Celebrating Christmas ghosts
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Dec. 19 is one of my all-time favorite days. It was on this day in 1843 that "A Christmas Carol," or as its author Charles Dickens called it, a "Ghostly little book," was published.
Three days later, the first edition was sold out. That early popularity has endured.
"A Christmas Carol" is probably one of the most adapted books. It's been performed innumerable times on stage, radio, film and television.
Wikipedia lists 17 video variations, from animated (Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Mr. Magoo) to Kermit the Frog's Bob Cratchit opposite Michael Caine's Scrooge (and yes, Miss Piggy played Mrs. Cratchit) to the 1951 film classic with Alistair Sim as the famous curmudgeon. The latest recreation: a computer-generated animation released last month.
In the preface of the first edition, Dickens wrote, "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it."
It has indeed haunted me and all my houses very pleasantly for as long as I can recall. Why is this simple story so universally appealing?
First, it is so accessible. Yes, it's set in the 19th century. Yes, ghosts take us forward and back in Scrooge's life. But the situations -- overworked employees, struggling families, pervasive poverty, greedy businesses, indomitable good will through it all -- haven't changed much over the last century and a half.
And the ghostly journeys and their revelations are straightforward. There's no question that a bitter life will lead to a bitter end. That Scrooge realizes this is his and our salvation. There is hope if we will embrace it.
Yes, it sounds corny (much like another popular holiday tale, "It's a Wonderful Life"), but so often in our detached modern world we try to write off emotions as unsophisticated and useless. But we innately know that without the human touch, that connection to others, we are lost.
The greatest accomplishment of the book, though, is that it tells us that we can have a do-over (again, just like George Bailey). We all want to know that it's not too late; that we still have a chance to make things right or better.
Most importantly, we want assurance that another chance will make a difference to us and others.
If only we'd pay attention to Marley, Tiny Tim and Ebenezer during the other 11 months of the year, too.
Yes, there is a tax connection: Remember those businessmen who asked Mr. Scrooge to help their efforts to meet the needs of the less fortunate?
His original reply was coldly analytical: "Are there no prisons? … The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" Assured that they were still in operation, Scrooge refused to donate a cent.
But that was before his visitations. By the end of the tale, he had reversed his charitable stance, although we never learn by how much. Only that the gentleman who was rebuffed just a day before knew how much was given and was left almost speechless by "such munificence."
I don't know anything about the United Kingdom's tax rules regarding charitable donations, either in Victorian times or now. And Scrooge apparently preferred to remain anonymous.
But such a giving spirit here in the United States can definitely help out the donor as well as the recipient. If you itemize, in most cases you can deduct your gifts.
This story provides the guidelines, as well as some charitable changes that took effect this year. I also blogged about the new laws: the tougher standard for donated household goods and a new giving option for older owners of IRAs.
Scrooge scrutiny: As I perused the many film and TV versions of "A Christmas Carol," I was delighted to see my favorite: the 1984 presentation starring George C. Scott.
I was originally skeptical, having seen much physically smaller, less imposing actors portray Scrooge. But Scott "is" Ebenezer in all his forms: angry, bitter, sad, frustrated, wistful, nostalgic, terrified, thankful, kind, loving and happy.
The rest of the cast also is superb. And the scenery, well, it's simply perfect. It was filmed in Shrewsbury, England, during the winter and the authenticity it adds is beyond compare.
The program originally aired here in the United States on CBS (I even remember the Little Tramp commercials by IBM, the sole advertiser during the program), but the film was released theatrically in Great Britain.
It showed up on U.S. television again in the '90s, but I haven't seen it since. Twenty years ago, I had a heck of a time tracking down the VHS tape we watch every holiday season. Now it's available on DVD, too, and more widely distributed. Maybe some Christmas future, Santa will bring me that format.
One more humbug hurrah: Whenever possible, I try to, as discreetly as possible, tout my love of the Dickens classic in my writing. I got a chance to do that a couple of weeks ago in this story for Bankrate.com in which financial advice is gleaned from Scrooge and other well-known holiday characters. If I say so myself, I think it turned out quite well.
Book image is the frontpiece of the 1843 first edition
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