A Christmas Carol: A Memento Mori Story

A Christmas Carol is a perennial Christmas classic with countless adaptations. What many people overlook, however, is the core moral of the story. It’s not just “be nice to the poor on Christmas,” but a call to action for those who are privileged to examine their consciences and to do what they can to help others year-round because at some point, we’ll die and be judged on our actions as well as what we neglected to do.

In other words, A Christmas Carol is a “Memento Mori” story. If you don’t know what “memento mori” is, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble goes more into it. According to her website:

Memento mori or “remember your death” is a phrase that has been long associated with the practice of remembering the unpredictable and inevitable end of one’s life. The spiritual practice of memento mori and the symbols and sayings associated with it were particularly popular in the medieval church. 

Fun fact: My family and I saw a production of A Christmas Carol in Houston’s Alley Theatre. They really played up the aspect of “Memento Mori” right at the start, with skeletons dressed in fancy clothes dancing around Ebenezer Scrooge’s bed, foreshadowing what’s to come.

All the ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge compel him to examine his conscience, that is his past actions and how he neglects to help those in the present. Let’s dive into this story and see how.

Stave One: Facing Judgment & Punishment

with Jacob Marley

Even though Charles Dickens wasn’t Catholic and had some anti-Catholic sentiments, the imagery of Jacob Marley and the other ghosts calls to mind the souls of Purgatory, at least for me.

Quotes from Stave One to reflect on:

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Similar to the souls in Purgatory, the ghosts in A Christmas Carol can’t really do much to help others on earth aside from intercession. If this is Charles Dickens’s idea of Hell, however, it’s a very good one. All the ghosts are faced with the suffering of humanity and are unable to do anything about it. Sure hits different in 2020, doesn’t it?

Stave Two: The Examination of Conscience

with the Ghost of Christmas Past

Ebenezer Scrooge’s trip down memory lane with the Ghost of Christmas Past is a mix of nostalgia and bittersweet memories, heavy on the bitter. While Scrooge had fond memories of his school days, the memory of his neglectful father and a lack of friends within the boarding school instilled an unhealthy sense of self-preservation in him. However, seeing the memories of his past also prompted Scrooge to think about things he neglected to do in the present, like how he should’ve been kinder to the boy who was singing a carol out in the street or how he keeps his nephew, Fred, at arm’s length even though Fred is the only living memory of his beloved sister.

A similar incident happens when Scrooge is taken to his first job at Fezziwig’s. The Christmas party is lively with dancing and music and merriment. Pay attention to the exchange between the ghost and Scrooge in this memory:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,

“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge.

“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.”

But while Scrooge is feeling pangs in his conscience, small instances of regret, he’s not completely ready to change because the wounds of his past still hurt, as evidence as he relives Belle breaking off their engagement.

Which brings us to our next ghost.

Stave Three: Inactions & Consequences

with the Ghost of Christmas Present

The version of this particular stave shown in A Muppet Christmas Carol is my particular favorite version because the Ghost of Christmas Present is a very heartwarming, joyful spirit. Michael Caine’s Scrooge actually forms a friendship with this ghost.

I also love that in this particular chapter, Scrooge sees how his miserly attitude and lack of compassion are regarded by others in his life, particularly Nephew Fred and the Cratchits.

Of course, there are some things that the Muppet version neglected to show. One particular segment was essentially a tract on Dickens’s part to advocate for a continuation of practices that helped the poor. Scrooge is shown how many people that he regarded as the “surplus population” still do their best to celebrate Christmas in spite of their poverty. My favorite rendition of this comes from this little known animated version:

Fun fact: GK Chesterton (Catholic writer and apologist) was a huge fan of Charles Dickens. In one edition of A Christmas Carol, he wrote an intro to the story that echoes the Ghost of Christmas Present’s call to action and asks the reader to examine themselves.

The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him whether he is the surplus population; or if he is not, how he knows he is not. 

GK Chesterton in his intro to the 1922 edition of A Christmas Carol

As joyful and merry as the Ghost of Christmas Present is, the serious tone he takes on towards the end of his journey with Scrooge is a very sobering moment, especially when Scrooge sees the embodiments of Ignorance and Want. (See the animated version above for a reference.) But Scrooge doesn’t have time to let things sink in because once the clock struck midnight, the next ghost appears.

Stave Four: Facing One’s Death & Legacy with the

Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

This description of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come often calls to mind how death is seen, usually as the Grim Reaper. This Ghost may not appear with a scythe and it’s not a walking skeleton (not even its outstretched hand is skeletal), but in my opinion, the Ghost is definitely an archetype of Death.

The reason why I see the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as representing Death is that when Scrooge explores the future, he sees how the people he’s familiar with (and even people he never really met but people that are affected by his actions) react to his death, namely that nobody really mourned him. Scrooge is in a major state of denial, but it’s because he’s afraid of facing his death. Most people don’t usually want to think about their death, let alone how people might react if and when that day comes.

When Scrooge finally does come face to face with his gravestone, everything finally hits him. The idea of dying alone and unloved and possibly facing an afterlife burdened by chains is all too much.

Michael Caine’s performance is the best version. His remorse feels the most authentic here. He realizes, now, coming face to face with his death, that he has to make the most of his life while he can. The future isn’t certain or guaranteed, but facing his inevitable death compels Scrooge to take action.

That’s essentially what Memento Mori is. Knowing one’s death and knowing that one will face judgment and end up in either Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell compels people to make the most of their lives while they can without going all YOLO.

Stave Five: Scrooge’s Conversion

It’s one thing to have an epiphany to change. It’s another to really take action and live out what one has learned.

When Scrooge returns from his magical mystery journey, he immediately starts making the most of his time by asking a boy on the street (possibly the same boy he turned away earlier) to go by the prize turkey in the poultry shop and return to his house, promising some serious coin for it. (A shilling would be the equivalent of 12 cents and half a crown is 30 cents, which was worth a lot back then.) Once the poultry man arrives, he tells the man to send the turkey to the Cratchits, but stresses him not to tell them who paid for the turkey.

After dressing up, Scrooge donates some money to a group of carolers and makes amends with the gentlemen who were at his office earlier, promising to donate an amount that astounds them with the promise of more donations in the future.

What really cements Scrooge’s conversion is when he makes amends with Fred and his wife. The next day, Scrooge tells Bob Cratchit that he intends to raise the latter’s salary and promises to help the Cratchits to the best of his ability.

But the way the book (and the Muppet version) finishes the story is my favorite part, evidence of Scrooge keeping what he has learned for as long as he lived:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world… and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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