Matt's Reviews > A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings by Charles Dickens
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Dec 27, 10

Read from November 22 to December 27, 2010

I am a Christmas traditionalist. That is, I follow various Christmas traditions – both family-inherited and self-imposed – with more faith than usually given to the actual religious underpinnings of the holiday. My wife and therapist both would probably say this is an unconscious attempt on my part to exert control and impose order on my world, but whatever.

On the day after Thanksgiving, I get a tree, a real one, because I’ve already forgotten how hard it was to dispose of last year’s tree. I tune my radio dial to whichever station is playing only Christmas songs for the next month, since the only thing worse than cheesy carols you’ve heard a million times is not being able to find them. At home, I will flip the television to ABC Family, and indulge in their “25 Days of Christmas,” which is a potent form of meth to anyone who likes Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation way too much. At some point, I will set aside a night to take in our community theater’s rendition of A Christmas Carol, and set another night aside to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. On Christmas Eve, I will go to church an hour early with my parents, because this is the one night of the year when it’s going to be hard to find seats. Afterwards, we eat a traditional Christmas dinner of grilled cheese, and open half our presents. The next day, we open the rest of the gifts, and then head off to or host a family gathering. There will be overeating, overdrinking, and eventually, halfway through, I will settle into a half-drunk melancholy that it is already over, and that despite ever-lowering expectations, it didn’t quite live up to that ineffable something I can’t even define.

Then it’s back to work, and the realization of four more months of dark nights, slushy sidewalks, slick streets, and bitter cold before the breath of life returns.

There’s nothing happier than Christmas Eve; there is nothing more depressing than December 26.

Amidst the flurry of shopping, baking, Jimmy Stewart, and stop-motion animation, I usually find time to read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I feel it is a necessary bit of adoration towards the man who invented this holiday, or at least planted the seeds that eventually grew into the modern-day capitalist festival Christmas now embodies (and I say that in a good way).

I once devised a little theory that all Christmas movies spring from A Christmas Carol. Like all my crackpot theories, this one takes only a second to disprove (Silent Night, Deadly Night being sui generis); however, there is some truth to it. You can see the echo of A Christmas Carol’s lesson-and-redemption arc in everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to Home Alone to any of the dozen of made-for-Lifetime movies in which a hard-charging career woman is shown how great her life would’ve been had she simply married that hillbilly lunkhead from her yokel town instead of going to law school.

The ubiquity of A Christmas Carol becomes more apparent each year. There are live-action film versions (Alistair Sims, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart), cartoon versions (Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Mr. Magoo), contemporary versions (Scrooged), and the greatest version of them all: A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, of course.

The thing you realize when you actually read Dickens’ words is that all of these versions hew incredibly close to the text. The ultimate testament to Dickens’ plot, structure, dramatic set pieces, and dialogue is the fact that since its publication in 1843, countless writers have found little room in which to improve Dickens’ work.

If you (like me) find Dickens’ long, picaresque, serialized novels a chore, you can rest easy with A Christmas Carol. There are no rambling digressions, no multiple plot threads, no laundry list of quirky supporting characters. This is a lean, taut, quick little read. Every chapter has a defined purpose; every plot-point leads inevitably to the climax.

The main character, miser Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by four ghosts. The first, his long dead partner Jacob Marley, sets out the parameters of the story: that three other ghosts will visit Scrooge to teach him the meaning of Christmas, and by extension, how to live a better life all the year long. The first meeting of man and ghost, a seriocomic scene set in Scrooge’s bedchambers, is classic Dickens, and manages to balance pedantry with humor (by way of some un-improvable dialogue).

After Jacob’s departure, Scrooge repairs to his bed, to await the other ghosts. First is the Ghost of Christmas Past (“Long past?” “Your past”),who transports Scrooge to his childhood, where we learn of Scrooge’s strained relationship with his father, his close relationship with his sister, and the lost love of his life, a woman named Belle, who Scrooge forsook for money. The scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Past have always been my favorite, because they toy with the very foundations upon which Christmas is built: a slightly melancholic nostalgia for the way things were, or how we remembered them to be.

