THE GHOST OF CHARLES DICKENS
Dickens is dead, to begin with. There can be absolutely no doubt about that. It’s not that I personally have any evidence of his demise. I was not around to see the body, or to attest to the fact that he had been physically alive, and subsequently dead. However, I trust the historical accounts of many reliable individuals who have reported the details of the death of Charles Dickens, followed by his burial at Westminster Abbey. I can certainly make a logical assessment based on simple facts to assure myself that he is, indeed, dead. Dickens died in 1870, so it’s not likely that he somehow faked his death as a joke and has been in hiding all these years. I must reasonably conclude then, that Dickens is dead. And yet, the spirit of his work continues to delightfully haunt this world, especially at Christmas time.
A Christmas Carol, in one form or another, has been a part of my Christmas celebrations from my earliest memories. My father struggled with chronic depression, and there were times when it could be very difficult to make him smile, or to even see any hint of a pleasant expression. But I remember well how he enjoyed watching those old black-and-white versions of A Christmas Carol, and how it would make him smile, sometimes chuckle. I had no comprehension at the time of how gifted Dickens was at delicately interlacing humor with pathos. He could tug your heartstrings, frighten you, and make you laugh, all in a matter of minutes. While I was well aware of the story and its popularity through my childhood, it wasn’t until 1980 that A Christmas Carol reached into my heart, jumping from its previously passive position into one of the most prominent aspects of celebrating the greatest event in history.
I had been married only a couple of months as we settled fully into the Christmas season. It was a year of many firsts. Among them was my crossing a line that put me into a closer realm with my two older sisters who had both been married for many years. The two of them lived close to each other and did many things together, and now that I’d come out of the single and dating category, we became more of a threesome. On a Saturday a couple of weeks before Christmas, my sisters invited me to attend a matinee of a film version of this beloved tale that they’d seen in the theater the year before. It was titled simply, Scrooge, and it starred Albert Finney. When I heard it was a musical I actually felt a little skeptical, but my sisters both gave rave reviews which encouraged me.
My new husband was working that day, and I went to one sister’s home before the movie to make banana bread that I intended to give as Christmas gifts to friends. While my sister and I worked together in the kitchen, with some of our favorite Christmas music playing in the next room, we talked and laughed and shared memories of our childhood Christmases. We could hardly talk about early Christmases without recalling the way our brother Nathan had been given a bag of dried beans to scoop up from the carpet with a toy loader, to be hauled by a toy truck. We were looking forward to the traditional Christmas day brunch at our parents’ home, and knowing that even though we were all adults, Santa would still be filling stockings for us that would be hung out on the fireplace in the livingroom where we had all spent our childhood.
I remember that my banana bread didn’t turn out very well. I’d been exposed to some minimal cooking and baking lessons through my growing years, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it. The results that day were somewhat questionable, and it barely came out of the oven—perhaps a little doughy in the middle—before it was time to go.
One of the most distinct memories of that day was the fog. I’d spent my entire life in Utah Valley, and I’d never seen such fog. It had settled over the valley and remained there for weeks. It made driving difficult, especially after dark, and many people complained. But I liked it. I felt as if I’d been transported to London. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but now I think it was somehow fitting that my memorable Dickens experience that day was surrounded by fog. Now I know that he wrote a great deal about fog, and he used it both to set the mood and to create metaphors. So, metaphorically speaking, this day has maintained a kind of magical sense in my memory, enhanced by the fog that seemed to hold all of the present realities and concerns in life at a distance. I was content to just be surrounded by fog that seemed a tangible representation of the Christmas spirit in the air. Barely into adulthood, I hadn’t spent any time pondering the desire to hold onto that magical feeling of Christmas that was such a big part of my childhood. But I remember feeling it that day.
As we settled into the theater with our popcorn and other treats, a musical overture began to play that went on for several minutes before the film actually began with the ringing of many bells. What followed had very little similarity to any film version of the classic tale that I had seen previously. It was full of vibrancy and celebration! The story that I had grown up with took on more depth and meaning with this original presentation. While honoring Dickens’ story very well, the music felt clearly inspired and added a magic to it that I’d never experienced before. I became utterly engrossed with characters I had believed I’d known well, but I was now seeing deeper into their experiences. There was something about this version that emotionally tugged my heart into the profound depth that I know Dickens intended but had often been skimmed over. I’d never before realized how truly poor Bob Cratchit and his family were, or how deeply damaged Ebenezer Scrooge had been from his childhood. I’d never before noticed that it was a story that illustrated the stark comparison between wealth and poverty, and the injustice that was taking place when those who had more than enough were not willing to share it with those who were suffering.
