Scrooge and the Christmas Mythos

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

A homily for Christmas Eve

Christmas is an interesting holiday for Unitarian Universalists. Those of us who relate to the Unitarian side of our heritage don’t believe in the trinity, so we tend to ignore all the parts of the Christmas mythos claiming that Jesus is God. And those of us who relate to the Universalist side of our heritage don’t believe in original sin and eternal damnation, so we tend to ignore all the parts of the Christmas mythos claiming that Jesus came to save us from our sin. We honor Jesus of Nazareth, and we take seriously all of his teachings. As a result of our religious outlook, we don’t expect Jesus to solve all of humanity’s problems; instead, we feel it’s up to us to get ourselves out of the messes that we’ve created.

With this in mind, I’d like to talk with you about Ebeneezer Scrooge, whom we met in a reading earlier today. The character of Scrooge comes from the book “A Christmas Carol,” written by the novelist Charles Dickens in 1843. This has been a hugely influential book, one of the most important contributions to our contemporary Christmas mythos. Indeed, Scrooge is one of the reasons why we now think of Christmas as a time to help those who are less fortunate than we are.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Charles Dickens was a Unitarian. Although on paper he remained a member of the Church of England all his life, his moral and religious convictions brought him to Unitarianism as an adult, and that’s where he found his religious home. I suspect he was drawn to the Unitarian commitment to get heaven into Earth while we’re still alive, rather than waiting until we die to get into heaven. Dickens was always concerned with making the world better in the here and now, especially for the poor and the downtrodden.

In the book “A Christmas Carol,” Ebeneezer Scrooge starts out as someone who doesn’t worry much about getting into heaven after he dies, nor does he worry much about getting heaven into Earth while he’s alive. He’s only concerned with making lots and lots of money. In that concern, he was a product of his times. Just as with our world today, making money was the highest value in Ebeneezer Scrooge’s world.

Yet I find myself sympathizing with Scrooge. There have been times when someone has wished me a “Merry Christmas” when they really didn’t mean it, and I have wished that person boiled in their own pudding. I also sympathize with Scrooge’s condemnation of Christmas as “humbug.” I think that condemnation is especially poignant this year, when, instead of a Christmas of peace on earth and good will to all, we are faced with war in Ukraine backed by the Russian Orthodox church, who claim to be followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And I have a hard time with the commercialization of Christmas — it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that American consumers spend something like a trillion dollars during the Christmas holiday season. “Bah, humbug,” indeed. This year I was sorely tempted to get one of those red Santa hats with “Bah, humbug” embroidered in the fuzzy white part.

No wonder, then, that we might feel some sympathy for Ebeneezer Scrooge. Yet by the end of the story, Scrooge comes to the realization that Christmas does not have to be a humbug. Christmas can become a humbug, if we let it; sadly, it often is a humbug. Christmas can also be, in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” And so it is that in the end, Scrooge understand that he has the power to make Christmas something more than a humbug. He has the power to reach out to other people; to help other people; and ultimately to love and to be loved in return.

On Christmas morning, Scrooge begins his transformation by reaching out to the people to whom he feels the closest. He has no family of his own any more; that’s part of Scrooge’s tragedy, and part of the reason he had become so crabbed and loveless. But he can go to eat Christmas dinner with his nephew Fred, and when he does that, he finds that love has begun to enter his life again. The day after Christmas, he raises the salary of his employee Bob Cratchit, and again he finds that this does as much good for his soul as it does for Bob Cratchitt’s pocketbook. Scrooge then goes on to become a second father to Bob Cratchitt’s son Tiny Tim, which does even more good for his soul.

This is how the Unitarian Charles Dickens understood Christmas. For Dickens, as for most Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, Christmas doesn’t have much to do with sin and salvation. Instead, it has to do with trying to create a heaven here on earth, preferably in our own lifetimes. We start by finding a source of love in our own hearts. We next try to extend that love to family and friends and chosen family, spending time with them, and doing the best we can to get along as peaceably as possible with those whom we love. After that, if we can, we might spread love out to our neighborhood, or even the wider world.

But it’s enough at Christmastime to start as Scrooge did, by finding love within your own heart, and then by doing your best to live out that love with those closest to you. If your heart feels shut up, open it. When you see other people, think of them, not as an alien race, but as fellow-passengers on the journey of life. And if we can make Christmastime a kind, forgiving, charitable time of year — perhaps we can make the rest of the year kind and forgiving and charitable as well. Perhaps, as Jesus of Nazareth claimed, we really can create heaven here on earth.

