The spirit of Christmas

Catherine Keppel

Charles Dickens’ tale generated great enthusiasm at Christmas 1843. Since then the story of the old miser and misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge, who undergoes a profound transformation as a result of the visitation of three spirits and his deceased partner Marley on Christmas Eve, has belonged to the canon of world literature.

As well as the highly dramatic intervention of three spiritual beings, A Christmas Carol also provides a masterful depiction of outer and everyday circumstances. Tension, emotion, humour, sensory pleasures of all kinds such as good food and jolly parlour games – the earthly is also very much present! All five senses are vividly addressed – from the peal of the bells to the smell of plum pudding in the Cratchit family.

Yet within this framework there is nevertheless a clear “message”: human beings can change for the better by virtue of their I. It is about human characteristics which are not discussed with philosophical abstraction but are described in highly colourful and vivid images. Rudolf Steiner included A Christmas Carol in the English curriculum for class 8 in the Waldorf school. Because of its demanding language, this instruction created insecurity among the teachers already at that time – which is probably still a reason today why many English teachers steer clear this work.

Steiner replied that even if the language in this tale was too difficult, it should nevertheless be absorbed by the children at this age. It could be worked on in sections or told in one’s own words. Why?


Class 8 is the year in which the pupils take a step towards adulthood and take increasing responsibility for their own actions. Often we experience failure at this age: we plan to do something we want to do better and discover that we cannot change ourselves so quickly. In relating to Scrooge’s step-by-step transformation  with all its moments of despair and shame, the pupils can experience him as a role model and identify with him. Every teacher who covers A Christmas Carol can see how the longing of the young people for high human goals is profoundly satisfied.

But there is probably a deeper reason still for Steiner’s recommendation: in a lecture of 14 May 1912 in Berlin he refers to the three characteristics of wonder, empathy and conscience – abilities which people in our time should develop. This is about a special contribution which only human beings can make and without which “the earth can never reach the goal of its development”.

We are not satisfied with mere perception, the world of the senses. Wonder and amazement have the effect that we “get beyond ourselves” and are liberated from being enclosed in our body. When we develop empathy we also get beyond ourselves and “live our way into the other being. That allows us to share in living not just what we ourselves are but what the others are.”

The conscience is characterised as a force which intervenes to “correct” our desires and wishes. Through the conscience we can take a step back from ourselves so that we can make a judgement about ourselves. In doing so we become aware of the discrepancy between the ideal and the real world. Rudolf Steiner summarises these processes as “overcoming the egoistical principle”.

From misanthrope to philanthropist

Right at the start of the story we learn something important about Scrooge: he is so little aware of his I that it does not matter to him whether he is addressed as “Scrooge” or “Marley”. He is described as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”. He is immune to everything, nothing can penetrate his hard shell. That can be seen in the first scene in his dismissive behaviour towards his clerk, Bob Cratchit, towards his nephew, and his cynical reaction to the gentlemen who approach him to collect money for the poor.

Scrooge learns to ask questions

Dickens describes a first awakening with a sure touch for an appropriate image: Scrooge sees Marley’s ghostly face in the door knocker of his house (in which “nobody lived”). Donald Perkins has drawn attention to the fact that the purpose of a door knocker is to rouse the inhabitants of a house and the same applies to the bell which starts to ring of its own accord in his chambers to announce the imminent appearance of Marley’s ghost.

In the encounter with Marley’s ghost we see how Scrooge’s initially reaction is “caustic and cold”. But in the course of this scene his armour begins to crack and he starts to ask questions. Five times he asks a “why” question, although they are questions which almost exclusively relate to his personal welfare. As the scene progresses he agrees to listen to Marley’s message and at the end, when Marley’s ghost has disappeared through the window, he gets no further than the first syllable when he tries with his usual comment to dismiss the whole thing as “Humbug”.

The encounter has given Scrooge a shock through which he begins to awaken with the consequence that in the company of the three spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come he begins to question the images of life ever more deeply. He shows surprise about why things are as they are and asks initially whether they could not also be different.

In his lecture, Steiner speaks about the view in antiquity that all philosophy begins in wonder. In the encounter with the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come Scrooge asks the truly philosophical question as to whether our fate is inexorably prescribed for us or whether it can be changed if we change our behaviour. As we will see, this question is connected with a resolution which Scrooge adopts in his conscience at the end.

Tiny Tim as the turning point

Empathy is something that is not familiar to Scrooge at the beginning of the story. He asks the gentlemen who come to his counting-house to collect money for the poor whether there were no longer prisons or workhouses for these people. To their answer that many would rather die than go there he responds that if they would rather die, then they had better do it and “decrease the surplus population”.

