COMMENTARY: In Defense of Ebenezer Scrooge


This commentary first appeared in December of 2016



With that word, we imagine Ebenezer Scrooge dismissing Christmas and all it stands for.  But that's not what he meant at all.

For the early Victorians, 'Humbug' was the equivalent of the modern expression 'to call b.s.'  Scrooge was trying to point out to his nephew Fred that old grouches who 'went around with Merry Christmas on their lips' one day a year felt they were superior to people like him who weren't hypocrites and were old grouches 24/7/365.  He is actually baited by Fred, "Christmas a humbug, uncle?" and, like many curmudgeons he plays to type and we get the legend of the Christmas hating miser.

While I realize that defending Ebenezer Scrooge is probably not the most popular position to take on Christmas week, I have often felt that in many ways, Old Eb has gotten a bad rap over the generations.

Dickens never tells us how old Scrooge is, but lets say for the sake of argument that he is sixty.  Since 'A Christmas Carol' came out in 1843, that means Scrooge was born in 1783.  Never in human history have so many changes in the economy that Scrooge had to navigate as a businessman occurred as during the first decades of the Industrial Revolution.  So wrenching were these changes that a group called the 'Luddites' actually emerged to smash the industrial machinery they blamed for ruining their lives.

 We can see a hint of our world today in Scrooge's world of 1843.  We are not told what Scrooge's exact occupation is, but it is banking, or money lending of some sort, a thoroughly modern enterprise.  Bob Cratchit goes to work at the office in the morning, collects a weekly salary, and goes home at night, something completely familiar to us today.  In 1783, none of that happened.   But Scrooge's biggest failing, we're told, is that he managed to survive and succeed in a world wrought with far more significant changes than the rise of the Internet in our lifetime.

If Scrooge was born in 1783, counting the time of his apprenticeship with Old Fezziwig, lets say the firm of Scrooge and Marley was founded in 1804.  At that very time, the English were manning pillboxes on the channel coast and old men were drilling in town squares in preparation for an expected invasion by Napoleon, not exactly a propitious time to start a business.  He also would have thrived during the depression of the late 1810s, which many economists think was even worse than the Great Depression of the 20th Century, not to mention the political upheavals and vicious street riots of the 1830s which upended the social structure that Scrooge would have grown used to all his life.  If a businessman had survived all that and prospered today, his story would be taught in every business school in the country, alongside Henry Ford and Steve Jobs.

Had Scrooge NOT been a master businessman, there would have been a lot more people 'in want of common necessities,' in the worlds of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Scrooge himself for one, Marley and his family (if he had one), not to mention Bob Cratchit would have been unemployed, and, before the days of Britain's welfare state, not having a prize goose on her table would have been the very least of Mrs. Cratchit's troubles.  Remember, we are only two years away from the Irish Potato Famine, when 1.5 million people not far from the home office of Scrooge and Marley literally starved to death.

Another of Scrooge's miserly Christmas hating failings, we're told, was his reluctance to give Cratchit the day off.  But Christmas hasn't always been the 'super holiday' it is today.  Indeed, creating Christmas as a family holiday was part of a still new intentional effort by the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to teach the emerging English middle class the proper way to behave.  One of the appeals of Protestantism for the English and the Dutch was its lack of feast and saint's days for people to, in Scrooge's words, 'make idle merriment.'  Chances are good that in his entire career, Scrooge himself had never taken off a holiday other than Sunday, but it is Scrooge who actually brings up the issue to Cratchit:"...I suppose you'll want the whole day tomorrow..."

Much of this is due to the bizarre attitudes Charles Dickens and other early socialists (a new term at the time with a different meaning than the one it has today) had toward wealth.   The Dukes of Devonshire, who were the wealthiest people in Britain in the 19th Century, even richer than the monarch, were lionized for doing absolutely nothing for their money, while people who earned it through hard work and business sense were to be suspected and criticized.  

Dickens himself was a grievance machine, stemming from the fact that even though he considered himself a genius even as a child, he was forced by circumstances to have to work for a living.  The unfairness of it all!  Somebody has to pay....

I could say more, like the fact that the Cratchits were lucky that Tiny Tim was alive at a time when one in three children didn't survive to see their fifth birthday, but Eb wouldn't want me to.  "I wish to be let alone!" he would say.  

Let alone to plant the seeds for a world that has seen more growth in personal wealth in 170 years than had been seen in all the previous millennia of human history, where the average human on this planet today possesses a personal wealth that would have astounded people in 1843.  So this Christmas, God bless us, every one!  Even the capitalists.

Photo: Getty Images

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