Most people have seen one or more versions of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol.
By far, this is one of my favorite Christmas tales: the story of Ebenezer Scrooge having his consciousness awakened by the appearance of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.
I like the characters.
I love the Christmas charm of the Victorian era, with frosted windows, mistletoe and plum pudding.
I love the streets of old London.
But when I first read the novel itself, after watching different versions of the film, I was shocked. Scrooge isn’t the jester, almost cartoon-like character some movies claim to be.
He’s really mean. Cruel. Malicious. He is a dark and sinister man. The story reads more like a Stephen King novel.
When you study the time itself that Dickens wrote about, you realize that it was dark and evil as well.
Historian Lisa Toland has written a fascinating essay on the reality behind the story.
She explains that nearly 75% of London’s population was considered a working class, with many children working in factories. In fact, every member of a family had to work in order to survive. Dickens himself worked as a young boy to support his family while his parents were in debt prison. And he published A Christmas Carol in 1843 as a social declaration against harsh child labor practices.
The time was known as the “Hungry Forties” because there was a depression with a period of bad harvests. The London skyline was little more than chimneys producing sooty sand clouds that covered the roofs and cheeks of young chimney sweeps.
It was the charcoal dependent nature of these factories that created the famous London Fog. It wasn’t fog at all, but a combination of smoke, soot, and gravel. The streets were covered with rainwater, the contents of chamber pots and animal droppings. Rats were plentiful.
Small children, often emaciated, sold flowers and matches as the upper class carriages passed. The poor of London were forced to shrink into residential areas. Several families lived in single rooms in dilapidated buildings.
It was Dickens’ London.
And people had turned a blind eye because there were supposedly “services”. When two men ask Scrooge for money, he replies, “Aren’t there any prisons? What about the Union workshops? Are they still open? … The conveyor belt and the Poverty Law are in full force, then? Without context, there is a lot that we fail to understand.
What makes Scrooge’s comments so biting is that the Poor Law and its accompanying workhouses were looked down upon by the poor. The guiding principle was to make conditions in these places worse than the way they would have lived and worked if they had had a job. And in trying to figure out who deserved to go, the group that fell through the cracks was the kids. The father or mother was sent home to work, leaving the children alone to beg in the streets.
If you died while working in a labor house, your body would automatically be returned for dissection. You wouldn’t even get a funeral. Conditions were so bad and people were treated so badly that many of the poor in London chose to beg on the streets or prostitute themselves in order to avoid workhouses.
From that darkness Dickens told us a story of redemption.
The story of someone who is saved.
But it’s not just Hollywood that’s guilty of romanticizing a truly dark story. There is a story that many of us tend to romanticize as well.
We’ve all seen the Christmas cards coming out: pictures of Mary in flowing dresses, sweet animals lovingly looking at the baby who still has blue eyes, a blonde and, although supposedly newborn, has the appearance and weight of a six-month-old.
It wasn’t like that.
Mary and Joseph were desperate for a place to give birth and couldn’t find one. They ended up in an outdoor breeding area. Impure, neglected, intrusive. Tradition – dating back to Justin Martyr in the 2nd century – says it was probably some kind of cave. Smelly, wet, cold.
They were to use a manger as a bassinet. The word “nursery” is very warm and hazy, but don’t romanticize it. A manger was a manger for animals.
It was a hopelessly austere and sad scene.
The Bible tells us that Mary wrapped the baby in clothes. It was common for the day. Long strips of fabric were used to wrap the baby tightly and keep his legs and arms straight and secure. The process is called swaddling.
This tells us something about the lonely nature of Mary’s motherhood that Luke reports that shewas the one who enveloped Jesus after his birth. In other words, there was no midwife or a parent’s help, which would have been the norm.
And she was young. Very young.
The engagement usually took place immediately after the onset of puberty, so Mary might have just entered her teens – 13, 14, or, at most, 15.
And out of this darkness, we are given another image of redemption.
Another story of being saved.
Another story that can be fictionalized, but was very, very real.
Real in a way that brings us to our knees to marvel at God who came to Earth to save… we.
James Emery White
Lisa Toland, “The Dark Side of ‘A Christmas Carol'” Christianity today, December 2, 2009, read online.
Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in 2010. It is a favorite of the Church & Culture team and is reposted annually during the Christmas season.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and principal pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can browse past blogs in our archives and read the latest news on church and culture from around the world. Follow Dr White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.