The great Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh once wrote: "I admire everything by Charles Dickens, but I have reread A Christmas Carol … every year since I was a boy, and it is new to me every time. Good God, what an artist. There is no one else like him."
While watching The Man Who Invented Christmas, the new movie about how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol — it was mainly to pay off his debts — I remembered that reading van Gogh's words many years ago was responsible for my own decades-long tradition of rereading this classic every Christmas.
And it is the reading and rereading of Dickens's marvelous little book — the tale of a miserable, Christmas-hating miser's spiritual redemption — that I am here to promote. I recently turned 70, and I can say without hesitation that each reading of A Christmas Carol is still a new experience. And since Carol teaches us that the "common welfare" of humankind is the business of everyone — this is my humble gift to all.
This year's reading highlighted for me the way Dickens artfully employs empathy. The plot is well known. The ghost of Marley and the three spirits — Christmas past, present, and yet-to-come — were on their way. Scrooge was the target of a reclamation project from on high; he would be given a second chance to reclaim his humanity by being reminded of his inevitable death. And also by being forced to feel empathy for himself, and then for others.
When in tow of the Spirit of Christmas Past, Scrooge sees himself as a boy, "reading near a feeble fire," and the sight "fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening influence, gave a freer passage to his tears," and he then "wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be."
"What is the matter?" asked the Spirit. "There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all." The Ghost "smiled thoughtfully," for he knew that Scrooge was now able to transfer what he felt for himself and feel it for another human being. He had experienced empathy. His famed change of heart had begun.
One of the strongest demonstrations of empathy — or thwarted empathy — occurs when the heavily shackled ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's long-dead business partner, points out the window where "the air was filled with phantoms," wandering and moaning, every one of them wearing the chains of guilt "forged in life," and the "misery with them all was clearly that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever."
But I believe the most powerful display of empathy, and of Dickens' deliberate attempt to "work his will" upon his readers to become more empathic toward others, is in these words:
"Christmas is or ought to be the one time of the year when men and women open their shut-up hearts and think of the people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures altogether."
When we are alive we possess the gift of empathy and the power to act upon it. This is the essential message of A Christmas Carol, and likely what Van Gogh was referring to when he wrote: "There are things in Dickens's Christmas books so profound that one must read them over and over."
A note at the end of The Man Who Invented Christmas reads: "Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol on Dec. 19, 1843. By Christmas Eve every copy had been sold. Overnight, charitable giving soared."
Charles Dickens may have started A Christmas Carol for financial reasons, but he ended up giving the world something that would become his enduring legacy: the power of empathy. Let us use it before we lose it. Forever.