Despite my love for the actual holiday, I don’t particularly care so much for Christmas. Before you waist much time guessing it is for the usual reasons your grandfather with the club foot and I-don’t-care-where-I-am flatulence usually bitches about. The crowds are unbearable, the roads become swamped with people cramming in their last minute shopping, but of course there’s the larger rhetoric of Christmas as “That magical time of year where people come together and try to spread goodwill to all.”
Well begin your pardon but Bull fuck-in squirt.
Christmas as it exists in the United States, I can only speak for my own country, has become nothing more than a mass cultural orgy of capitalism and Black Friday is the best representation of that. Each year people scramble and fight for material goods, spending money they don’t have, or else sniping at the deals they’ve waited for all year. This of course is compounded by the fact that every year at least one person is killed because some asshole brought a gun and shot someone over a television, and the most recent depravity can be spotted online as a grown woman rips a box from a child’s arms. It only continues from that point until Fox News begins it’s yearly “War on Christmas” reports, and of course at this point I’m wondering how long it will take for someone to complain about people saying Happy Holidays at retail outlets.
I have become a Scrooge at this stage of my life. I would call myself a Grinch but I don’t sound like Boris Karloff when I talk, and the last time I was legitimately green was after eating at Applebees (that’s right I said it, somebody had to, we don’t have be hurt any more America). However before the reader believes that I am completely wanting in the Christmas spirit they should at least know that I watch the Muppet Family Christmas special every year no matter what, and I also read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which of course leads me to the actual topic.
To my last breath I will fight that A Christmas Carol is not in fact an actual Christmas story, and that if the reader really wants a Christmas story they should try Die Hard. Seriously young Bruce Willis was the shit in that movie and it also made Alan Rickman’s career. The problem immediately surfaces however as scores of literary fans and people who watched The Muppet Christmas Carol on repeat when they were kids object, arguing that in the end doesn’t Scrooge recognize the true meaning of Christmas?
The story of Ebenezer Scrooge is not about Christmas, or learning the value of it, in fact the purpose of the novel is of learning the value of people. Reading the book again I found I once again supported this interpretation after reading just the second page of my paperback copy:
Scrooge knew he[Marley) was dead. Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legate, his sole friend, his sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain. (12) (It says 12 here because my book doesn’t start until page 11.)
Jacob Marley holds a special place in the cultural consciousness as the messenger of Scrooge’s potential damnation, but few really appreciate that Scrooge’s surprise at seeing the man is not only because he was a ghost, but because there was a long working relationship in which the men attained some kind of bond. Though as the narrator notes this was not enough for Scrooge to give three shits because the very same day he buried his partner he managed to secure a business deal, and as this reputation grows fewer and fewer people attempt to converse with him to which the narrator explains:
But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones called “nuts” to Scrooge. (15-6).
And so the same old song and dance continues. Scrooge rebuff’s his nephew’s invitation to dinner, he refuses to pay any offerings to charity, and he almost refuses to give Bob Cratchit a holiday for Christmas. All of these facts provide the backdrop to everyone’s favorite Christmas story because it then moves forward to show Scrooge learning that Christmas is important, but the problem with the proliferation of this narrative is that, like many mass narratives, it misses most of its original public context.
When I was in the ninth grade my English teacher had us Read Great Expectations, one of Dickens’s more accomplished work and also an odd read given the fact most of the semester had been dedicated to reading the Greek classics. Still I enjoyed the book, as much as a teenage boy in the ninth grade can enjoy the book and one of the few lessons that stuck with me was my teacher’s observations that a recurring visual in the work of Dickens was “chains.” This, she explained to us, could be attributed to Dickens’s early life when his father was arrested and sent to debtor’s prison. You see before our Grand Masters at American Express gave us the idea to use credit card debt as a means of financial slavery that we love and adore, the English had a policy in which if individuals could not pay back their taxes they would be sent to debtor’s prison to “serve off” the time. Dickens came from a privileged home and when his father was sent to prison he was forced to work in a blackening factory (polishing boots, shoes, and other goods) and because the experience made a lasting impact on his notion of class and position Dickens would spend the remainder of his life working to ensure that he, and his family, would never be placed into such a position. Still the image of chains permeates his large body of work (Stephen King perhaps being the only author that could give the man a run for his money in terms of being prolific), and rarely does it not make an appearance.
But what does that have to do with Scrooge? Everything, for what is often missed or excluded from A Christmas Carol are these ideas of people and class. When Marley first appears to Scrooge there is a brief exchange that is often cut from the reproductions in the films:
“But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to wander through the world—or woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
Again the specter raised a cry, and shook his chain and wrung his shadowy hands.
“You are fettered,” said scrooge trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on my own free will, and out of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more. (45-6).
The chains of Marley have often been sold only as his unwillingness to help the poor, because after all Christmas is a holy day and an embedded Christian rhetoric has to be accompanied by messages of charity. Before a reader objects, Dickens would most likely have supported part of that view given the fact that he was a Christian himself, but this small passages speaks to a larger concern in A Christmas Carol which is that Marley’s fate is not only his lack of economic charity, but personal. The chains around his neck is not only from not giving money to the poor, it’s also for not giving people his time. Part of the component of humanity is recognizing other people, empathizing with them, or in the very least just taking the time to talk and listen to them. This is an aspect of Christmas few Americans would probably recognize in their Christmas narratives, apart from movies on Hallmark but I mean, really, I mean, right? Right?
