I did NOT get the part of Ebenezer Scrooge in my grade school musical. No, that went to my best friend John Barber, the son of the local congregational minister. I was one of two “portly gentlemen” who come to Scrooge’s counting house asking for a donation to help the poor. Scrooge tells them to get lost. That’s my acting career – no, your voice isn’t good enough for this part and get lost! I did however illustrate the program cover. I still have my drawing of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pointing out Scrooge’s name on the tombstone. I’ve been enthralled by the story ever since.
British Unitarian Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol in Prose” has remained a popular tale since its publication in 1843. I believe we continue to be drawn to the story not for the feeling of Christmas cheer it evokes with its happy ending, but because we connect on an intimate and visceral level with its central character. All of us can relate to being Ebenezer Scrooge.
Throughout “A Christmas Carol”, we follow a man who has lost his way and lost himself, as he finds himself again. This is a deeply religious text in that religion is chiefly the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we should be. Yes, it’s a Christmas story, but like any good religious story it’s as much about the journey as the destination. Scrooge’s story is a story of a man who learns to see his life as a story and that it’s possible to change the ending. It is a story of inner transformation, from turmoil to inner peace.
Scrooge is a deeply troubled man, certainly not at peace with himself. He needs to find his Inner Light, and master storyteller that he is, Dickens fills the story with images of light to help lead Scrooge, and us, out of what Christian mystic St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” At every major turn in the story the symbol of light and darkness is prominent.
The story opens in Scrooge’s dim counting house. Dickens tell us Scrooge had a small fire and his clerk’s was even smaller. Scrooge’s nephew Fred arrives and invites his uncle to Christmas dinner. To which Scrooge says “Bah. Humbug.” When Fred leaves, Bob Cratchit pokes the fire and last ember goes out.
Scrooge goes home to his chambers and we learn “darkness was cheap and Scrooge liked it.” Scrooge again has a meager fire in his rooms but the light in the fire leaps up when Marley’s ghost enters, telling us Marley (and the ghosts) will be the vehicle for the light or the enlightenment.
The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives to find Scrooge in the dark of his curtained bed. The spirit parts the darkness, drawing aside the curtain. It’s appearance was strange, but strangest of all was that “from the crown of its head sprung a bright clear jet of light.” The ghost carries a cap is in the form of great candle extinguisher. When the story of his past is too much and Scrooge can’t take it any more, he slams the extinguisher cap on the ghost’s head and it vanishes.
Scrooge wakes in his bed at the appointed hour for the next spirit. Fifteen minutes go by and nothing happens, but Scrooge notices that he’s in a spotlight of sorts. His bed was “the very core and center of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour, and which being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts.” The Ghost of Christmas Present sits in the parlor which is filled to the brim with food and holly and ivy. In the fireplace “such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as that dull pertraction of hearth has never known in Scrooge’s time.”
This bearded giant of a ghost in a green robe “bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge as he came peeping round the door.”
During his travels with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge watches the spirit sprinkle the light from his torch on people and food. People regain good humor and the food gets a special flavor. Scrooge asks if it has a flavor that applies to any dinner, and the spirit says, “To any kindly given; to a poor one most.” Scrooge asks why a poor one most. “Because a poor one needs it most.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s house and sprinkles the door with light. Bob’s son Peter blows on the fire and it leaps up. Then they walk the London Streets which are aglow with fires in hearths and kitchens, they visit miners gathered round a fire, and out to a lighthouse, then nephew Fred’s house with a party in a “bright gleaming room.” And then the spirit leaves to the tolling of the hour. It is always darkest before the dawn.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a shadow. All the light is gone. “It seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.” The spirit is “one great heap of black.” The word dark is peppered through this chapter, Scrooge and the spirt stand in the dark, Scrooge’s room is dark, and then a glimmer of hope is thrown in. Tiny Tim is dead in the future, but the Cratchits’ home is “lighted cheerfully.” Scrooge sees his name on the grave, finally he breaks, learns his lesson, and the darkness vanishes. He wakes.
Scrooge runs around the room like a crazy person, giddy in the extreme. He hears church bells, runs to the window and opens it, and sticks his head out. The weather is not frightful. “No fog, no mist, clear, bright, jovial stirring cold” and “Glorious sunlight, heavenly sky, sweet fresh air, merry bells. Oh glorious, glorious.”
The spirits did it all in one night. And you know the rest. If only it were that easy in real life. What you may not know is the story of another spiritual enlightenment that is celebrated annually this time of year: Bodhi Day, December 8th, the celebration of the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha.