A Christmas Carol

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

The first half of the worship service consisted primarily of readings from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, abridged and adapted by Dan Harper; this book is in the public domain.


The opening words come from the opening of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner; Scrooge signed it. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye!”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.

Words for lighting a flame in the chalice:

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already — it had not been light all day — and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.

Scrooge had a very small fire in his counting-house, but his clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

Responsive Reading

A cheerful voice cried out:

“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!” This nephew of Scrooge’s had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? You’re rich enough.”

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

“What else can I be,” said Scrooge indignantly, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time,” returned the nephew, “when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and 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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

First reading

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book, went home to bed. The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands.

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change — not a knocker, but Marley’s face.

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

Up Scrooge went to his rooms, closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his cravat; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel.

It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel.

His glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

“It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.”
His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him; Marley’s Ghost!” and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now….

Second reading

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!” — Marley’s voice, no doubt about it.

“Who are you?”

“Ask me who I was.”

“Who were you then?” said Scrooge, raising his voice. “You’re particular, for a shade.”

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are! Humbug, I tell you! humbug!”

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

SERMON — A Christmas Carol

“It is required of every one of us,” says the Ghost to old Scrooge, that our spirits within ourselves should walk abroad among humanity, and travel far and wide. To travel far and wide does not mean that you must immediately head off to a far continent. However, sitting in your counting house counting all your money does not count towards such travel. What the Ghost is telling Scrooge (and us) is that our spirits must rove beyond the narrow limits of making money; or for that matter, spending it.

You all know this as well as I do. We hear this all the time during the Christmas season. We are reminded over and over that the importance of Christmas lies, not in the toys and gifts, not in how much money you spend, but in human contact, human relationships. The advertisements tell us this, and tell us that the gifts we buy are what will cement those human relationships. And I believe the advertisements.

Yes, our spirits must rove beyond the narrow limits of the counting house, the office, and the mall. And if we don’t let our spirits rove during our lives, says the Ghost, why then we’re condemned to do it after death. As an ultra-Universalist, I say there is no punishment after death; but I’m willing to accept the Ghost’s admonition as a good metaphor. When Scrooge first sees the Ghost of Marley, he notices the chain Marley wears about his middle: “It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” When Scrooge asks the Ghost about this chain, the Ghost replies: “I wear the chain I forged in life…. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?” At which Scrooge trembles, for he knows full well that he, too, is wound about with chains: chains which bind him to his cold, cheerless, circumscribed world. And even though we chuckle at Scrooge’s stubbornness, we who hear this story are left with an uncomfortable feeling as if perhaps there are chains bound about our own waists — terrible thought! — no wonder the doctor tells us we need to lose weight!

The Ghost of Marley gives Scrooge hope that he might be saved from the Ghost’s fate. Three Spirits will come and haunt Scrooge: one to show him the past, one to show him the present, and one to show him the future.

Scrooge falls asleep; the bell chimes the hour, and Scrooge awakens. The first of the three spirits comes, saying: “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.” Scrooge is whisked off to see to see how he spent past Christmasses. The Ghost takes him to see his boyhood home: “They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.” Like so many of us, Scrooge had had sadness and loneliness in his life, which he had conveniently forgotten. And the Ghost of Christmas Past brings him to see him at his first job, where his boss kept the fires burning brightly and warmly for Scrooge and the other workers, and stopped all work on Christmas Eve so that all might celebrate together. In those days, Scrooge had heartily celebrated Christmas; but then his thoughts had turned increasingly to money; and because money had meant so much to him, he had ended his engagement to a young woman: and so it was that he found himself old and alone, alone except for his money, alone except for his possessions.

You know how the story goes. The Ghost of Christmas Past departs; Scrooge falls asleep again, and is awakened by the Ghost of Christmas Present, a hearty, likable sort of Ghost, who takes Scrooge off on a journey to see how the rest of the world celebrates Christmas: not grouchily sitting alone, saying “Humbug!”; but celebrating in the company of others, and relishing the human contact. The Ghost of Christmas Present takes old Scrooge to see how his clerk, Bob Cratchit, celebrates Christmas; you wouldn’t think that a man so poor as Bob Cratchit could be merry at Christmas time, but he is, with his family gathered around him. Even Tiny Tim, Bob’s son who can’t walk without crutches, is merry at Christmas. And then off to see Scrooge’s nephew celebrating Christmas, and to hear the nephew’s assessment of his miserly old uncle: ” ‘He’s a comical old fellow,’ said Scrooge’s nephew, ‘that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.'” Indeed, Scrooge’s offences do carry their own punishment, here and now, in this life: for he is miserable, even though he doesn’t quite know it himself. Although the visits of the Ghost of Christmas are beginning to show himself how miserable he truly is.

