Taming my inner Scrooge
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Ebenezer Scrooge and his against-all-odds transformation from money-grubbing curmudgeon to beloved friend of one and all. I grew up with the black-and-white movie starring Alastair Sim. I'll most likely break down and see the razzle-dazzle 3-D version starring Jim Carrey. And last Sunday I put on my most festive red jacket for the annual reading of A Christmas Carol at Toronto's Church of the Redeemer, starring me and four other recruits. I was off to confront my inner Scrooge.
Yes, I do have one. He's the part of me that wonders if we really need to bother with a tree, that winces at the sound of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," that laments the escalating tab for all those presents. I've never gone so far as to say, like Scrooge, "If I had my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart." Still, I don't find those sentiments entirely foreign. Where I come from, Christmas meant soaring hopes of comfort and joy, dashed without fail by my father's alcoholic despair. Yet I'm stirred every year by the renewal that Christmas embodies, even for lifelong unbelievers like me. You don't have to be a Christian to crave the reminder that people who walk in darkness can see a great light. Even the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, as nasty a piece of work as ever chewed out an underling.
In cynical moments, I have rolled my eyes at A Christmas Carol. I don't like having my heartstrings insistently tugged, as Dickens does whenever poor, wan little Tiny Tim comes into view. I look for believable female characters; Dickens reduces his to stereotypes. (Well, what can you expect of a Victorian who only abandoned his wife for another woman but cut her off from all but one of her 10 children and then smeared her reputation in the press?) But there's nothing like rereading a classic to understand its hold on distracted modern minds. Especially if you're reading it aloud.
I'd been assigned the Ghost of Christmas Past (sigh or relief! no Tiny Tim!). From the Church's ornate brass lectern, I looked out on the expectant throng that filled the pews. On every face I saw the same expression and it said, "Tell me a story." I noticed uneasily that quite a few people had brought kids who would surely prefer Jim Carrey and a battery of special effects. Could mere words hold their attention?
I needn't have worried. Dickens wrote words that vibrate with life. I defy anyone to resist the spell of that Ghost, "like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man...."And the Fezziwigs' Christmas ball is a rambunctious marvel: you can picture dancers of varying skill making merry "anyhow and everyhow." With writing this colourful, who needs 3-D?
I last read A Christmas Carol as a child more intent on plot than on texture. Back then, I must have skimmed right past the wonderful line in which "old Fezziwig" executes a dance move with such bold precision that he "[appears] to wink with his legs." But of course this story isn't just for children. At its heart is a drama for grownups who know loss and regret. Dickens doesn't tell you that both old Fezziwig and Scrooge's former workmate, "poor Dick," are long dead. But the adult reader gets the point---and so does Scrooge as he meets a lost part of himself.
I hadn't set foot in the Victorian Church of the Redeemer since a friend's untimely funeral more than 15 years ago. I'd forgotten what an intimate retreat it is from the urban hubbub just outside, with its antique wooden pews and graceful stone arches. Mostly, I'd forgotten the pleasure of sharing words aloud that have the power to change lives. Call it the first gift of Christmas.
Great news for Dickens fans: the entire manuscript of A Christmas Carol can now be viewed online at The New York Times website. A zoom feature lets you study Dickens' edits, but you'll need more patience than I have with Victorian penmanship.
Posted by Rona December 09, 2009 @ 6:27 AM.