My Christmas Carol
‘Tis better to receive. So much better.
I wrote this a few years ago, for a book called The Christmas Virtues. It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, and I’m sending it out tonight, Christmas Eve 2022, with my very best wishes to all for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…
By Rob Long
There are lots of different editions of "A Christmas Carol." Some are large and ornately illustrated, with woodcuts and curlicue letters; some of them pocket-sized and printed on cheap paper with smudgy ink. Either way, by the middle of page one or the top of page two of Charles Dickens’s misunderstood paean to the Christmas season, you’ve got the gist.
And the point of the tale is this: Most people are irritating and selfish, especially around Christmastime. They march around in gaudy cheerfulness, braying good wishes to everyone within earshot, repeating the tiresome pieties of the season—Happy Holidays!—and pestering friends and relations and employers for all sorts of favors and boons and cash money gifts, which, when firmly refused on the principle that “money does not grow on trees” and that “hey, some of us around here work for a living,” they recoil in horror as if somehow the poor, hardworking, petitioned, and beleaguered employer is out of step with the sentiment of the moment. As if it’s the grasping, gimme-gimme outstretched hand of the petitioner that is somehow the true embodiment of the Christmastide.
I am aware, just so you know, that my personal interpretation of the opening pages of “A Christmas Carol” isn’t widely shared. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
Let me put it another way. For those of you who are fans of the New Testament, recall that in Luke 2:2, we’re told that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” Rome being Rome, it’s fair to assume that this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decree. There were probably signs and rumblings and bureaucratic indications that such a ruling was coming down the pike. You’d imagine that any thinking person traveling with a pregnant wife all the way to Bethlehem would maybe make a reservation at an inn.
Even back then—really, honestly, the Ur-moment of Christmas—there was this sense of, “Oh well. Someone will sort this out for us. It’s Christmas, after all!”
And when the Bethlehem Inn is fully booked because a lot of type-A plan-aheaders either got an earlier start or took responsibility for themselves, we’re supposed to see this situation as a mark of the great virtue of . . . the parents who didn’t, and then have to deliver the baby in the barn! With the dirty animals all gathered around! With the smells and the fleas and the whatnot! Unbelievable!
Mary and Joseph needed to get it together, parenting-wise. And when we forget that, we miss the important part of the story, the True Meaning, which is: gifts are important. Mary and Joseph – on a night when, typical of their Millennial generation, they simply hadn’t planned ahead – received the gift of shelter. (Sub-optimal shelter, but on a busy holiday weekend you take what you can get.) And then later, they get some very expensive gifts from three perfect strangers!
What does this tell us? It tells us that the benchmark minimum number of acceptable presents a person or persons should receive at Christmas is four, and one of them should probably be gold.
I am aware, just so you know, that my personal interpretation of Luke 2:2–38 isn’t widely shared, either. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
Whatever else Christmas is, it’s a lot about receiving. Don’t believe me? Let us return to the other major Christmas text for elaboration.
In the opening sequences of “A Christmas Carol,” hardworking and thrifty Scrooge is bent over his desk delivering value to his clients. In addition, by restricting the use of coal in his office fireplace, he’s also doing his part to clean up London’s then-notoriously poor air quality.
His nephew enters, possibly drunk, to invite him to Christmas dinner, with a series of blatantly passive-aggressive statements that no sane person could misinterpret. Scrooge then accurately assesses the utility of the Christmas holiday thus: “What’s Christmastime to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” says Scrooge indignantly, “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. He should!”
Strong words, yes. But that doesn’t make him wrong.
And then, moments later, in walk two do-gooders of the most shifty sort—neither, let’s be frank, carries any identification; I mean, these guys could be anyone. They demand money from Scrooge because—and this is what gets me—he has it and other people need it. Scrooge quite reasonably replies with a slightly crude rejoinder—remember, Dickens is writing this one hundred years before Friedrich Hayek’s magisterial post-Scrooge exegesis “The Road to Serfdom”— that boils down to, “Hey! I pay my taxes.”
What happens after that is well known. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts—the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future—and by the end of his ordeal he’s been transformed. We glimpse him at the close of the book giddy and rosy-cheeked—tipsy on wine and generosity, full of Christmas spirit and bursting with a new and fuller heart. What we’re supposed to think is this: that everyone else around Scrooge had the right spirit, the right Christmas attitude, and that the three ghostly visitations were a kind of Victorian spectral therapy—highly successful at that—in getting Ebenezer Scrooge with the program.
To which I say: Humbug.
Who, exactly, in the early pages of the book offers to give Scrooge anything? Sure, his nephew offers him the dubious pleasure of a dinner, but with company like that, Scrooge was right to prefer his porridge and his ale. In the enormous constellation of irritating characters in the Dickens universe, Scrooge’s nephew looms large and bright. He is clearly one of those people who keeps tapping you when he talks. “Hey, hey, hey, pay attention to me!” And he’s one of those guys who keeps telling the same story over again. “I’m telling you, Uncle Scrooge! It was hilarious! Hi-lar-i-ous! We were screaming. Seriously. “
Who wants to have dinner with that?
And then people come in and want his money. And then his employee wants time off. No one—no one—offers to give Scrooge anything. Scrooge and the world are at a standoff. He’s a miser, yes. But the rest of the world is withholding, too. He refuses to budge, but so does everyone else.
