Saturday, December 22, 2012

My Father's Carol

I was exposed to A Christmas Carol thanks to my father. Thus, a number of adaptations are now in my holiday viewings thanks to him. So, I have decided that for this last entry in our series of blogs on A Christmas Carol, I'll let Dad take over...
It began with the broadcast of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol in 1962 and I was only three years old. I had seen Mr. Magoo cartoons already, so when the family sat down to watch it, I just thought it would be another Magoo cartoon. But I didn't know the story yet and I began to get the creeps when the doorknocker changed and then when I saw a ghost's chains being dragged up the stairs.

I mustered all the resolve to not get scared as the story progressed. Marley was soon gone and the next two didn't look at all like ghosts that I'd seen before in pictures, but finally when the last ghost was on, this 3-year old's attempt at courage just finally quit. In short, it scared the Dickens out of me.

With a good deal of comfort from my two older sisters and my parents, I recovered and shortly afterward another version came on TV (live action, possibly the "Tales From Dickens" episode with Basil Rathbone) that was more endurable. And then after at about three years, we acquired a copy of the book for family reading. In both of these instances, it was explained to me as being the same story, just not with Mr. Magoo. The book, I discovered later, was an abridgement; however it was very beautifully illustrated, published by Ideals. A little later I got the ViewMaster set of the story as well. In time I'd read the story many times, seen it on stage, screen and TV, even by chance got a Casper the Friendly Ghost comic where he helped change one Isaac B. Grouch in the same way on his birthday (I'd like to find another copy of this issue, having lost it long ago; do any readers know which issue it is in?).

Many viewpoints have been made as to what kind of story A Christmas Carol is. First of all, it's obviously a Christmas story. Written at a time when Christmas was still coming back into fashion following a time of banishment by the Puritans, Charles Dickens put forth all the cheer possible in his short book to bring the concept alive.

While describing a bitingly cold December winter, Dickens adds details of holly and berries to the scene along with people playing winter games such as sliding on patches of ice. Parties and celebrations are described to the most enjoyable detail, and he so whets the reader's appetite as if meaning to make one's mouth water when he describes the Cratchits' dinner, meager as it is. And when Christmas day finally comes, the church bells ring out making the scene "glorious, glorious!" And Dickens does not let the reader forget the purpose of celebrating Christmas either. One only has to see where he's made references to the Nativity.

Next, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, as it states in its subtitle. Here is where Dickens shows his engenuity. Starting with his preface, he actually appears to be kidding the ghost story genre: "I have raise the Ghost of an Idea...May it haunt [readers'] houses pleasantly..."

When Scrooge encounters the knocker, Dickens gives a description of its ordinary appearance and stating that Scrooge was a man of no imagination, winding it up by just casually saying it has changed to Marley's face. Just imagine how Dickens' American contemporary Edgar Allan Poe might have described it, with his way of chilling the blood. Let's say as a possibility: Scrooge, as he was about to apply his key to the keyhole, beheld in place of the knocker the very visage of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley! 

This humorous approach continues as Scrooge looks behind the door as if expecting to see the back of Marley's head there. Then an image best worthy of gothic stories from that era occurs. Once again, Dickens just gives a simple description, this time of Scrooge's staircase which is very wide, which was maybe why Scrooge seems to see a hearse going on up the stairs. Then once he's in his room, Scrooge looks around everywhere, making sure there's no one under his bed, or in any adjoining room, or even hiding in his dressing gown and then even double locks his door "as was not his custom." And even when Marley finally does appear, being transparent, Dickens has Scrooge remember hearing people say that "Marley had no bowels", especially implying no heart.

But this humor is done away with when Marley reveals his fate as a ghost: "No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse." In short, the fear to have is not a fear of ghosts, but a fear of becoming a ghost, facing the fate of Marley and his spectral companions as they travel about the world.

The three unearthly visitors who come to Scrooge, while they are addressed as ghosts, are not of anyone deceased and would be better described as spirits. Each of them of course represent a different era: the Ghost of Christmas Past reflects Scrooge's past with many faces of Scrooge's past displayed as it casts an unwanted light on what he would rather forget. The Ghost of Christmas Present displays as well as gives power to those who would welcome it; a kind of parallel to the Holy Spirit. The Ghost of Christmas Future is what the future holds for Scrooge: dark, bleak and even terrifying. (You can understand that this is why that three year old me finally gave in to being scared when it came to this point.)

When Dickens collected A Christmas Carol and his other Christmas writings into a volume simply entitled The Christmas Books, he included in his preface "My chief purpose awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." England no doubt considered itself a Christian nation in the 19th century, but living conditions at the time for the poor was no example of Christian charity. Dickens, despite his merriment in the telling, preaches a harsh sermon on the subject of failing to love and the consequences. He vividly describes appalling living conditions at old Joe's, puts a poor woman with a small child in the midst of a freezing night and all but shoves the figures of Ignorance and Want in the form of children into the reader's face.

This brings to mind Jesus' teaching from Matthew 25: "...for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me...Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me" (vs. 42-45, NKJV). Further on the apostle John writes "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (I John 3:17 NKJV).

There's no question of the story's enduring qualities, as every few years another film adaptation comes out (if you think they can't do any others after Jim Carrey's version, just wait and see) or a writer does their own take on it (last year it got its turn with the vampires and zombies treatment; this year Dark Horse released a graphic novel with Eliza Scrooge instead of Ebenezer). Since its message is so timeless, the story can easily be changed to any setting, from the old west (a Six Shooter radio episode and the movie Ebenezer) to modern day (the movies Ebbie, A Carol Christmas, Ms. Scrooge and A Diva's Christmas Carol, all with female Scrooges as well). It has been given to other holidays: a movie called A Valentine's Carol and a Valentine's Day novel Marly's Ghost, Veggie Tales adapted it for Easter, the movie An American Carol used it for Independence Day, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight had its own take for Halloween, and Adventures in Odyssey has its episode "A Thanksgiving Carol" plus the movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and the aforementioned Casper the Friendly Ghost comic story. Some TV series will eventually use it for a Christmas episode as has been done too many times to count.

But the important thing is to see Scrooge's redemption as that change of heart that all must have, to not only keep Christmas itself but to have it all year long and to prove it by your love for others.
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

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