Good morning, it's Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. On this date in 1843, a (fictional) money lender watched his poorly paid clerk put on his scarf while preparing to leave for the day. "You'll want all day tomorrow," groused the boss.
"If quite convenient, sir," replied the clerk.
"It's not convenient," the boss said, "and it's not fair." He added that if the clerk's salary was to be docked accordingly, he'd think himself ill-used. In reply, the clerk noted meekly that Christmas came but once a year.
"A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every 25th of December," growled the churlish businessman. "But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier the next morning."
The clerk promised to do just that. And so had Charles Dickens deftly drawn the portrait of greedy Ebenezer Scrooge and his beleaguered assistant, Bob Cratchit. We are meant to root for Cratchit, you see, who transforms into his real self as soon as he leaves the dreary counting house where he works. "The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no great-coat), went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, 20 times, in honor of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman's-buff."
"A Christmas Carol" opens with two simples sentences that set the scene: "Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." Ah, but there is doubt about that, as the reader will quickly see, because old Jacob Marley doesn't take long to make his appearance: This is a ghost story after all. It's also a tale with a Christian theme.
Charles Dickens had an uneasy relationship with organized religion, but he had been inspired during a trip to the United States by the works-based faith of the Unitarians in America. In "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge's conversion is not brought about by a confrontation with Jesus, however, but with himself -- a version of Scrooge's self that he found loathsome -- thanks to the magic of the three spirits who visited him.
The social message here is unmistakable, which is one of the reasons this story is for children and adults alike. When the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, laments his eternal fate while professing his guilt, Scrooge says, "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob."
To which the specter thunders, in words as appropriate to our age as they were in the time of Dickens:
"Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.