Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rereading A Christmas Carol - again

So yesterday I was feeling way too crappy to make decisions about where to send the two remaining books that need to go back into the mail (the demon lover story and the fluffy daydream romance that is so off-brand I don't know why I wrote it, much less why I believe in it so strongly), and today I'm overcaffeinating and had to bus downtown to take my husband the pills he forgot and I still have to make the pecan pie for the Christmas Eve dinner our best friend's new girlfriend is hostessing; and the cats don't want me to type; I've put on Melissa Etheridge's Christmas album; and I'm going to talk about Dickens.

I don't do Christmas, but I read A Christmas Carol every year about this time, and have pretty much done so since I was nine. It was among the first books I ever bought for myself, sixty cents from My Weekly Reader Book Club, when I was nine. I'm sure I was nine, although the handwritten address inside did not become ours till I was ten; I don't think I started putting my name and address in books till then, probably because I didn't start carrying them around with me till then. I associate the book with the classroom where I picked it up, the fourth-grade classroom in Maryland, winter of 1970; and this printing is dated October 1970, in confirmation. I didn't read that copy this year, though. My husband got me the Time-Life facsimile set of the Christmas books a few years ago, with the original illustrations. It's much sturdier, and I can still see my old purchase through the pages as I turn them.

One of the reasons to have these established media traditions - Christmas Carol in December, "Alice's Restaurant" at Thanksgiving, 1776 for Independence Day - is the way it puts us in touch with our old selves, layering one on top of the other, with the raw, half-comprehending perceptions of the original nine-year-old showing through the layers of age as I came to understand the text better and better. Although I now have less anachronistic images to call on, I like flashing back to my initial formulation of the Ghost of Christmas Present as a hippy, based on his long hair, bare feet and chest, and his greeting to Scrooge: "Come in and know me better, man." I still hear those words in that half-stoned hippy drawl, the holly wreath askew on his head, sizing up square, selfish, uptight Scrooge with genial skepticism that he can be reformed but game to give it a shot. I was a pretty square, uptight nine-year-old myself, but I wanted to be good, wanted to reform without knowing what was wrong, and I could tell the secret was in this book.

Much that confused me once, that I accepted on faith, I now have the facts and background to comprehend. I still don't know the story of St. Dunstan and the Evil Spirit, but I know that lobsters phosphoresce when they spoil (Marley's face in the knocker has a "dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark celler"). I know that most people in Victorian London didn't have ovens in their homes and had to pay for the baker to cook anything they couldn't accomplish on an open hearth, hence the Cratchits fetching the goose from the bakeshop; and the conversation Scrooge and Christmas Present have about people wanting to close the bakeshops on Sundays in his name refers to an early movement for what we in our day call "blue laws," requiring businesses to close on Sundays to keep the Sabbath "holy." I still can't quite picture the hearse going up the stairs broadwise. A lot of reading of 19th century literature finally resulted in my realizing that Scrooge's nephew's wife is sitting out the Blindman's Bluff game because she's pregnant, but I can't convince other people who aren't as well versed in Victorian delicacy. Never mind, I know it now, as surely as I know that Marley was dead, to begin with.

The virtues of Dickens's style are out of fashion, but oh, how I love his rolling, generous, liesurely, abundant sentences in this book; and how I loved them when I was nine, how they drew me into a sensuous bath of words! Nine-year-olds are supposed to have short attention spans and are assumed to have no appreciation for the tactile joys of style, but I did. Words lodged in my brain and became part of it: "Oh, he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" "I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere!" "The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" "O God, to hear the insect on the leaf pronounce upon the too much life among its hungry brothers in the dust!"

And images, piled up in my head like the oranges and apples in the fruit stands where Christmas Present took Scrooge, scattering drops from his torch as profligately as Dickens uses adjectives. Those half-closed shops, the onions like fat Spanish friars; the bleak moors around the house where the old man leads his family in old, old songs; the horny-handed lighthouse keepers and storm-tossed sailors; Mrs. Cratchit and her daughters brave with ribbons; Tucker chasing the plump sister; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, its kind hand trembling, dwindling into a bedpost; the Ghost of Christmas Past with its lighted belt accurately forecasting the visual effects Christmas lights decades before they existed; the Christmas turkey that never could have stood upon its legs without snapping them off like sticks of sealing wax; and, emerging disturbing and scary from under Christmas Present's festive robes, the boy Ignorance and the girl, Want.

I'm an agnostic. I stopped doing Christmas years ago. The whole business of presents stresses me out - I don't really like getting them, except when they are a surprise, a free and open indication that someone was thinking of me and saw something I might like, and I resent feeling that I have to buy them - and though I like decorating and baking and caroling and so on, as part of a group, no one else around me seems to, at least not enough to want to do them with me. I hate Christmas displays in stores and I hate the monotonous repetition of the same Christmas songs over and over on the radio; but I like to play the local college station, KSYM, when all the student DJs have gone home and some hardworking soul put together about 48 hours of Christmas music with no repeats, gospel choirs and Gene Autry, Cheech and Chong, obscure groups singing about Christmas on West Mistletoe (two blocks over from me! Yay!) and how Muhammed Ali taught the singer the meaning of Christmas. Celebration is good. And A Christmas Carol is wonderful.

A few years ago a friend of mine read it for the first time and e-mailed me about it, a little blown away, saying that it wasn't about Christmas at all, but about living your life. And that's exactly so. Scrooge, and Marley before him, aren't living. They have their heads down in their business, have let it eat their lives, and their crime is not so much being greedy as being miserable. They have lost their way as social animals.

We speak and act as if alienation were a modern invention. It's not. Christmas was commercialized long ago and the "old-fashioned Christsmas" of Dickens was never the norm. If it had been, he wouldn't have felt impelled to write the story.

Read it. Enjoy it. Get your head out of your troubles and enjoy yourself and others. If your own heart laughs, that will be quite enough for you.

Merry Christmas.

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