Siddhartha Gautama was a rich prince who could no longer accept his life of privilege while so many suffered so much. He becomes an ascetic, practicing severe discipline of renunciation of worldly goods and pleasures. After years of spiritual searching as a poor beggar, he realizes that the extreme of renunciation is as ridiculous as the extreme of wasteful wealth and overindulgence. Finally, exhausted, he stops begging, accepts a bowl of rice and milk, then bathes, and sets out to find a middle way. Making his way to Bodh Gaya, he sits under a bodhi tree – a fig tree – ficus religiosa – and meditates through the night. This story is not unlike Scrooge’s.
The story casts the night of meditation as a battle with Mara, the most powerful of all demons. Mara in Sanskrit is “The Destroyer.” The Destroyer summons a host of demons to attack Siddhartha and they throw weapons and fire at him and through meditation, Siddhartha turns them to flowers. Mara tempts him with beautiful women, but he meditates through the temptaion. During the three watches of the night he has three enlightenments and gains the “Three Knowledges.”
During the first night watch he experiences and comes to know the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation and all his past lives and gains release from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation, wherein we are always creating worlds to distract us from dukkha or suffering. Scrooge comes to terms with his past and Buddha with his past lives.
During the second night watch he learns Karma. Karma means “action”. The law of karma means our actions are our only true possessions. Karma is not a law of results as in what goes around comes around, but how all one’s actions make one who one is and the importance of right living and living in the present moment.
During the third night watch he learns the Dharma, the real nature of all phenomena. He learns the 4 noble truths: 1. The world contains much human suffering. 2. The cause of suffering is desire and ignorance. 3. It is possible to reach Nirvana or release from suffering, attachment and endless cycles of death and rebirth. 4. The method of release from suffering is the Eight-fold Path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right livelihood, right action, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
When the morning sun rises, Siddhartha has become the Buddha, one who has gained wisdom, become awake, enlightened – just like Scrooge. Scrooge and Buddha have a number of similarities. Similarities they share with you and me.
Neither is perfect. Scrooge’s imperfection is obvious, he’s a “tight fisted hand at the grindstone,” mean and stingy and cold. “Odious” as Mrs. Cratchit notes. The Buddha is also imperfect. Part of his story that’s usually left out is how he abandons his wife and children to go on some mid life crisis spiritual quest. He just…takes off. Not very holy. Certainly not right living or right action.
Both fail miserably at what they initially set out to do. Siddhartha fails at being an ascetic. He can’t take the self denial. Scrooge is a failure at business. Riches he has, but as Marley tells him, humanity should have been his business. Even though they both fail on a grand scale, they are not failures. Both are revered now for the example they’ve given us about how to be human and what it means to succeed at being human. There’s a big difference between failing and being a failure.
Both have to go through a struggle with internal demons. Buddha encounters The Destroyer and Scrooge encounters the Ghosts of Christmas. For both, it is darkest before the dawn. Both become awake and find their answers inside themselves. Neither is at peace until they go through the difficulty of facing their own darkness. They remind us that our greatest enemy and the obstacle we truly have to conquer is frequently ourselves. We can not run from our pain. Light and peace rarely come without traveling through darkness and turmoil.
Both realize their own ignorance and how dangerous ignorance is. The part of a Christmas Carol that is most often left out of stage and screen versions is the end of Stave Three, just before the Ghost of Christmas Present departs.
“‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’
‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.
Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’
Both call us to be present to the everyday, to the present moment. Neither riches nor holiness is found in anything but the common place of life. Buddha calls us to sit and breathe and be aware of right now. Scrooge is reminded that the simple things of family life and its love are worth more than money and always at hand.
Being awake to the present moment is difficult. Our minds are easily distracted by brightly colored holiday lights, the sports page, the television, just about anything really except what is right here in front of us at the present moment.
Gary Snyder speaks of this in The Practice of the Wild (quoted by Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are Hyperion, 1994, p. 171).
“All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality. Reality-insight says . . . master the twenty-four hours. Do it well, without self-pity. It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning. One move is not better that the other, each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition. Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms. Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick — don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path” — it is our path.
And as our paths get filled with holiday errands, planning meals and visiting relatives, we must remember to be present to it, to be awake and to make time to sit and just be and just breathe and observe the inner light.
Both Buddha and Scrooge are Bodhisattvas, one who has gained wisdom but instead of dwelling in Nirvana remains to teach others. Instead of remaining in a state of perfect Nirvana, The Buddha becomes also the first Bodhisattva. He decides to teach others and to establish monasteries. And as for Scrooge:
He became a second father to Tiny Tim and “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew…and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that also be truly said of us.”