This piece was written as a program note to the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island‘s production of Gayden Wren’s A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol.
Crotchety, miserly, self-hating, arrogant, with a tendency to make lousy puns when startled: let me introduce you to my oldest literary friend, Ebenezer Scrooge.
Just ask my parents: at age four I used my dad’s blazer as a frock coat and performed all of A Christmas Carol on the morning of the 25th. All right, it was the Disney version with Scrooge McDuck, but one must make a beginning.
Other things I liked when I was four – Rainbow Brite comes to mind – have failed the test of time both with me and with the culture generally. Yet every year or two there’s another new version of A Christmas Carol–plus uncountable revivals of existing ones. If Mr. Scrooge was sixty at his creation, he’s pushing two centuries now, but the old boy is still going strong.
Why do we keep returning to Charles Dickens’ inkwell for our annual dose of Christmas cheer?
For many of us, it’s precisely because Mr. Scrooge is such an old friend. There’s nothing like a childhood ritual to fill the heart with goodwill toward men. This is the only excuse I can offer for my own favorite film adaptation of the story, the 1970 Leslie Bricusse musical with the hideously miscast Albert Finney. It played nonstop on TV when I was an infant, that’s why. Also, I like life, OK? Thank you very much.
In fact, this story is so essential to us that all kinds of holiday observances take on a sheen of Queen Victoria’s glorious days. See those people singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” outside your window? That’s an old British song, and I just bet its carolers are wearing long knitted mufflers and Abraham Lincoln hats with holly on them. All those department-store displays of miniature houses in the snow are somebody’s recreation of 1840s London (or sometimes Norman Rockwell, but never mind). My family doesn’t serve up a burning lump of raisin-studded lard for holiday afters, but if I brought one in nobody would say it was out of place. Granted, my personal ancestors came from England, but it’s not just us Anglo-Saxon Protestants wearing the festive “Bah! Humbug!” sweatshirts. Like – surprise – Gilbert & Sullivan operas, Scrooge is as British as scones for tea, yet as universal as the knowledge that we’re all going to die.
Wait, what? Don’t harsh my chocolate marshmallow! Who wants a reminder that we’re all going to die?
Well, to begin with, Scrooge’s nephew, in some ways the wisest character in Dickens’ story.
“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round…as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
He’s not alone, either. Listen carefully to the ghost of Jacob Marley:
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know that any…spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness….Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”
We understand that Marley is Scrooge’s twin: selfish, cynical, and certain that he was surrounded by soppy patsies. Tragically, only when he died did he realize what he’d missed. It’s too late for him to do good to anyone now–anyone, that is, except Scrooge. If Marley can reach just one person, he will not have lived and died in vain.
“I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate,” he tells Scrooge. “A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer…You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”
The journey on which his “chance and hope” leads Scrooge–that roller-coaster of memory, emotion, color, all the things Scrooge had locked out of his life–also leads him to reach out to one other person. Here is Scrooge’s real turning point:
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
After that, it’s both gravy and grave: the third ghost just hammers home the realization that whether Scrooge has one more year on earth or forty, he too is a passenger toward death. If Scrooge makes his life count now–by sending that prize turkey, funding Tim’s medical treatment, connecting with his nephew–then when he does come to die, as we all must, his death will be a loss, but not a waste.
Scrooge learns a lesson put best not by Dickens, but rather by Dickinson (Emily, that is):
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
This has traversed afar from Christmas, hasn’t it? Exactly so: the Dickens story from which we draw so many sentimental associations and so many holiday customs isn’t really about Christmas at all.
The reformed Scrooge resolves to honor Christmas in his heart and try to keep it all the year. That doesn’t mean he’s going to act like my local drugstore and pile up Santa hats the day after Halloween. Rather, he’s going to make his life count all year, for all the years he has left, by reaching out to one person, then another, then another.
And even in this hard modern world of commercialism and recession – not to mention wars, plane crashes and Ebola – his resolution is a reminder we all ache for.
So annually we return to Mr. Scrooge whether he’s in a solemn dramatic version or singing the tune to “The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring.” And if he does his work for us as Marley did for him, we all have a chance and hope of truly honoring Christmas.
I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world. ~ Charles Dickens