I learned through passing years as my fascination with A Christmas Carol grew, that much of Dickens own suffering and struggle were laced into this story. He’d been severely damaged in his childhood, and he’d known both abject poverty and wondrous wealth. But the poverty had forever scarred him. No matter how much money he made, he felt afraid of losing it and forcing his family into the horrors of workhouses and debtor’s prison that he’d endured as a child. I believe Dickens saw a little of himself in Scrooge, and that Scrooge’s change of heart expressed an ideal that Dickens himself would have liked to achieve. But whatever other messages may have been woven into the tapestry of this story, the blazing glory of it is clear and simple. The truest theme of A Christmas Carol is rooted in the most simple and basic Christian truths. Be kind to all people. Give of yourself. Share what you have to ease the suffering of others. And of course, it’s possible for men to change and to put their pain behind them. And yet these messages are so delicately intertwined, that the presence of them is one of the elements that classifies this story as a masterpiece. The very fact that the story does not boldly declare Christianity, and yet it is continually implied, offers the tale comfortably to all people everywhere with messages that are timeless and universal.
As a writer, I have pondered and analyzed this great work over and over, and the absolute inspired genius of it always leaves me in awe. But the real power behind the story is something that’s difficult to analyze, and I first felt it that Saturday in 1980 as I sat there in the theater, utterly mesmerized and transported to another realm. I’ll never forget the feelings that filled and surrounded me as the film ended: a stark contrast of disappointment that the movie was over, and a hovering residue of the Christmas spirit that connected the tender memories of my childhood to the hopes and dreams of a new life before me. It was dusky when we came out of the theater, and the fog had become heavier. But I loved the mystical sense it had given our surroundings which helped me hold onto the magic I had felt.
After leaving the theater, we went to a local Bed and Breakfast that was a restored Victorian home. The establishment had started a tradition of having a Christmas open house. Together my sisters and I explored the beautiful mansion’s exquisitely decorated rooms as if we were children. The Christmas decor added a magical appearance to the already lovely Victorian furnishings and accents. I recall that the house smelled like Christmas, and it was easy for my imaginative brain to conjure up possibilities of what might have taken place amidst these walls in decades past. Christmas music was being played on a beautiful grand piano in the parlor, and pleasant refreshments were served. While taking in the magic of this experience , the ethereal residue of the movie we’d just seen hovered with me, and yet I had no comprehension of how the impressions of that day would impact my life and my work. Nearly three decades later, I can look back and see how something both creative and spiritual was awakened in me that day. My fascination with Dickens and his works has blossomed recently, and I’ve found myself learning a great deal about life and writing by studying what is written by him and about him. I’ve enjoyed incorporating some of what I’ve learned into a new series of novels, and hope that others lives will be touched for good yet again through Dickens’ influence on me.
To my knowledge, Scrooge didn’t play in the theater any more after that year, and our desire to repeat the experience eluded us. The film played occasionally on TV, but segments were edited, and the commercials were so annoying. It was a great day when it finally was available to purchase as a prerecorded video, and eventually it evolved to a DVD. Over the years it has become an integral part of our Christmas celebrations. The tree, the scented candles, the nativity, the carols, the family activities, the food, and Scrooge. I play it over and over. It accompanies me while I wrap gifts, decorate, and clean house. It’s usually the first movie of the season that I watch, and the last. We have a rule in our home that Christmas music and movies can’t be played until after Thanksgiving, and not after New Year’s Day. For us, this helps keep them more precious and the Christmas spirit they incite doesn’t become diluted. (The only exception to this is when I’m writing Christmas stories and I need inspiration.) In recent years, we’ve started watching Scrooge the evening of Thanksgiving day, after dinner is cleaned up and we’re winding down. It’s become our official kickoff of the Christmas season.
My adult life has been filled with many struggles and challenges, as well as many joys. My husband and I share five children now who are moving into adulthood and starting their own families. But the first Christmas gift my married children received was a DVD copy of the musical Scrooge. And the kids all agree: Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the music, the humor, the tenderness, and the messages of this film filling the house. Of course, the true meaning of Christmas is the most prevalent aspect of our celebrations, just as striving to live Christ-centered lives is something I try to focus on every day, and I strive to make it my highest priority in teaching my children the lessons of life. And that’s just the point, the messages of A Christmas Carol echo my deepest beliefs, not just at Christmas, but always. Because I’ve come to know the story so well, there are lines of dialogue that often resonate in my mind or even pass through my lips at moments when they seem to be teaching me something related to whatever might be happening in my life. The most prominent of those has become a part of my daily life. Mankind should be our business. These words help me keep perspective when there are so many different pressures tugging at me from all sides. It is being there for others in need that should be my highest priority.
I look forward to meeting Charles Dickens someday, or maybe I already have. I like to imagine the possibility that we both belonged to some organization of writers before we were born to this earth life, that we encouraged each other as we were creating spiritually the stories that we would one day see into mortal fruition. Either way, I know our inspiration comes from the same source, and I hope to one day have the privilege of personally thanking him for the personal suffering he endured in order to create a story that would impact this world more than any other piece of fiction.
I realize that Charles Dickens is dead. There can be absolutely no doubt about that. But while his spirit lives on in another realm, his work endures as a testament of his deepest beliefs. And I gratefully add my own by echoing his words. God bless us, every one.