Charles Dickens’s sentimental 1843 work, A Christmas Carol, delivered to the world a character who has come to embody mean-spiritedness. Ebenezer Scrooge is represented as a cruel, penny-pinching miser who exploited his workers and hated the soft heartedness, and interruption to capital accumulation, that Christmas celebrations entailed.
In fulminating to Fred, his hapless nephew, Scrooge demands, “What's Christmas time 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?”
After scary visitations by his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Scrooge I is redeemed, coming across as the wettest of liberals in a burst of “We are the World”-style celebrity philanthropy as he is reborn as Scrooge II.
Dickens’s tale is warm and uplifting, but deeply flawed in its use of Christmas as metaphor - history has vindicated Scrooge I in certain key ways. Before his ghostly counselling team clinically intervened and saved his humanity by turning him into Scrooge II with the aid of prescribed doses of Christmas spirit, the cold hearted, petty bourgeois Ebenezer glimpsed what Christmas under consumption capitalism would become for many - a deepening trough of anxiety and debt beneath a veneer of glad tidings.
Scrooge was only interested in his own balance sheet, so he didn’t see that the temporary respite provided by Christmas for the early industrial working class would ultimately, through what used to be called “the logic of capitalism”, threaten to enslave the workers in two principal ways.
First, increasing numbers of workers would be required to toil for long hours at Christmas in order to service the burgeoning Christmas Industry, by means of which “good will to all men” was transmuted into “truckloads of goods bought mostly by women, and paid for by all men and women”.
Scrooge’s myopic selfishness prevented him from foreseeing that Christmas would become not an obstacle to capitalism and profit, but a vital aspect of the economic cycle in places once dominated by the Protestant work ethic and Catholic repression, and increasingly in countries and regions that had never been predominantly Christian at all.
Second, the fanatically ascetic Scrooge I, and the enthusiastically generous Scrooge II, didn’t really grasp the connection between production and consumption. Christmas hours would become richer in a financial sense when labour was needed to service other labourers involved in the post-19th century forms of work that are more commonly described as “shopping” and “taking [that is, buying] leisure”.
Bob Cratchit and family would never, Dickens failed to see, be satisfied by the symbolic gift of that gratis turkey. Within a few generations it would become part of the phenomenon of BOGOFF - “buy one, get one free poultry with bonus stuffing”.
When Scrooge denied the Cratchits the means to purchase their Christmas turkey, he was being plain nasty. If he’d been nastier and smarter, he’d have used that seemingly kind gesture as a way of extracting a more committed work performance from Bob. Tied by crackling handcuffs to Scrooge’s small to medium enterprise (SME) operation, Bob would have been less likely to cause his boss the inconvenience and expense of rapid labour market churn.
If they had lived to witness the introduction of the WorkChoices legislation, Scrooge could have used the turkey, with an option for cranberry sauce, as a bargaining chip in persuading Bob to give up post 19th-century entitlements like overtime and meal breaks in favour of an Australian Workplace Agreement. Mr and Mrs Cratchit might even have traded their Christmas holidays with the kids for a roast fowl and a portable barbecue.
Scrooge, the stick-in-the-mud, looks almost postmodern in retrospect. Finding himself at Christmas “a year older, but not an hour richer”, he could easily be an anxious baby boomer peering into an unflatteringly lit mirror, hearing the bell toll, and worrying about topping up the superannuation. The tragic plight of Tiny Tim might have foreshadowed concern about the rise and demise of socialised medicine, and the need for health fund rebates.
Perhaps Scrooge’s unChristian attitude anticipated the coming of a multicultural, multifaith and secular society, where commercialised Christmases became even more disconnected from common associations with stars, stables and mobile monarchs transporting gifts across state boundaries.
Charles Dickens was justifiably repulsed by the position and treatment of working people in the early phases of capitalism and industrialism. A Christmas Carol was a humanist cry from the heart that tried to use the idea of a pre-commodified Christmas as an affirmation of universal values of altruism, reciprocity, and the triumph of the social over the economic.
Dickens couldn’t see, and never saw, the Christmas sales rush and the credit card hangover. From a 21st century vantage point, the pre-conversion Scrooge’s loathing of Christmas might have been right for all the wrong reasons.