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The Real Humbug of Scrooge

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on December 24, 2012 | Comments (5)

I like the works of Charles Dickens. His A Tale of Two Cities is breathtaking in its scope and plotting. But even more fascinating are his insights into the psychology and motivations of the characters. Published just three years after the birth of Sigmund Freud and decades before our modern understandings of the mind, he accurately described, without naming, psychosis, repressed memory, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. He also shows how individuals can surpass what is expected of them and even of what they expect of themselves to do “a far, far better thing…”

At this time of year, TV trots out every version of his A Christmas Carol that they can find. There have been over twenty movies made of the story and over a dozen TV versions. The story has also been repeated in live theater, on the radio, in operas and in graphic novels. This was one heck of a popular story!

And I’ve seen lots of them. I’ve seen faithful versions and cartoons, modern versions and comedies. I’ve seen versions set in the “Wild West” and one in 3D. I haven’t seen or heard or read all of them, but every one I have experienced has been incomplete and a lie. The book was published 13 years before A Tale of Two Cities, but all of the modern presentations really are a humbug, “a person or thing that tricks or deceives or talks or behaves in a way that is deceptive, dishonest, false, or insincere” in two major ways. One is the fault if the modern versions attempting to avoid a major intent of the original; the other is the fault of Dickens himself.

The First Humbug

The plot of the story is very simple. The main character, Scrooge, is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” He’s cheap and covetous and totally self-centered. Nobody else matters. Scrooge hates the Christmas holiday and only reluctantly allows his overworked and underpaid employee the day off with pay. He does this only out of respect of the social custom of doing so, and considers it “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!”

Scrooge is visited by four ghosts who remind him of how he used to be and then show him how he will have a terrible, unhappy fate. Scrooge vows to change, gives more support to his employee, and becomes a kind a generous person, showing the Christmas spirit every day of the year.

The first humbug, the missing aspect of every version I’ve seen, is that the story is presented devoid of the political and sociological situation in England that is the actual backbone of the story. In the mid-19th century, England had a tiny middle class. It was primarily a society run by the wealthy, usually by birth, and which ran over the poor who did the actual work. If you were poor there was little or no social safety net. Children worked in mines. A classic scene from the story has two men asking Scrooge for a donation for the poor:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?”  demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

And that was the situation. If you were poor, you would end up in prison or a workhouse.  The above lines often are included in the presentations of the story. However, the following two are usually omitted because the context is little known:

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

The English Poor Laws, a horribly administered version of a social safety net, had recently been changed. If someone was poor and needed help they were thrown in prison and had to work. One of the methods of work was on treadmills, where you had to work arduously for hour after hour, walking inside massive wheels, or on the outside of such devices, which were then called treadwheels. It essentially turned the poor into slave labor.

A further example of this occurs in the situation of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit. The man is overworked and underpaid. There is no medical insurance for him or his family. If things don’t change, his son, “Tiny Tim,” will die. So why does Cratchit continue working under these horrible conditions and terms? Because of the English Poor Laws. Were he to quit and not have money to support his family, he would be put in a prison for the poor. His family would probably be split up. The children would be sent to hard work such as in mines. It was better a horrible life than an even worse one. Yes, Cratchit did get some pay and he could go home at night, so although his situation wasn’t exactly slavery, it was certainly similar to indentured servitude.

Am I simply reading into a nice Christmas story something that is a bit more political than intended? Absolutely not. In 1824, Dickens’ father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens, just 12 years old, was forced to move with his family to a poor location, pawn his precious books, quit school, and go to work making shoe polish. The experience, combined with his observation of the injustices suffered daily by the poor people in London, changed him for the rest of his life.

So why is the clear denunciation of the social situation in England ignored in popular presentations of the story? Not knowing the motivations of the writers and producers it’s impossible to say. Plus, the publication of the book changed England in other ways that were also ignored. Christmas had not been a major holiday in England. The book literally helped popularize the holiday. This became the first major impact of the book. The second: it popularized the use of the expression, “Merry Christmas.” Although the expression was older than the book, Dickens’ tale started its widespread use.

So the first humbug, then, is that the presentations miss a major part of the story. It misses the aspect of the abuse of the poor, the laws that made the poor slaves, and the lack of a real social safety net with its negative effect on the people.

The Second Humbug

There are two general classes of psychological motivators: ideas that lead us to change a behavior or belief and to possibly do something. The first can be called away from motivators. We do something different to move away from something we don’t like. Often, the motivator takes on the aspect of inducing fear: if we are afraid of dying from lung cancer, we quit smoking. If we are afraid of being beaten by an abusive guardian, we run away from home. The second can be called toward motivators. We do something new to move toward something we want. We want to make more money so we get some specialized training. We want to impress someone so we dress up. We run away from home in the hope of finding a better way of living without abuse.

