It’s Christmas Day and I’m thinking about traditions. One of my traditions is to try every year to re-read Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. I know that, due to the various film, TV and audio versions, the story has become a virtual caricature of itself. However, it is probably the second-most famous Christmas book (The Bible being the first,) and for very good reason. It’s a classic fantasy story, with ghosts and time travel. It’s a story of hope and redemption, showing that there is good even in the worst of us, and no matter how badly you’ve messed up, there is always time to set things right.
And the characters! Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley, Tiny Tim — these are some of the most unforgettable characters in literature and popular culture. Think about it — Charles Dickens published this book in 1843. How many other characters (hey — how many other books) published 167 years ago can you name? In my case, the answer is nada. What characters written in the last 30 or 40 years will be remembered in the mid-22nd century? Harry Potter? Edward and Bela? Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom? Maybe, but I’m not betting my future royalties (hey, it’s Christmas — the season of hope) on it. Dickens’ characters have survived into the age of iPads, smartphones and the Tea Party because they still speak to something in each of us. There’s a little Bob Cratchit in each of us and also a little Scrooge.
Beyond that, there is plenty of humor in A Christmas Carol. If you listened to Purgatory, you may have noticed that I have a particular fondness for dry humor. Consequently, I love passages like this one from the scene where Marley’s Ghost appears to Scrooge:
His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.
Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.
Or this from the scene of the Christmas party at Fezziwig’s warehouse:
In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomachaches.
Or this from the beginning of the book in Scrooge’s counting house:
Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of strong imagination, he failed.
Not only are these lines funny, but they convey a real sense of the setting: A screechy violin, and a chilly office (anyone reading this shiver in a conference room lately during a long, boring meeting?). I can just imagine myself like Bob Cratchit, huddling over a candle and trying to get warm.
This book remains the best way to experience this story. I love the Muppets; Jim Carrey makes me laugh; and I have nothing but admiration for Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, and all the others who have tackled the role of Scrooge. But to really appreciate this story, you must return to the words of the genius who made it up. If you’ve never done so, I strongly encourage you to do it. I’m writing this at seven in the evening Christmas Day; Christmas 2010 is nearly over. However, just as it wasn’t too late for Scrooge to change his life, it’s not too late for you to enjoy this fine, haunting (no pun intended) story, just as it’s never too late for us to take its closing words to heart:
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards, 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!