For all those who have read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or have watched one of the plentiful screen adaptations, it is hard to be unmoved by Tiny Tim. So young and so full of the delight he gets from going to church, the little Cratchet boy might need crutches to walk, but he has wings on which his wonder takes flight.
The scene Dickens paints of Tim has him set in a place of love and affection within his family. But, as it is, sickness holds no partiality. Tiny Tim’s life is threatened by poor health, the treatment of which is out of reach due to his father’s poor wages. In A Christmas Carol, the reader must repeatedly encounter death, a looming reminder of our own inevitable mortality and moral indebtedness.
The book begins, after all, with stressing the death of Jacob Marley. Tiny Tim’s death would be a tragedy. And Ebenezer Scrooge, whose conversion is carried in an awakening of realization mingled with dread, cowers at the idea of his own end and the disrespect with which his name might be recollected. It is certainly ironic that the man so occupied with the debts of others is unaware of his own debts, his fetters that even in life he forges around himself.
The oft bleak tales of Dickens might well fit into the same genre of moral dramas written by the contemporaneous author Robert Louis Stevenson. In several of his other shorter stories, we see traces of the same themes addressed in A Christmas Carol: the beauty of family, the call of charity, and the dignity of the human person.
In recent years, I found a copy of Stories for Christmas by Charles Dickens, a green hardcover volume tucked away in a bin filled with family Yuletide décor. Of course, it includes A Christmas Carol, the story that got Dickens his Christmas reputation. But inside the large book were a host of other stories, stories that at first glance might not seem overtly pertinent to the point of the season. Yet, if we take a moment to reflect on these stories, we begin to see the profound points Dickens is asserting through the literary medium.
It should be noted that Dickens was no stranger to poverty himself. Especially in his childhood, his family knew great want – primarily as a result of his father’s financial negligence. After becoming an author, he had some rather successful and lucrative publications. But in 1843, he found himself – now with a family of his own – in another financial rut. I can see him reflecting with St. Paul in his personal examination:
I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need (Philippians 4:12).
In late 1843, the Dickens family was in need. This was one of the things that prompted Charles Dickens to produce his Christmas classic. However, after this success, there came a time where Dickens was putting out a new Christmas story annually.
In the collection of his Christmas stories that I found, “Nobody’s Story” (1854) shares a good deal of messages identical to those in A Christmas Carol. The theme of stately, well-off individuals enjoying life at the expense of those in poverty also rings clearly through this short story.
In “Nobody’s Story,” the protagonist is a man who, in spite of his demeaning social status, desires to understand the things he sees around him. Even more so, he longs to see his children attend school. His present and his future are dictated by the fancies of the “Bigwig family,” who are always arguing among themselves. Others get to decide what aspects of his life get attention, which ones grow and which remain stagnant.
In his despair, he exclaims to a preacher, “Give me my first glimpse of Heaven, through a little of its light and air; give me pure water; help me to be clean; lighten this heavy atmosphere and heavy life…”
It is intriguing to see how so many of Dickens’ characters display transcendental yearnings and the struggles of the spiritual life. In this scene, we can hear echoes of the Apostle Philip’s comment to Jesus and our Lord’s response:
Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14: 8-9).
Apart from stressing his divine identity, Jesus turns this point back on Philip, challenging him to a greater faith. Blessed are those who have not seen and believed. The Beatific Vision, the full and unveiled presence of God, is something we only achieve in Heaven.
Meanwhile, on the journey, there are hardships. Even for the poor, who are frequently treated unjustly, suffering – when offered to God – is not without merit. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. They deserve to be heard and helped. Dickens alludes to this at the end of this story:
The story of Nobody is the story of the rank and file of the earth. They bear their share of the battle; they have their part in the victory; they fall; they leave no name but in the mass. The march of the proudest of us, leads to the dusty way by which they go. O! Let us think of them this year at the Christmas fire, and not forget them when it is burnt out.
There is merit not only in human sufferings, but there is dignity in the human person. In judgment, the King calls those blessed who saw him hungry, thirsty, naked – and gave him aid. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25) This accentuates our dignity as coming from being made in the Image of God. Without such dignity, suffering would lose its worth. But here also is a call to action: help those in need.
In another of Dickens’ shorts, “The Child’s Story” (1852), we receive a touching treatment on the beauty of family. In a sort of dreamland in which the traveling protagonist joins and subsequently loses a companion in each step of his journey, the traveler meets individuals at progressive periods in their own lives.
On the road, he meets an array of companions: one as a child, then a boy, a young man, a middle-aged gentleman, and finally an old man. The traveler, the good companion of all, and he whose presence brought comfort to many, is addressed as no other than “Grandfather” by the end of the story. He is, after everything, loved and revered by his family for his own love which he shared with them.
While having a sweet consummation, “The Child’s Story” has another tender moment – a scene of the middle-aged man with his family in the forest along life’s journey:
Sometimes, they came to a long green avenue that opened into deeper woods. Then they would hear a very little, distant voice crying, “Father, father, I am another child! Stop for me!” And presently they would see a very little figure, growing larger as it came along, running to join them. When it came up, they all crowded round it, and kissed and welcomed it…
Talk about the ardor within the arbor! Here we have a family welcoming life, meeting it with love, defending its sanctity by acknowledging the child as one of their own. Hence the family, the garden bed of life, is the fertile soil in which we first realize and respect the dignity of the human person.
Without the family atmosphere, one that’s not only nuclear but also engaged and caring, the dignity of humanity’s members is seldom fathomed. In these short stories, as well as in his holiday masterwork A Christmas Carol, Dickens shows us the root of human dignity and – as in Christian virtue – calls us to recognize the humanity in our fellow man.
Color, looks, age, abilities…all are irrelevant to the underlying factor – dignity. Wasn’t the Holy Family hard-pressed to find a place in the inn? Weren’t they themselves an impoverished family?
Seeing people for who they are and showing charity toward them is a significant yet frequently forgotten aspect of Christmas. Dickens wishes to rekindle this.
It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you…yes, it is Christmas every time you smile at your brother and offer him your hand.
When it comes down to it, the rightful attribution is merely secondary to the point. Even if we were to chalk it up to dear old Anonymous, the weight of the claim remains. In Scrooge’s character, Dickens offers a precursor to this. Near the end of Scrooge’s moral and sociable re-energization, having been reminded of the beauty of family, of friends, of people, he promises: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
All the year long, we are called to “celebrate Christmas,” as it were, by helping those in need, giving the gift of our own time and monetary aid to those who would benefit. And, like Mother Teresa, Dickens strives to prick our consciences bit by bit to remember that we have a part to play in seeing Christ in those around us.
John Tuttle is a writer, journalist, and creative. His non-fiction writing has been featured by The Hill, Tablet Magazine, The Millions, University Bookman, The Wanderer, CiRCE Institute, Starting Points Journal, and Grotto Network. His poetry has been published by Crêpe & Penn and Heart of Flesh and his fiction by Parallel Worlds Magazine.