Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol" in 1845. The story was an overnight success and has become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories.
Dickens' contemporaries noted that Christmas sentiment was dying out at the time the story appeared and gave A Christmas Carol credit for redefining the importance of Christmas to British society.
The story tells of a wealthy miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, whose name became synonymous with people who're unwilling to part with their money. On the day before Christmas, Scrooge refuses to give anything to the poor, declaring that society has provided adequately for them. "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" he asks.
Suddenly, he's visited by the ghost of his former partner Marley who had died seven years before. Marley's ghost warns Scrooge that unless he mends his ungenerous ways, he'll wander the earth alone forever as Marley's ghost wanders alone. He's reminded of his selfish past and thinks of many times he refused to help other people.
After Marley's ghost leaves, Scrooge sees the Ghost of Christmas Past who reviews Christmases both happy and sad in his own prior life, then the Ghost of Christmas Present who takes him around to see how other people are celebrating Christmas by giving to others. Later, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge having died unmourned and alone because his stinginess left him with no one who cared whether he lived or died.
Dickens addressed the manner in which English society had departed from the original meaning of Christmas as a time of giving, good will, and peace. In much the same way as early-19th-century Dickensian England had moved away from the holiday's charitable origins, Christmas in America used to be about giving and a time of celebration of the birth of the One who would bring peace on earth, but now it's all about commercialism.
Its true meaning has been forgotten to the point that some stores discipline staff members who wish people "Merry Christmas" because they're afraid some customers might be offended to be reminded of the religious origin of the holiday. Absent a writer of the caliber of Dickens, we don't see much possibility of Christmas returning to its former place in our society through literature.
We see the same debasement of our politics. The spirit of "Ask not what your country can do for you" has morphed to Bailout Nation, where the government seems to be expected to hand out money to anyone and everyone who feels like they need it. Our leaders seem to want to make every day into Christmas where the well-connected receive gifts from their beneficent government.
Mr. Obama campaigned on a theme of change. It's to be hoped that he plans to persuade Americans that they ought to work for what they receive rather than merely asking for it; that change would represent a reversion to an earlier manifestation of the American Way.
Scrooge ended his famous supernatural experience a changed man who had hope for a better future. He'd received gifts of the heart, of course, but despite the generous image projected by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge wasn't left with a pile of presents under the tree when the Ghost departed. Instead, Scrooge went out into the new day to buy gifts for everyone else at his own expense.
It's plausible to assume that Mr. Bush might have been concerned that he'd be thought a heartless Scrooge if he didn't spend billions of our dollars helping the Detroit automakers. He may have seen the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and been frightened by the vision; but what a difference between Dickens' Scrooge who spent his own money, and the Ghost of Christmas Presents who resides in Washington, D.C. throwing your wealth to all comers this Christmas season!
Scrooge's visitations by spirits were completed in the course of one long night; unhappy we, who will be revisited by the Ghost of this Christmas Past every April 15th for the rest of our natural lives.