Next, the Ghost of Christmas Present arrives. He presents as a jolly man, but the longer we spend time with him – meeting Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his crippled son, Tiny Tim; looking in on the Christmas party of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred – the more of a pedagogue he becomes. By the time Christmas Present takes his leave, he is lecturing us about Ignorance, Want, and Doom (and in many ways, reminding me of my drunken uncle who will down a bottle of wine before holding court on a variety of topics ranging from Indian gaming to Jesuits to the Irish).

Finally, there is the Ghost of Christmas Future, who shows Scrooge the misery and death that awaits if he does not change his ways. The third ghost has always been a bit too on-the-nose for my taste (and I find Dickens straining with the pawn shop scene), though the bleak, oppressive picture Christmas Future paints nicely sets up the rousing finale, where Scrooge wakes up a better man, and then runs around scaring people with his newfound largesse.

The other stories contained in this volume barely rate a mention. Unless you are feeling very charitable, they are of a literary interest only. For instance, in The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, you see many of the elements (a Christmas humbug, ghosts) that Dickens would later use to better effect in A Christmas Carol. In The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, written post-Carol, Dickens introduces another pedagogic specter. This ghost allows a man named Redlaw to lose all memories of his sufferings and sorrows, with generally bad consequences. This story blatantly attempts to capitalize on the popularity of A Christmas Carol – complete with a lesson! – and unfortunately indulges in Dickens’ weakness for overly-wacky characters.

Somehow, A Christmas Carol never gets old to me. Not in Muppet form, or Magoo form, or in the original novella. In its conclusion, with a turkey as big as a child, and its promise of parties featuring mulled wine and Blind Man’s Bluff, you are given a version of an idealized Christmas: the table is full, family is present, and the children are healthy.

In presenting this idealized Christmas, Dickens managed to capture the importance of memory to this holiday. When you were young, time started to slow in December, and then stopped completely during that hour-long church service standing between you and your gift-wrapped toys. As you get older, Christmas comes and goes much quicker, and leaves you weighing this year’s festivities (often unfavorably) to all that came before.

Years pass, and the composition of your family changes through addition and subtraction, through birth and death. Coming as it does so near the end of the year, Christmas becomes a transitory signpost along mortality’s road. Our Christmas traditions, though, push back against mortality, and place us instead along a continuum. Sure, maybe Grandma is gone, but her ornaments are still on the tree, glittering like they have since World War II. Tradition keeps her alive, and will keep us alive when we are gone.

Dickens used Christmas Past, Present, and Future to change Scrooge. Those are also the very elements that we require in our own celebrations: the memories of the past; our friends and family in the present; and the knowledge in the future that this will always exist.

(Also, gifts would be nice).
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Esteban del Mal Favorite part:

Years pass, and the composition of your family changes through addition and subtraction, through birth and death. Coming as it does so near the end of the year, Christmas becomes a transitory signpost along mortality’s road. Our Christmas traditions, though, push back against mortality, and place us instead along a continuum. Sure, maybe Grandma is gone, but her ornaments are still on the tree, glittering like they have since World War II. Tradition keeps her alive, and will keep us alive when we are gone.

I used to read this every Christmas too. And The Legend of Sleepy Hollow every Halloween. I lost the habit. Guess I'm not the traditional sort.

Great review, as usual, but listening to holiday songs for a month is probably some sort of neurosis. Maybe the wife could crush up some pills and mix 'em in with your eggnog? Who knows? You might even get visited by some Christmas spirits...


Matt Esteban wrote: "Favorite part:

Years pass, and the composition of your family changes through addition and subtraction, through birth and death. Coming as it does so near the end of the year, Christmas becomes ..."


The pills in the nog sound like a great idea! Usually, the best I can hope for is a visit from the Nyquill Fairy.

I still read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow every Halloween. I try to tell myself it's tradition; probably it's some sort of compulsion. (It's also public domain, so I can read it online when I'm supposed to be working).


Esteban del Mal I stopped reading when the thought occured to me that Ichabod took root in my family tree after fleeing. You look in the mirror and see a big nose and gangly features and fiction and reality start to blend rather unpleasantly.


message 4: by Izumi (new)

Izumi Texidor-Hirai Merry Christmas!


message 5: by Marion (new)

Marion Coro I found this hilarious, but stopped reading when the ubiquitous hence, known by most everyone) was being recounted.


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