Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in either its original literary form or its various movie adaptations, has been one of the most beloved stories of Christmas since its initial publication in 1843. However, if someone were unfamiliar Dickens’ famous tale, a description of it might seem more like a Halloween story. A Christmas story about spirits and ghosts?! But Dickens was actually following a long British tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Think of the famous Andy Williams’ Christmas song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which includes the following lyrics: “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” What is this on about?
British humorist Jerome K. Jerome relates in his 1891 collection, Told After Supper what typical Victorian Brits did on a Christmas Eve night:
Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.
Compared to many of our Christmas traditions, this British practice may seem fairly macabre. Nevertheless, since Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is such a staple of most of our Christmas festivities today, we rarely question including the enjoyment of this “ghost story” in such festivities. But I think the relationship between Christmas and spirits (actually one Spirit) is closer than we might usually realize.
Let’s remind ourselves of the general plot of A Christmas Carol. It centers upon the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly, wealthy miser, whose mean-spiritedness is eventually transformed into kindness and generosity after being visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. I understand that some academics debate whether Dickens was simply presenting a Christian allegory or not. But I think there are some parallels between this beloved Christmas story and what the Bible teaches.
First and foremost, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol connects Christmas (the coming of Christ) with the activity of the unseen world. Similarly, the Bible connects Christ’s coming with the coming of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jesus tells his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive” (John 14:16–17). In fact, Jesus also tells the disciples that unless he goes away (i.e., returns to the Father after his mission is completed), the Spirit would not come (John 16:7). It is clear that Holy Spirit’s eventual ministry to the disciples, and later to all Christians, was dependent upon the coming of Christ, not only his praying that the Spirit would come, but also because of the atoning work of the cross that Jesus would accomplish on Easter weekend.
Another parallel with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge’s transformation seems due to his encounter with spirits. His experience pushes him to put his old ways behind him and embrace a new way of life. Similarly, the Bible tells us that by the power of the Holy Spirit (and only by his power) we can put to death our old sinful ways, what the Bible calls living “according to the flesh.” The apostle Paul promises that “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom 8:13–14). The Spirit obviously does more than simply “visit” us, or have some encounter with us, like old Scrooge. Rather, the Holy Spirit intimately transforms us by giving us new birth, or what theologians call “regeneration” (cf. John 3).
One last parallel: the regeneration of new birth is similar to the character change of Scrooge due to his spectral visits. For these other-worldly experiences seem to have brought about, not simply changes in Scrooge, but wonderful changes in Scrooge’s character. In a much more powerful way, the Holy Spirit transforms our character as well for “the fruit of the Spirit,” that which the Spirit produces in us, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22–23). This amazing “fruit” is due only to the Spirit’s work that is made possible by the death and resurrection of Christ. Put simply, because of Christmas (and eventually Easter), the Holy Spirit brings about amazing changes.
As wonderful as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is, I do not envy Scrooge’s encounters with his spirits, especially with Marley and the spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. Some of the movie adaptations bring these spooky meetings more to the fore. But an encounter with the Holy Spirit, which brings about the fruit of faith and repentance, is a completely different experience with the other-worldly.
Christmas is primarily about Christ’s coming, not spirits, nor even primarily about the Holy Spirit. But because of Christ’s coming, the Holy Spirit can now take up residence in the temple of our hearts, a temple that he prepares and will help bring us to full fruition in Christ.
I love Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The tale of transformation that Scrooge experiences is an encouraging one. Regardless of Dickens’ intentions, I’m encouraged that there truly is a Christmas Holy Ghost who still works in the hearts of men.
James McGlothlin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
- Pray that, especially during this Christmas season, we each would allow the Holy Spirit’s transforming work to transform us into more Christlike followers.
- Pray for the Twin Cities, that we and our students would shine the light of Christ to a world that desperately needs to see him.
- Pray that our students and faculty would enjoy a restful Christmas break and return in January ready for the spring semester.
- Pray for the full funding of the Serious Joy Scholarships that support our students and faculty.