When we were young, my brother and I took drama lessons for several years in downtown Hamilton. The studio was located in an old, rickety building whose original construction predated Confederation. It had gone through at least a couple of renovations since then, but that all happened long before I came along. To me, the building with its glacier-slow elevator and funny smells seemed, to borrow a phrase, “as old as the hills and twice as dusty.”
But it was a fascinating place too, and ideal for rehearsing our annual Christmas project, a production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. Invariably, my brother and I were cast as the two youngest (and unnamed) Cratchits. More than thirty years later, I can remember our big line, “The goose! The goose! It smells so good!” We never had great aspirations for fame, but it was a lot of fun.
It was around that time that the 1951 movie version starring Alastair Sim became one of our family’s annual Christmas traditions. It became easier once we bought our first VCR, because it meant that we didn’t have to rely on the broadcast schedule, and we could watch it on Christmas Eve Over thirty years later, we still do, though the VHS has long since been replaced by a DVD. I even have my own copy.
Of all the Christmas-related media, “A Christmas Carol” has had the greatest effect on my life. (“A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” round out the top 3). The story itself is now 175 years old, and yet its lessons are as relevant as they were to the Victorians. We are not as far removed from that period as we choose to think.
There are three pieces of dialogue that stick with me. The first comes in the book as Scrooge sees what has become of his former fiancée. Her happiness in contrast to his misery is almost too much for him to bear:
“Spirit!” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
What strikes me about this exchange is that Scrooge has spent his whole life suppressing his past. He purposefully forgot the love of his sister, the generosity of Fezziwig, his first employer, and finally the chance of happiness with Belle, all in the name of wealth. As as result, he’s a miserable old man who’s feared but not loved (with the possible exception of his nephew). His life is the epitome of “as you sow, so shall you reap”. But, as the Ghost of Christmas Past rightly points out, Scrooge’s past is his past. It cannot be changed, but it can be learned from, or not. And it sets the stage for the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
The next mememorable scene comes at the end of this Ghost’s visit. After visiting the Christmas celebrations of the Cratchits, Scrooge’s nephew, and many others, it’s time for a reality check. The Ghost shows Scrooge two impoverished children:
“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 its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The Ghost’s final words repeat those spoken by Scrooge at the beginning of the story, when he declined to contribute to a Christmas relief fund. I see this admonition as being not only directed at Scrooge, but to all of his kind. Ignorance of the needs and the condition of our fellow humans is dangerous, especially when it’s wilful ignorance. And we live in a time when it seems more and more people are embracing ignorance as a point of pride rather than shame. As a result, people who fall outside of the supposed norm are suffering in or as a result of the succssors of the very institutions Dickens abhorred. We really haven’t come that far in 175 years, have we? It’s a harsh lesson but one that is absolutely necessary for Scrooge’s journey, and ours.
My final great takeaway is Scrooge’s promise to the Ghosts and to his fellow humans as he reaches the end of his fantastic journey:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!
Christmas, to Dickens, is ultimately not about feasts or parties or bowls of rum punch. It’s about living the Angels’s message of “goodwill to all”. Or as Bill and Ted would say, “be excellent to each other”. It’s not a once-a-year thing, but an every day thing. If everyone were to strive for that, the world would be a much better place, with the power of Ignorance and Want significantly lessened. It’s a utopic vision, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for. And Scrooge strives for it so much that he becomes the complete opposite of the man he had been before, beloved by many for his newfound kindness, maybe even more so than his generosity.
So, then, don’t be prisoner to bad things in your past, be sensitive to the troubles of our world, and follow the golden rule. Three fundamental lessons that have come to shape my life and how I live it. Whether I fulfil them remain to be seen, but, as with Scrooge, I will try to keep them all the year.
Copyright Jessica Allyson 2018