Over much of the world this year, desperate people have decided that their living conditions — poverty, hunger, violence, corruption — are insupportable, that almost anyplace else has got to be better than where they are, and have begun migrating toward what they hope will be better lives. Their movements, their needs and their pleas have become a bit of a moral quandary for the citizens of the destinations to which they aspire. Initially well-intentioned welcomes have become tainted by infusions of what appears to be exasperation, and been distilled into flame by xenophobic rhetoric from leaders evoking people’s baser instincts.
As the Christmas season approaches this year, a person who’s dogged me for 65 years now emerges from the bushes at the back of my brain and demands my immediate attention. His name is Ebenezer Scrooge, a name so familiar to English-speaking Westerners that it’s become a common noun. He’s been played variously by Alistair Sim, Lionel Barrymore and George C. Scott, among many others. Most of all, he’s become an archetype of our darker side. He lives in some form in each of us, the embodiment of the lesser self most of us hope to overcome.
Charles Dickens, for all his occasional mawkishness, hit the nail on the head with this story of the miser Scrooge on Christmas Eve: Haunted, perhaps, by the memories of the joy-filled people he’s snarled at and dismissed earlier that day — wandering carolers; his nephew Fred, with an invitation to Christmas dinner and a party afterward, the “portly gentlemen” soliciting funds to feed the poor and destitute, and finally his clerk, whom he had grudgingly granted a day off for the holiday. Unable to muster the words, “Merry Christmas!” he had left the office growling, “Be here all the earlier next day, y’hear?”
I don’t remember being made aware of him when I was a child, and in school we read “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations.” But in 1953, as a freshman at the College of Wooster in Ohio, I learned that the great social and cultural event of the holiday season was a one-man performance of “A Christmas Carol” by a retired speech professor, who’d been at it almost 50 years at the time. It was a dressup affair at the chapel. I got a date, donned my best corduroy blazer and flowered tie, and went.
The old man was magnificent! Clearly in love with the language of the story — “Marley’s face, with a dim light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar” — and utterly at ease with an overflow audience, he brought us the glowering Scrooge, the earnest young Bob Cratchit, the genial nephew, Fred, Tiny Tim and his crutch, and (to borrow a phrase from Fezziwig’s party) “all the other young men and women employed in the business.” His script couldn’t have been more nearly authentic: a prompter’s script, edited by Dickens himself, that the professor, as a long-ago graduate student, had found in a used book store in Cambridge.
I was enthralled. “Oh!” I thought. “I’d like to do that someday!” Then life intervened, and the intent faded into the details of making a living and raising a family. But in 1975 it resurfaced. I typed out the script by playing a 33 rpm recording of the performance. Professor Sykes of the Dartmouth Music Department lent me his set of tails; my wife made a trifle, and we were off.
This Saturday, if my arithmetic is correct, will be the 44th annual performance. Over the years, the words of the script have grown ever sweeter in my mouth. I love to savor them, like a chocolate truffle, as they pass. I can’t stand erect as well as once I could, but a walker concealed behind the podium helps. And the pain goes away, anyway, as Scrooge calls down to a boy in his courtyard: “What’s today, me fine fella?” and later that morning, grasping the hand of the gentleman he’d turned away the day before, “Will you come and see me? Will you come and see me?” and that afternoon, “It’s I, Fred, your Uncle Scrooge. Will you let me in?” Those are my favorite moments of the entire year, along with the next morning’s tardy arrival at the office of Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s feigned grouchiness as he gives him a long-delayed raise.
“At this festive season of the year” (to borrow from Dickens) “Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands in want of common comforts;” and it seems especially stingy to fail to appreciate where the needy at our doors have come from, why they are in need, and respond as generously as we can. Scrooge himself came by his nastiness honestly — poverty of both means and parental affection, disappointment in love, and a solitary occupation with money. But forced by the visiting spirits to view the happiness of others and, finally, his own neglected corpse and grave, “he became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as this good old city ... ever knew....it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, every one!”
Willem Lange is a writer from East Montpelier.