Scrooge receives one more visitor, a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, the grimmest and silentest and most frightening of all the Ghosts. Most frightening, because this ghost shows Scrooge how he will die, unmourned by all, dismissed with the phrase: “Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?” Scrooge will die, and his house be plundered by common thieves as he lies dead on his deathbed, for he will have no one to look after him and care about him. Scrooge will die, and the only people who feel any emotion at his death are a young couple who rejoice because they owed Scrooge money and his death will buy them a little more time to pay off that debt.

You know the rest of the story. Scrooge awakens in the morning to find that it is Christmas Day — imagine that, all those visits by all those Ghosts had occurred in one short night! — and of course Scrooge has thoroughly reformed. He sends a giant Christmas turkey to Bob Cratchit, his clerk; he gives money to charity; he dines with his nephew; and the day after Christmas, he increases Bob Cratchit’s salary. And as the years go by, he becomes like a second father to little Tiny Tim.

Yet the funny thing is that we best remember Scrooge as he is before he reforms. We remember him as the mean, penurious, cranky old man who says, “Bah!” and “Humbug!” We remember Scrooge as the man who won’t let his clerk add even one tiny piece of coal to the fire in the office, even though it is frightfully cold. We remember Scrooge as the man who won’t give money to charity to help the poor, for after all that’s what the prisons and poor houses are for. We remember Scrooge as the man whom even loveable, forgiving Tiny Tim doesn’t like.

We get a delicious sense of enjoyment watching Scrooge in action, before he’s reformed. I think we feel that enjoyment because we have a sense that he’s in each of us. Oh yes, he is indeed. I myself take pride in being a “Scrooge,” and I enjoy saying “Bah! Humbug!” in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and I like to say that there is so much humbug in Christmas these days that it is easy to be a Scrooge. It’s fun being a Scrooge.

But there’s a deeper reason why we remember Scrooge best before he reforms. The reason is quite simply this: just like Scrooge, we all do like money. We would all like a comfortable life. Perhaps the only thing we despise in the unreformed Scrooge is his unwillingness to enjoy a little bit more of his money; although when you come right down to it, he gets plenty of enjoyment: he eats out at a restaurant every night of his life and he has a big huge house. Really, the unreformed Scrooge is no different than the typical American worker today: we work long hours, we take pride in working so hard that we can’t find time to do anything but eat, sleep, and work — and we do love our money. Yes we do. We are the wealthiest society on earth, and we like it that way, even if it means we have to put aside some of our humanity.

It might not be a bad idea to face up to our own ghosts: the ghosts of our past, both our individual pasts, and our shared past as the wealthiest country in the world; to face up to the true reality of our present; and to look ahead at what the future might hold for us if we keep on going on the way we’ve been going on. As a society, we are becoming more like the unreformed Scrooge every day: unforgiving, uncharitable, unpleasant, and even unkind. Let us not forget that we are at war on this holiday that supposedly proclaims peace on earth. Let us not forget that the numbers of the poor in our country, our wealthy country, have been growing by leaps and bounds. Let us not forget that money is worshipped above all else in our society.

I think Dickens’s story is best summed up when Scrooge’s nephew tells what Christmas should be: “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and 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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

To say this is to say, more simply, that at Christmas-time we really should try to remember the golden rule:– to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. How fitting that we try to live out this great ethical teaching on the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, who presented this wisdom of the ages to humanity once again. It was Jesus who put this great moral teaching into such a memorable form that we still quote his words. Except that while we quote his words, we also seem to need to be constantly reminded of them again and again — by people like Charles Dickens — and, well, by each other.

So here I stand on this day before Christmas, reminding us all of this again. Love the people around you; love all creation; allow yourself to be loved by others. That is the essence of Christmas; that is what lies at the core of our religious faith: Love humanity; love the people around you; love all creation; allow yourself to be loved.

Do this until it becomes a habit that continues beyond Christmas-time. Keep on doing that all the year ’round.