A Christmas Carol is to my family what the Bible was to my grandparents or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was to young families forging through the eighties. If I’m home for Christmas, I’ll often see the play performed at the renowned Guthrie Theater, in Minneapolis. If not, I catch a film version or hunker down with the actual novella in hand. Published in 1864, the story captured the hearts and minds of readers then — even compelling them to action — and offers maxims everyone should consider today.
Ebenezer Scrooge and his mantra — “Bah! Humbug!” — has become so infamous the character itself has become a proprietary eponym. Tell someone who’s rolling his eyes at another Christmas carol “Don’t be a Scrooge!” and he will laugh or cringe at the inference. Nevertheless, Scrooge isn’t all bad. One of my favorite lines, which nearly always makes a live play audience chuckle, is the narrator’s observation that “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” (Attempt it with a British accent and laugh even more.) Obviously Scrooge hoarded his money, was a lousy boss, and behaved selfishly, but as it relates to American excess, Scrooge’s miserly ways were onto something.
According to Business Insider, Americans throw $165 billion worth of food in the trash and waste $146 billion worth of energy every year. Likewise, NerdWallet contends nearly half of the households in the United States carry a credit card balance and those indebted homes owe an average of around $15,000. (While this is actually slightly lower than 2009 figures, they estimate it’s because of defaults, not repayments.)
So while you may not forgo paying your heat or electricity bill à la Scrooge, making steps towards living within your means, like going without cable or that daily $4.00 latte can help pave the way towards more meaningful living.
One of the early conflicts in the story is the pitiful way Scrooge treats his employee, Bob Cratchit, father of Tiny Tim, a cripple. He reluctantly allows him Christmas Day off, unpaid of course, and never utters a kind word for work well done. (“[A] squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”) After the three spirits, Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come, visit Scrooge, he vows to change his perspective on people, wealth, and the holiday: “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Many well-known writers, business people, and politicians have reacted to reading A Christmas Carol by giving more in some way.
Americans are a charitable people, some say the most in the world. In 2010, Forbes reported corporations gave $4.9 billion. According to this pie chart from the Congressional Budget Report, donors who make up to $200,000 give the most — between 57-67% — to religious organizations, which often use their gifts to aid the poor. As income rises, say among those who make $1 million or more, they give less to religious organizations (17%) and even less to the category dubbed “Organizations Devoted to Helping Meet Basic Needs” (4%). We are generous, but we can still do more. Consider living leaner, so you can give more to those truly in need.
Ebenezer Scrooge got to see what no one does: his future. When the third Spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, begins his tour, Scrooge has already started to realize how quickly life passes, begging him to “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!” When he peers into his future and realizes he is mocked for his miserly ways and dies a wealthy but lonely man, he weeps and beaks down at the sight of his grave. He proclaims with anguish hoping to change his fate: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
The next day, with the magical gift of prophecy (unfulfilled) in mind, Scrooge becomes a different man, spending his time, money, and himself much wiser than before: On the things — and most importantly, the people — who matter. None of us has the gift of foresight, or a Spirit who will show us how people perceive us at the end of our lives, but we don’t need one to analyze our priorities, shift focus, and concentrate on the people in life who matter most.
Who says a book written almost 150 years ago has no truisms for life today: Bah! Humbug!