Saturday, December 26, 2020

A Christmas Carol, Past, Present, and Yet to Come


“Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that…Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

What a jarring beginning to the beloved A Christmas Carol. This was the beginning of several Christmas stories, written quickly for even quicker cash. Dickens’ family was a growing one, and he always needed to earn more and more to keep them all comfortable. He felt great pressure to be a provider his extended family could rely on.

There are several books I cannot remember reading for the first time…they seem to have always been a part of me. A Christmas Carol is one. The details are part of our world…the characters. We may not even recognize the allusions’ origins, but we recognize the truth of the allusions, the metaphors and symbols. That was one of Dickens’ skills – to create images and characters we recognize in our own lives.  What makes Dickens important for every year since 1843, is his surprise genius for staying relevant…no matter what year we read, reread, or watch this story, we find the parallels to our own lives. We find the words that resonate for our life.

As a later side career, Dickens read his own books aloud, and this one was especially popular. He both read and performed, editing for the occasion. The New York Public Library has the book Dickens created as his script, his own prompt copy, for his performances, complete with stage directions and notes. It is a treasure I’d love to see. In this recording the wonderful Neil Gaiman performs A Christmas Carol from the prompt copy. Dickens reading his story often drew large, appreciative audiences.


A Christmas Carol Past

If I can’t remember the first time I read the book, I remember the first time I read it to my own audience. My first year teaching. A tiny rural elementary school. 12 classrooms…two for each grade. I taught 6th grade, with an English Education degree. Out of my element in many ways, but determined to broaden the world for my students. 24 sweet rural Indiana students stared at me as I tried to figure out Base-Six math (my introduction to misguided school reforms); but I killed it when we worked with grammar and reading.

One of my favorite parts of the day was the sacred reading-after-recess. Hot, sweaty, odoriferous kids piled on the floor, listening to whatever story I happened to be reading. It was clear my students did not have a wide experience with good literature…so, for December, I decided to read A Christmas Carol. I learned quickly I had to revise the story on the fly. I didn’t have the benefit of Dickens’ prompt copy. I had to wing it. The vocabulary and diction were well over the heads of my Martinsville kiddos. So, I substituted words, rearranged sentences, even chose to omit some passages—Dickens’ lovely flights of fancy and descriptions that were timely for his time would have flown over the heads of my students. So I cut them…much like the author did in his own performance of the story. I’m sure I was not as artful…another reason I’d love to get my hands on that prompt copy.

My goal in reading to my young charges was to introduce the story…characters, plot. I wanted them to recognize the story in the future. I was planting seeds of literature, as their parents planted their crops. I wouldn’t be there to see them nod in recognition years later when someone was called a, “Scrooge,” or when someone piped up, “God Bless Us, Every One.” But I was there the first time they heard. I would have helped them understand those references we all nod sagely at. They could nod right along. They could get the jokes.

I overestimated our ability to get through the short book, so the last day before Christmas Break (yes, we called it Christmas Break, and the skies did not fall), as my students were finishing up their home-made presents to their parents and family, I read…and read. The room was busy, friendly, quiet. Students listened as they painted and drew, folded and wrapped. I read, “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One,” and closed my book, savoring that lovely moment of silence at the end of a wonderful story. My students spontaneously began to clap, something they’d not done before. But there were were, in the middle of the Indiana Uplands, at a school where we had no library, where one girl lived in a house with dirt floors, where students worried that using proper grammar would make them laughing stocks, where one boy couldn’t come to school one day because his family couldn’t find his shoes, there they were--my students felt the power of the story and they clapped. For the joy of Scrooge’s change of heart, for the new, promising future for Tiny Tim. For having listened to a classic tale. They clapped.

The combination of Dickens, Scrooge, Ebenezer, my students and I created the kind of magic that’s possible with a shared experience of art…any kind of art. But here it was great literature. That very first year of my career I saw in front of me, as the gift it was, children transformed for just a little while, connected to every other person who ever read or watched or heard this tale. Fifty years later, I can still see their faces as they realized we had, together, accomplished something special.