As a general rule, away from motivators are good ways to start a new behavior, but they tend not to last. Being afraid of lung cancer may get you to stop smoking, but the desire for cigarettes kicks in and the fear is overcome by the desire for perceived pleasure. People are less likely to start a new behavior because of a toward motivator, but once they start, they are more likely to continue with the new behavior. It may take a while to get someone to start exercising in order to increase health and feel they look better, but once they start doing it and see the early results they are more likely to continue. Some therapists will use a combination of away from and toward motivators to help someone change their behavior. Some religious leaders endlessly repeat away from motivators to keep their followers in tow.

Now, let’s look at the story of Scrooge. Yes, he sees himself as happier when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him previous events, but he doesn’t really want to change until the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come terrorizes him with horrible visions of the death of Tiny Tim and his own death and the negative responses to it: business associates will only attend his funeral if food is provided. His laundress and even his undertaker steal his possessions and sell them.

So he has these away from motivators to change. Dickens got the motivation and psychology right. But then we see that as part of the away from motivation, Scrooge makes a deal, crying, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” And we are told that he succeeds. The narrator tells us, “Scrooge was better than his word…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.”

I’m sorry, but this is just a humbug. Psychologically, the effect of the away from motivator would wear off. We are told that he “had no further intercourse with Spirits.” They didn’t return with tales of his demise and future misfortune. It would have been his natural instinct to return to his old ways, and there is nothing in the story that in any way indicates he would not.

Magick and Scrooge

Without a toward motivator, it is unlikely that Scrooge would have kept his changed behavior. The approach in the story remains a popular one with other TV plots: someone tells another person something, the person has an aha! moment, and their life is changed forever. Reality indicates that such changes rarely become permanent. TV shows the fantasy all the time, and shows it in such large quantities that it has literally become a mindset that “this is the way it’s supposed to be.” When the reality comes in conflict with the mindset, the result is often frustration and unhappiness.

But the point of this post, besides revealing some of the little-known truths of A Christmas Carol, is to show how the understanding of this information is valuable for magick.

Real magick is a combination of mind, energy, and action. Because of the mind aspect, just having an away from motivator is rarely enough for successful magick with a long-term intent. Rather, you need a toward motivator, a magickal goal that is something you want and need, not something you want to get rid of or avoid. Therefore, for greatest magickal success, it’s important to have a magickal goal of something to strive for, something to obtain, something you want more than anything else.

With this as your mindset, combined with an ability to use energy and do the actions (both rituals and activities that do not act in opposition to your goal), the effectiveness of your magick will be greatly enhanced.


God and Goddess Bless Us, Every One!

Reader Comments

Written By Patrick
on December 24th, 2012 @ 11:15 am

This is a particularly good analysis of the political and social context of the original story. I think one reason contemporary adaptations leave that out is that they figure people don’t know how 19th century England treated the poor and don’t much care. But I think another might be that adaptors don’t want to “bug” audiences with the preaching. Dickens, though, was very much a political writer, and I’ve always figured he wrote this story not to be celebrate Christmas or warm hearts, but to make a political and social point, just as he does with most of his work.

As far as the legend that Dickens invented our modern conception of Christmas, sadly, not quite. Kitton made the claim in 1903, but actually family-side celebrations of Christmas were just as common in the 19th century as they are now among the lower classes. The aristocracy, on the other hand, did let Christmas celebrations lapse, and so you had a situation where common people celebrated Christmas but the rich and powerful didn’t. Dickens *did* help make the celebration of Christmas universal across social classes, but he didn’t really invent it.

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on December 24th, 2012 @ 11:49 am

Thanks for your comment, Patrick. I didn’t mean to imply that Dickens “invented” the celebration of Christmas, only that his book helped popularize it. So I think we’re in agreement.

Written By Phaedra Bonewits
on December 24th, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

You might be interested in this book, which has a lot of information valuable to a magician. _Changing for Good_ by Prochaska, Norcross & Diclemente

Written By Patrick
on December 25th, 2012 @ 11:08 am

Well, he certainly did do that, so we’re in agreement. I was just reacting to the common claim that he invented it, as if he was hunched over a worktable putting together candy canes or something. 🙂 The literature teacher in me just can’t resist commenting on that common myth.

We’re also in agreement that Dickens is great. I’m always puzzled by people who say he’s boring. “What? No! He’s sarcastic and a bit mean and funny. He’s everything I look for in a writer!”

Merry Christmas! (Said the pagan to the Cabalist.)

Written By Phergoph
on December 26th, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

Looks like I’m late to the party – but I wrote up a Kabbalistic (by my ideas) analysis on the same topic you might enjoy:

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