The picture of his life, painted in images and ghostly time travels, is one of sadness and loneliness and rejection. These days, we’d call it what it is: depression. But back then, surely, in the sentimental and emotional Victorian era, when people were fainting and shrinking and collapsing from consumption and heartbreak, what’s remarkable is how callously the world treated the younger Ebenezer Scrooge, how stingy it was with its gifts and its love. Scrooge, in almost every respect, is exactly whom David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby would have turned into, without the lucky breaks that Charles Dickens doled out to them.
Still, Scrooge wakes up full of the Christmas spirit, radiant with joy and laughter, and showers gifts on everyone in his circle. To which we’re supposed to say, “It’s about time.”
And yet, in the final chapter, when Scrooge sends the little street urchin off to buy a turkey—“The one as big as me?”—for the Cratchits, it takes a certain kind of selfish, smug, utter misunderstanding of the point of Christmas not to ask, “Hey, did anyone ever buy Scrooge a turkey?”
We know the answer to that. The answer is no. And then we wonder why he seems like such a jerk.
Put it another way: When, after days of hard travel across desert and who-knows-what, the Wise Men arrive at the bedside of the Savior—the Gospel of Matthew, thankfully, has by this time transferred the baby from the livestock keep to the house—they come bearing gifts. And we know what those gifts are because gifts are important.
Gifts are not superficial or silly or a sign of greed or secret agendas. Gifts—especially expensive ones like gold, frankincense, and whatever myrrh is—are a perfect way to say things that are hard for people to say. Things like, “I love you.” And, “You are important to me.” And, “I want you to smell good.” And, “This almost put me in the poorhouse to get, but I did it because you are my everything.”
The trouble is, when you reach a certain age, you stop getting Christmas presents. Good ones, anyway. Someone will give you socks, of course, or something equally last-minute, but when you turn the corner on thirty or thirty-five, suddenly children start to appear in the family and Christmas becomes all about them.
I hate that.
And not because I don’t like kids. I love kids. But I also love presents—especially the smaller, heavier ones that sit under the tree and positively glow with the promise of high-value, expensive stuff. Or those that are wrapped in paper exclusive to some very high-end emporium. Back when I often wore neckties to work, I especially loved seeing slender orange boxes under the tree with my name on them. It meant, unmistakably, that someone was giving me a necktie from Hermès, which fulfills all of the major criteria for a perfect present: it’s expensive, it’s silky, I can wear it, and it’s expensive.
Once, as a joke, my brother put a new plastic Bic pen inside a Hermès necktie box, wrapped it up, and placed it under the tree without comment. He had a good laugh on Christmas morning. I did not join in. A Bic pen, as I’m sure I made clear, fulfills zero of the criteria for a perfect present: it’s cheap, it’s plastic, I cannot wear it, and it’s cheap.
But I’m old now. And I know the score: When Christmas rolls around, I know I’m not going to get anything that doesn’t come from a bin that’s close to the cashier. I sit at my tall scrivener’s desk, creating value for my clients, and I am not asked what I want. I am told, instead, what to buy.
And I know this isn’t my most attractive trait—although honesty compels me to admit that it’s also not my least attractive trait—but I like getting presents. As made clear in my textual analysis of the Gospels of Luke, Matthew, and Dickens, I believe that giving and getting presents is a very important part of the Christmas story. Maintaining the sacredness of that transaction—beyond the Santa years, into adulthood and dotage—keeps us all from falling into the Scrooge trap.
Last year, though, I had an idea. I got all of the adults in the family to agree to a “Secret Santa” scheme. We’d put our names in a hat, draw a name apiece, and buy a gift for the person whose name was drawn. “But something substantial,” I whined to everyone. “Something heavy and expensive and fulfilling the criteria I’ve been talking about for years.” They all nodded. They were familiar, they told me, with my criteria.
And we’d keep it all secret until Christmas Day. They all agreed, which surprised me, because frankly I think everyone in my family enjoys winding me up every Christmas. It’s a cruelty that only close family can indulge in, because only they know your secret weaknesses and private character flaws. A cheap pen, a pair of socks—my family knew that I wanted something more, and that I looked upon the happy children on Christmas morning who were laden with toys and games and fun stuff with a mixture of jealousy and rage. They liked watching me pretend that I wasn’t and knew that it was just a matter of time until I erupted into one of the more powerful monologues delivered by Scrooge on page one or two of “A Christmas Carol.” Depending on your edition.
Somehow, though, I convinced them to enthusiastically embrace the Secret Santa scheme. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who missed getting a high-end present under the tree. Maybe I was just more honest about it.
So I happily went about the business of Secret Santa: I wrote everyone’s name down on a piece of paper, found a hat, tossed the papers inside, and we made the draw. Everyone seemed to be happy with who they got.
About thirty minutes later, though, my brother looked up suddenly. A terrible thought had occurred.
“Rob,” he asked, “did you just write your own name down on every piece of paper?”
I was outraged.
“What kind of person do you think I am?” I shouted.
“The kind of person who would like to find a pile of gifts under the tree all for himself.”
In a way, it’s touching that he knew me so well. Because, of course, that’s exactly what I had done.
So we drew again—this time, in the proper manner—and a new family tradition was born. That, in a way, was my gift to my family. It was a nice one, and I know they appreciated it. But it doesn’t compare to the largest turkey in the shop window. Surely there’s someone in your life, right now, who would like that?
Surely there’s someone in your life, right now, who is a Scrooge but doesn’t want to be.
Mr. Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood who began his career working on the long-running TV series “Cheers.” This essay is adapted from “The Christmas Virtues: A Treasury of Conservative Tales for the Holidays,” published by Templeton Press.