Since then, I’ve taught various adaptations of A Christmas Carol. We’ve watched films and compare/contrasted the stories. One of my personal favorites continues to be Bill Murray’s Scrooged. #SorryNotSorry. Reading it as often as I did, lines come to mind in totally unrelated situations.  Most often, as I watch the news, listening for subtext from leaders who too often seem to channel Old Ebenezer, before. I hear fewer echoes of the redeemed Ebenezer…I wonder why. I don’t have to search far to find those allusions in popular culture.

Five years ago, listening to the OK Legislature talk about planned cuts to #oklaed in another lean year for the OK budget, I could hear Scrooge whispering: “Are there no prisons…workhouses?” Politicians seem to unknowingly mirror the very worst of our man. They seemed more than willing to cut funding to schools, so they could prioritize their own goals. They seemed content to ignore Ignorance and Want…even as Dickens warns us of the dangers of an uneducated people: “The boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both…but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I have seen that written which is Doom, unless the writing is erased.” The only way to erase that Doom is with strong, well-funded schools. But we fight every year for our students. We will fight the ghost of Scrooge next Session, too. Want and Ignorance are always ignored, even when they’re right in front of us. Still. Always.


A Christmas Carol Present

I’ve now experienced 75 Christmas seasons, and seriously can’t remember one that was as challenging, not even that year Santa brought me the cheap knock-off dolly instead of the one I asked him for. Covid and politics sucked out a whole lot of the joy of the season…and Scrooges abound. You can’t open a newspaper (Yes, Virginia, there are newspapers), or more likely a new link online, without learning more about our policy makers who seem horribly disconnected to the real suffering Americans are feeling now. Watching a journalist choke up on the air as he interview a couple in line at a food bank for the first time in their lives, seeing the desperation of people whose federal unemployment benefits will end soon, others who may be evicted with the new year, we need a Christmas miracle. But all we seem to see are Scrooges, coldly uninvolved in people’s lives and suffering. Going off to golf on Christmas Day, tummies full, presents opened…Scrooge Lives…and he’s working inDC. He’s working in State Capitols where legislators sign onto shenanigans that would disenfranchise voters in other states. He’s working to turn communities against each other.

Dan Patrick, the Lt Governor of Texas, earlier this year, as Covid was first spreading across the country waxed poetic that older Americans should be happy to expose themselves to the virus and die, so his beloved economy could open without impediment….and I heard Scrooge disdainly pronouncing, “If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Umm, I, personally, would rather NOT die. I’d like to see my Grands marry and begin their adult life. The ugly heartlessness of Scrooge’s words really strike a blow when we hear a vile politician echo the sentiment. And I'm not holding my breath for a Texas epiphany anytime soon.

Look anywhere during this season and you’ll see someone referencing Christmas Carol…naming someone ‘Scrooge’. As I started writing this, I found a reflection by a writer who proclaimed herself to be the ‘family Scrooge.” And, right on cue, Wall Street Journal Opinion Page struck again with this beaut:  “In Defense of Scrooge, Whose Thrift Blessed the World.” Hey, WSJ, you missed another one. May I suggest you read the book again? You kinda missed the whole moral of the story.  This Twitter thread takes them to task better than I could.

A Christmas Carol is embedded into our culture. We need to know the story to get the silly jokes and cartoons, to know when an editorial board makes a huge mistake in referencing the characters. That was why I read it, 50 years ago to my 11 year old students…who are now nearing retirement age! I wanted those allusions and metaphors to make sense.

The book continues to be timely, sometimes sadly…and I keep asking why do our policy makers forget early Ebenezer is NOT the role model for us to follow. Did anyone tell politicians and WSJ and Patrick they are acting like the nasty Scrooge, not the loving Scrooge we are supposed to admire? Or, did they NOT read the last Stave of the story where Scrooge pleads for, and finds, a way to change the trajectory of his life?


I often reread the novel during Christmas season when I need to reconnect with this manipulative, sentimental, tale of redemption. Feel hope that, like Scrooge, we can choose another path and make mankind our business.  

Like this year.

So, when two friends in our FB Book Challenge group talked about a new book, Mr. Dickens and his Carol, by Samantha Silva, I got interested…A perfect way to end the year…Mr. Dickens, and then Mr. Scrooge.

