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Who needs God, when you have the Muppet Christmas Carol?

Scrooge doesn’t find religion. He finds Christmas. And why should the qualities of generosity and thoughtfulness be the preserve of the God-fearing, says Natalie Haynes.

My final words as he left the flat were, “Don’t buy a giant reindeer head. We don’t have room to store it.” I hardly need to tell you that I am typing this beneath the woolly gaze of a large, felted reindeer head, which now hangs from my living-room wall. When Christmas is over, it’ll have to go under the bed, though I do realise the potential for an inappropriate combination of festive and Godfather overtones some time next year.

I love Christmas, even though I’m not supposed to on two counts. The first is that I’m vegetarian. I’ve been off meat for 25 years, so I am pretty much immune to the look that people give me when they ask what we eat on Christmas Day, as though vegetarianism were on a par with being one of those people who eat only what they can scavenge from skips behind supermarkets, in the hope that capitalism might then fall.

The answer, in case you were too polite to ask, is probably something with chestnuts and cranberries and leeks. And it takes about 20 minutes to cook, so while you are wrestling a turkey into the oven at some hour just before dawn, I’ll be asleep. And, very possibly, drunk.

The second reason I shouldn’t like Christmas is that I am not religious. Not even a tiny bit. I like churches and cathedrals; I even like gods (especially Greek and Roman ones, nasty though they often are) – but I lack faith. That doesn’t quite describe it, because it doesn’t feel like a lack. To me, the story of Christmas is just that – a good story. That doesn’t stop me enjoying it.

My view of what Christmas is about is pretty well summarised by A Christmas Carol. If you’re too busy to head to the bookshelf, I suggest a trip to the cinema: The Muppet Christmas Carol is rereleased this year to celebrate the film’s 20th birthday. For my money, it’s the finest adaptation of Dickens ever made.

Michael Caine has never given a more beautiful performance than he does as Scrooge. He bellows at Kermit, Beaker and the carol-singing rabbit with all the fury of an unrepentant miser. Then his eyes mist up as he sees his embittering past, his unloved present.

Caine’s Scrooge doesn’t sing like a singer; he sings like a man who’s lost the ability to love. That might leave you dry-eyed but it has me weeping like a girl. Scrooge is a man elevated by Christmas, once the ghosts have reminded him what it’s really about, which is kindness.

Spirit level

Christmas, in the world of Dickens (as played by the Great Gonzo, obviously, with Rizzo the Rat to keep him company), is a time when we remember how lucky we are and try to make other people feel the same way, either through gifts or simply by being kinder.

It is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that finally converts Scrooge. He has to see the future and how the world will continue after his death to understand fully what Christmas has to offer him: the chance for redemption. And it’s not any suggestion of hell or damnation that terrifies him – it’s the thought of being unlamented when he’s gone. It’s this world that Scrooge’s spirits show him, not another.

He eventually realises that Christmas isn’t a day; it’s a state of mind. His final promise to the last spirit is a comprehensive one: “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present and the future.”

It’s because of this that I see A Christmas Carol as a humanist text, in essence. Scrooge does go to church on Christmas Day after his night-time conversion from misanthrope to good man, but it takes up less than a sentence of the book. (And none of the film. Perhaps it’s for the best – the church might not approve of the marriage between pig and frog.)

Scrooge doesn’t find religion. He finds Christmas. And why should the qualities of generosity and thoughtfulness be the preserve of the God-fearing?

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.