Scrooge’s tragedy is not only that he is stingy with money, but because he has shut himself off from the rest of humanity because his life has been one of consistent pain and isolation. I observed during my latest reading an obvious fact that has escaped my attention despite the fact that I’ve watched and read versions of the story dozens of times: Scrooge has a sister. When I mentioned that to my family and friends they paused, thought about it, the lightbulb went off and the usual response was, “right because he has a nephew!” I’m not mocking this reaction because it’s the same I had. The reason for this ignorance can be attributed again to the fact that A Christmas Carol has been re-imagined successfully on numerous occasions, the best example being Bill Murray’s Scrooged, and in almost every instance the sister has been removed for whatever reason. It’s a brief passage in the novel, but it further creates Scrooge’s character:
It opened, and a little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in, and, putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her “dear, dear brother.”
“I have come to bring you home, dear brother!” said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. “To bring you home, home, home!”
“Home, little Fan?” returned the boy.
“Yes!” said the little child, brimful with glee. “Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that Home’s like heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a Man!” said the child, opening her eyes, “and are never to come back here; but first we’re to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in the world.
“You are quite a woman, little Fan!” exclaimed the boy.
She clapped her hands and laughed, and tried to touch his head; but, being too little, laughed again, and stood on tiptoe to embrace him. Then she began to drag him, in her childish eagerness, toward the door; and he, nothing loath to go, accompanied her. (75-7)
Dickens as a writer was a little comma happy, and the man used sentiment to the point it could make a Precious Moments angel want to vomit, but this small passage is important for a moment that transpires once Scrooge and his sister have left and older Scrooge is left with the first Spirit:
“Always a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered,” said the ghost. “But she had a large heart!”
“So she had,” cried Scrooge. “You’re right, I will not gainsay it, Spirit.” God forbid!”
“She died a woman,” said the ghost, “and had, as I think, children.”
“One child, Scrooge returned.
“True,” said the Ghost. “Your Nephew!”
Scrooge seemed uneasy in his mind and answered briefly, “Yes.” (78-79).
This passage struck me because despite the sentiment and the never-ending sea of exclamation points there was a new element to the character of Scrooge. It’s clear part of the reason he has spent so much time at school is part of his social weaknesses, but also because he has a troubled relationship with his father. I could always relate to his isolation as a child because I was often alone, but as I’ve grown I’ve become steadily divorced from the character because of the fluff and kitsch that surrounds his narrative. Scrooge has become, for the most part, part of the capitalism orgy that surrounds Christmas because his redemption is about splurging his finances in the end on his worker Bob Cratchit and the poor of London so that Tiny Tim can say “God bless us, everyone” and not die. The conflict with this interpretation is that I’m talking Dickens, a man who in every book dissected the issues surrounding class. The original idea for A Christmas Carol was actually going to be a pamphlet about the abuse children suffered in mines that benefitted Industrialization and was going to be titled “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” As is often the case mass media and regular re-imaginings have turned A Christmas Carol away from the actual text, which can actually be frightening if not disturbing.
Scrooge actually tries to kill the first spirit because it wears a candle on it’s head and he snuffs it out, the ghost of Christmas future is described as a kind of Dementor that shows Scrooge his own dead body before the infamous Graveyard scene even begins, and then of course there is the ending experience with the Ghost of Christmas Present:
From the foldings of his robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at his feet, and clung upon the outside of his garment.
“Oh, Man! Look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, and stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters so horrible and dread.
“Spirit are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out his hands towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?”
“Are there no prisons?” said the spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?
The bell struck twelve. (157-9).
Unless they have watched any of the old black and white versions of A Christmas Carol they probably never saw this part and were therefore never afforded the opportunity to cringe. The reality that many Christmas Gifts that are given, have been given, and most likely will continue to be given in the coming years were made by third world children is something few if many people will realize or care about as the holiday comes ever closer and this is the final point. In the end, Scrooge’s story is not about Christmas it is about a man’s individual redemption. Scrooge is a man who suffered in his life because as he grew he distanced himself more and more from people, both the ones he loved, and the ones he did not know. The Ghost of Christmas Present’s demonstration of the children is a reminder that human beings intentionally ignore their fellow creatures because recognizing problems is a distraction either from our personal satisfaction or else our professional accomplishments. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Christmas is coming and I’m not planning on spending Christmas in a soup kitchen, I didn’t take the time to do Toys for Tots, and the most charity I’ve given to is perhaps three dollars outside a Walmart to the Salvation Army because I’m not thinking about other people. I’m thinking about the books I’m going to receive for Christmas. Therein lies the real problem with the mass interpretation of a Christmas Carol because many of us, myself included, watch and enjoy hearing the story of a man who changed his way of thinking and gave back to his community at the end of the special we’ll watch a commercial for the Gap, or possibly Old Navy, forget about what we were watching and then begin Elf on the Shelf.
Scrooge changes because he recognizes an innate selfishness and tries to change before it’s too late. A Christmas Carol was a best-seller and in fact it was the last public reading Dickens ever did, but as is often the case with his work beneath the sentimental narrative there is a legitimate concern for the populace. Ignorance and Want will forever starve humanity, because none are willing to admit that they’re part of the actual story. Many people would rather they stay hidden under the robe because somebody else will volunteer their time, money, and energy this Christmas, and besides Goofy is Jacob Marley I gotta watch that.