I DID say I had taught A Christmas Carol, right? Well, I also taught Great Expectations, too…so I spent a lot of time with biographical information about Charles Dickens…his sad childhood, his forced labor when his family lived in debtor’s prison, his first love, his…complicated...marriage, his desperation for money to keep his growing family satisfied, his love affair with a glamorous actress, his second career as a performer of his own work…always with an eye to profit. So, I approached Silva’s book with a prickly attitude of someone who knows a bit about the subject. She won me over! This book tells the story of those weeks while he is being cajoled to write a ‘Christmas story’…for big bucks, money he and his family have already spent with their excessive Christmas plans. Of course he has writer’s block. He walks the streets of old London, looking for inspiration. He visits the old prison where his ne’er-do-well father lived for a few months, while young Charles was forced into child labor in a blacking factory. He meets a strange young boy who walks with a limp, a mysterious woman who appears and disappears. We hear lines from our novel used as dialogue, and we recognize settings and scenes. We see him slowly, scene-by-scene, inventing the timeless tale. Silva does take liberties with her story…how else could she add real Spirits? But she breathes life into the author, into his and Scrooge’s London, and into the text. She uses coincidences just like Dickens does. And she makes me cry ugly tears…just as manipulative and sentimental, in her own fine way, as her subject.

Then, I spent a few wonderful days with Ebenezer himself, nasty, hateful, and infinitely redeemable. Able to learn and grow…and change. With Silva’s words still clear in my mind, I reread, and the experience was deeper, more meaningful. Frankly, more fun. NOW I’m ready to listen to Gaiman read the prompt copy as *I* read my copy…I plan to make my own notes from Dickens’ own.


A Christmas Carol Yet to Come


Dicken’s preface is a short one:

“I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one with to lay it.” December, 1843. What does that mean for me, for us, going forward into 2021?


Covid and politics have made 2020 a tough year for us all. We have lost friends and loved ones. There are empty chairs at the dinner table, not unlike the empty corner of Tiny Tim in Christmas Yet to Come…Thanksgiving and Christmas, sheltering at home, even from my family just around the corner. Trading our signature dinner dishes in the garage, masked up. My granddaughters and I are planning marathon hugs in the summer. I’ve mused about kidnapping them all and running away. Eating in restaurants, shopping at the Mall. Seeing strangers’ smiles, unmasked. Hugs. Hugs.

Going to the grocery stores now and seeing other shoppers defiantly unmasked, or wearing their mask as an attractive chin strap. I find myself trying to follow the direction arrows in the aisles, trying not to make eye contact with others who are not masked properly, or blithely going the wrong direction, muttering under my breath, “Grace, grace, grace.” And yes, when I make a mistake and steer down the wrong way myself, I mutter, “Grace, please. Grace, please.”

Trying heartily to NOT participate in those online conversations where we knowingly or unknowingly misunderstand and misinterpret, where we jump to conclusions, make assumptions, see everything through our political lens. Where we’ve stopped listening. Again, I’ve muttered, “Grace, grace, grace.”  Working to not need the last word, to stop my teacher inclination to explain one more time what I meant, what I think the misunderstanding has been.

It’s been hard. That’s another reason A Christmas Carol seems important to me this season. We need to make some changes…each of us, and collectively as communities. And I return, not to Scrooge, but to Marley.

I know the last line resonates with most people, but for me, Marley delivers the words that bounce around in my soul. Words he learned the truth of too late: he is “doomed to wander among men, and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse…no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!” He sees too late. Seven years dead, and he is impelled to at least attempt to save Scrooge his fate. Marley’s words should challenge us all to reflect on our year, our years. To consider our misused opportunities.

Marley continues with the lament that breaks my heart. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business….” Marley doomed himself to carry those chains-every mistake, every missed opportunity, every miserly decision, hateful word. He saw too late he He so wants to warn his partner and give him a chance to see the truth. We all wear the chains we forge in life. “…Link by link, and yard by yard…” Marley desperately wants Scrooge and us to reflect on the chains we are forging, and whether they support a life of charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence…Or whether they will shackle us to an unhappy eternity. Each link in a chain is a small thing…light, insubstantial. Each slight, each unkind word. Each rebuff is a small thing. But when rebuff is linked to unkind work, to slight, our burden grows.

Scrooge does see a way

Do we need a haunting, an epiphany also?

I’m left with a  question…how do we take what A Christmas Carol can teach us into the next year? How do we take charity, merch, forbearance, benevolence with us?

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