end of the workday when Scrooge returns home and heads off to bed he is visited by visions in the night that awaken him from his sleep. The first is from Jacob Marley, his old business partner who is enslaved in chains for his own past greedy ways and is sent as a messenger to Scrooge.
Scrooge is warned that three spirits, (Christmas Past, Present and Future) will visit him in the night; a warning that Scrooge quickly dismisses. When the spirits arrive one by one they each take Scrooge and show him how his greed ruined his life, is ruining his life and eventually will doom his life. In that final climatic scene, Scrooge is seeing the people around him whose lives are wasted because of his greed and he sees his own death and how his life is wasted. A lonely tombstone and an open grave are all that remain. Scrooge then falls into the open tomb facing his much deserved death. But something happens!
All of sudden it’s Christmas morning and Scrooge, who thought he was dead—is alive! He thought he had lost everything but now it’s back! All those people whose lives had been ruined by him are still there and he has a new lease on life! He’s actually had…an experience of grace! It’s undeserved, it was unexpected but it’s there! He thought his life was over and everything was gone. But he’s been given grace and as a result, he begins to see his life in a totally different light.
In Dickens’ novel, the story ends with Scrooge at Bob Cratchit’s home showering the Cratchit family with gifts, especially upon the youngest, Tiny Tim. The story’s most famous line is it’s last: Tiny Tim’s prayer, “God bless us everyone.”
In his posthumously published The Life of Our Lord, Dickens wrote this: “It is Christianity to do good always—even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbor as our self, and to do to all men as we would have them do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to show that we love him by humbly trying to do right in everything.”
There is some debate as to whether or not Mr. Dickens understood the reason why we should embrace all of those wonderful values. Does Dickens preach a moral religiosity that is only concerned with good works? Or does he truly understand, that radical generosity can truly be practiced when we understand the radical generosity given to us, when God came in flesh and was born in a manger over 2,000 years ago? In other words, while our hearts are certainly warmed by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in Christ will we find our hearts not only warmed…but transformed!