Later, in the company of the Spirit of Christmas Past, there are first small signs of an awakening empathy, for example when he expresses the wish after visiting his former teacher Fezziwig to have a word with his clerk Bob Cratchit. He has noticed with what little empathy he has dealt with him. And when later on he has to experience the scene in which his betrothed releases him because he no longer loves anything but money, his despair is more about feeling sorry for himself, but it does show that the ice around his heart is beginning to melt.

With the Spirit of Christmas Present heart forces rule from the beginning! It says about this spirit, whom we meet amidst an incredible splendour of light, warmth and abundance: “... its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice.” This spirit leads him to Bob Cratchit’s modest dwelling. Here Scrooge has to observe that the youngest son, Tiny Tim, walks on a crutch and is weak.

For the first time true empathy stirs in him when at the end of the visit to this jolly and endearing family he asks the spirit “with an interest he had never felt before” whether Tiny Tim will live. In response, he has to listen to his own words about decreasing the surplus population. On hearing this, he is “overcome with penitence and grief”.

At the end, the spirit shows him two  wretched and deformed children, “Want” and “Ignorance”. Scrooge is shocked by their appearance, which is dramatically described by Dickens, and he asks the spirit whether there is no “refuge or resource” for them. Again the spirit responds with Scrooge’s own words and thus reflects back to him his initial lack of empathy: “Are there no prisons ... are there not workhouses?” The discrepancy between his earlier words and his present question shows the extent to which Scrooge has already changed and has taken empathy into his heart.

The parlour of the rag-and-bone merchant

The conscience, the power which enables us to look at ourselves from the outside and make a moral judgement about our behaviour, begins to stir in Scrooge. As early as the greeting with the Spirit of Christmas Present he says: “I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”

The conscience also often harmonises with empathy or wonder. In the scene with Fezziwig Scrooge becomes aware of what he has failed to do in the employer/employee relationship. And the answer to his question about Tiny Tim, which causes him “penitence and grief”, is an example of the way that empathy and conscience are intertwined. All these examples do, however, show clearly that Scrooge is reacting and is not activating the voice of his conscience by himself.

But that changes in the encounter with the last spirit. For the first time the spirit does not enter into conversation with him and is also shrouded in a garment which conceals it: Scrooge is left to cope for himself. The spirit leads him without comment to places the meaning of which do not immediately become clear to him, particularly when they deal with himself. For example the conversation about a deceased person among businessmen or the discussion in the parlour of a rag-and-bone merchant where without pity or respect the last belongings of a dead man are sold off.

In greeting this silent spirit, Scrooge for the first time says that he wants to change: “Lead on! ... Lead on, Spirit!” And: “... as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.” Finally the initiative comes from him.

Once he has been forced to recognise that the dreadful fate of the deceased man – whose death the spirit has shown him in every detail of loneliness and derision – might be his own, he finally asks his very own question and, not least, also takes a decision of his own.

Conscience has shown him that many things in his life have taken a wrong and inhuman course. In the fate of that man he sees himself confronted with the possible consequences of his behaviour. As a result he asks the great question of life which was already mentioned in the development of wonder and amazement: can we change our fate by changing our behaviour?

That the spirit, concealed and silent as it is, does not give him an answer is a brilliant device by Dickens who shows us that Scrooge no longer needs outer admonition and “answers” but speaks freely out of his conscience when he says: “I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.”

And then out of the newly developed power of the I in the conscience he resolves: “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Dickens ahead of his time

Normally past, present and future cannot be experienced simultaneously in earthly life. Superficially we can understand Scrooge’s remarks as emphasising in some way the seriousness of his intent, but looked at in greater detail there is a lot more to them. Anyone who manages to live in all three periods simultaneously has overcome the implacability of time, has become independent of it in a certain sense and lives in their I, in the spirit, not just in earthly existence.

Scrooge as a human being has arrived at himself. The indescribable joy at the end of the story when Scrooge discovers that it is not too late and he has the time to put is resolutions into practice, is even reflected in the bright weather: “No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold ... Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky ... merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”

Scrooge calls out: “I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby.” In other words, it is as if he has been reborn; thanks to the power of his I he can make a new beginning, become a different person.

Could it be that the reader, the listener – and specifically the class 8 pupils – can perceive an inkling of something in this story which is of great significance for the future development of the earth and which deeply moves and impresses them in their souls?

A Christmas Carol not only presents them with an image of a human being who manages to transform himself profoundly for the better – something which wonderfully corresponds to their life situation – but also with the future-oriented aspects of the three characteristics of wonder, sympathy and conscience. In letting these great ideals intuitively flow into his work, Dickens was ahead of his time.

A Christmas Carol is far more than a poignant and at the same time exciting Christmas ghost story: it harbours future impulses – both the class 8 pupils and for all people open to them.

About the author: Catherine Keppel grew up in England and studied English and German there. She is a guest lecturer at the Rudolf Steiner Institute for Social Education in Kassel in the subjects of painting and creative writing.