Phil-osophically Speaking – December 17, 2010

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The Timeless Magic of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

“Marley is dead…There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the Chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Or was he? From its opening lines Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has the feel of a Yuletide ghost story. But the yarn is so much more than a gothic dramatization. It is a morality tale shorter than a novel but longer than a short story, what literary types like to call a novella. Whatever you want to call it, both the length and the subject seemed just right. So right, that when a local editor was doing a piece about the favorite books of community leaders (I was mayor at the time), I considered not so much the book as the time of year.

It was a cold December day when the editor called and the spirit of the season seemed to descend from the heavens with the bewitching delight of an early eve snow dusting. What better story to read, I mused, than Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Like the sheen that glistens off a lazy lake, Dickens’ whimsical genius for characterization and names has a magical appeal: Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and the Ghosts of Christmas are the indelible inventions of Charles Dickens’ fecund imagination that grows richer with each retelling.  

It is the timeless magic of a classic; it never grows stale nor withers before the eradicable forces of time and space. There is little wonder why Dickens’ masterpiece has been performed innumerable times on the stage, on television, in opera houses and cinematic productions. There was even an animated feature portraying Mr. Magoo as Scrooge — quite charming, really. Perhaps it is because so many mediums have adopted it with such popular success that a surprising few have actually taken the time to read it. That’s a pity because the written word, in the hands of an artist, is immensely powerful.

Dickens’ prose can be florid, but here it is spare yet poetic, measured but sentimental. Undergirding the poignant social commentary is the timeless story of lost innocence and redemption. It is a motif as old as the human race itself and as pristine as morning sunlight. Fifteen hundred years later we are still mesmerized by Augustine’s Confessions, a Roman citizen who for 30-odd years lived a sinful, dissolute life of the flesh until his slow, tortuous conversion makes him one of the great saints of the church. Who can forget his all too human prayer: Make me chaste O’ Lord — but not yet!

Along with its thematic resonance, few pieces in literature so easily lend themselves to a public reading more than A Christmas Carol. So on a frosty, wintry evening, gather the family around a roasting fireplace and tenderly open its time-worn book covers and begin to read out loud. If you don’t have a burning fire to sit by, imagine one because nothing stokes the imagination like the storytelling prowess of a Dickens tale. You will find yourself transported to a faraway place, in a long ago era, yet still feel at home.

When Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843, he never dreamed that next to Luke and Matthew’s touching Nativity scenes this would be the most famous Christmas story of all. Its enchanting sweep seemed to touch every heart popularizing the joyful salutation of “Merry Christmas” that has recently, and unfortunately, been supplanted by the tiresome and banal “Happy Holidays.”

A Christmas Carol awakens us from our modern delirium of money and status that dominates so much of our everyday existence. “Sunsets” said Oscar Wilde, “are treasured only because they can not be purchased.”  That is true of the things that matter most, whether it is our family, our friends, our peace of mind. It is a lesson Scrooge learns, with the help of the supernatural and one which we can absorb by reading A Christmas Carol. To love people and not things may leave us materially poorer but it will also make us emotionally and spiritually richer.

I am loath to make one other point about this Christmas classic. I find it striking that for all its enormous popularity there has never been a sequel. I suspect the reason for this is not a very flattering one. Once Scrooge became a good man he ceased to be interesting to us. We were entertained by his malevolence and ribaldry, amused at his miserliness, strangely fascinated by his total self-immersion. Scrooge is a dark mirror and, if we only care to admit it, his selfishness is not entirely unfamiliar to us. It is both a distant and, at times, a hauntingly intimate shadow of our own fallen nature. But that, as you might have guessed, is another story.

 

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