Everybody knows the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. He started off mean and miserable and ended up generous and happy. His humbugging of Christmas turned into the warmest of good wishes. His belligerence became benevolence overnight. And everybody knows that the difference between ‘before’ and ‘after’ was not a self-determined change of mind but the terrified response to three ghostly dreams which showed him Christmas past, present and future.
But when everybody knows something you can be sure that everybody has missed something even more obvious and even more important.
A Christmas Carol isn’t mainly about miserliness and money. A Christmas Carol is about something far more important than money. It is about time.
Watchers of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ will know that Benjamin Franklyn’s image is on the one hundred-dollar bill. They will also know his most famous phase, ‘time is money’. It can be a helpful phrase. But like all pithy remarks it lacks the qualifier it needs – sometimes.
Ebenezer Scrooge’s number one problem was not that he was mean but that he did not have time. Anxious about the pennies, and believing Franklyn’s half-truth as if gospel, he gave all his time to his work.
The genius of Dickens, who must have been as industrious as the next man to produce so many words… was that he saw that the fundamental problem was not attitude to money but attitude to time.
There are plenty of witty clues in the book itself to suggest that time is the true theme of A Christmas Carol. The three ghosts at the heart of the story: ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ have the task of introducing our anti-hero to the temporal dimension. Their visits come at precisely one o’clock in the morning and, while they are all extensive, they take no time. A main focus of Scrooge’s bullying of Bob Cratchit was timekeeping. Towards the end of the book the new Scrooge gets to work early so that he can catch Bob coming in late. And Dickens uses the drama of the ticking clock to bring it vividly to life. ‘The clock struck nine. No Bob. A quarter past. No Bob. He was a full eighteen and a half minutes, behind his time.’ As the book ends there is new hint every minute for the reader. ‘It’s only once a year, sir’ pleads the tardy Bob. ‘I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’
And it all comes brilliantly clear as Scrooge’s conversion to a better life is narrated. Certainly he vows to honour Christmas in his heart. The next step is to try to keep it all the year. We are getting close now, but are not yet at the nub of the matter. But here it comes: Scrooge declares, ‘I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.’
What Scrooge learnt is that time is not money. It is far more subtle and significant than that. It is in the 3-D quality of the moment, the richness of the whole life, that true wealth is to be found.
The lesson of A Christmas Carol is this: rather than being money, time is priceless.