Scrooge in schools could teach many lessons

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“Merry Christmas!” was popularized in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the familiar tale of Scrooge, a heartless, penny-pinching rich businessman bereft of Christmas spirit. Scrooge sees the error of his ways when, on Christmas Eve, he is haunted by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who sends the spirits of Christmases past, present, and future to show Scrooge both the origins and future consequences of his cramped soul. The experience changes Scrooge for the better, and he celebrates Christmas with generosity toward those around him, particularly the poor and the workers, who are best exemplified by clerk Bob Cratchit, the long suffering, underpaid employee trying to take care of his family (and sick child, Tiny Tim) while working for low wages under terrible conditions imposed by Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol is an example of a traditional holiday play of the type that can no longer be performed in public schools, which, owing to a fear of legal repercussions combined with a desire to be inclusive, have followed the general governmental trend and interpreted the First Amendment’s Establishment clause to prohibit even the mention of “Christmas,” regardless of context.

What a shame, because A Christmas Carol, written by a man whose family was sent to debtor’s prison in Victorian England, is as much an allegory of income inequality and unreasonable working conditions as it is a religious Christmas story. These topics remain relevant in today’s world of subprime loans, explosion of the super-rich class, and the rise of Bernie Sanders, who would feel right at home as an advocate for the Cratchit family and the famous Tiny Tim, whose very life hangs in the balance of Scrooge’s spiritual conversion (although Bernie might re-write the script to have Scrooge force Canadian-style, single-payer health care through Parliament in the play’s final “Stave”).  A good high school English teacher could have a field day sparking heated discussion among students about the play’s application to today’s world.

But A Christmas Carol is an example of what we deny ourselves when our desire to avoid an establishment of religion leads to an attempt to excise any mention of Christmas in public life. Whether one is a believer in Christianity or not, it is nearly impossible to understand the context of much of the literary and musical history of the Western tradition without some understanding of Christianity. After all, Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and anything by C.S. Lewis teem with Christian themes. These classics may be less popular choices today because they are part of “dead white male” canon, but are still taught, notwithstanding religious themes far stronger than anything in A Christmas Carol. But they don’t mention the dreaded “C” word, so they get a pass.

So, too, with music. Parents of public school children have all been to “Winter” and “Holiday” concerts and barraged with Winter Wonderland and other “seasonal” songs for the chorus that scrupulously avoid Christmas carols or mentions of Christmas trees (unless sung in German, a language most listeners do not understand). Of course, the bands and orchestras have more latitude, because there are no lyrics, and thus selections from Tchaikovsky’s Christmas-themed Nutcracker, as well as religiously-inspired selections of Bach or Handel, are permitted.

What do we really think we are accomplishing by having our children perform orchestral versions of Handel’s Messiah Halleluiah Chorus (one of the greatest Christian musical works of all time) but panicking over passing references to Christmas trees and Santa Claus (I don’t ever recall reading about either in the bible) in largely secular tunes?

No one thinks that a public middle school holiday show should resemble midnight Mass. Obviously, secular selections and songs from multiple religious traditions are appropriate (please music teachers, find something beyond the dreaded Dreidel song of my youth for my Jewish friends). But the risk of a town establishing Christianity as its official religion via an offhand reference to “Christmas,” or even the occasional performance of A Christmas Carol is nonexistent and we should recognize that. Of course, by reminding my liberal friends that the greeting “Merry Christmas!” itself was popularized by a subversive play that was an attack on income inequality and economic elites, maybe the term “Merry Christmas!” will come back into favor.

Robert N. Driscoll is a native of the Boston area who currently practices law in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his firm. Nor are they the views of his wife, daughters, or greyhounds. Read his past columns here.