Chip MacGregor

December 17, 2014

Favorite Books, Christmas Edition: “A Christmas Carol”


brick green no smile b:wLast week, in between hurriedly throwing a few Christmas decorations at my walls and attending “The Nutcracker” for approximately the 1,247th time, I managed to keep my yearly date with A Christmas Carol. I always caution myself that it cannot possibly be as good as I remember, but every year it’s better. With each successive reading, the charm and earnestness and pure skill of the writing is more apparent, and if you doubt this book’s place in a blog on the writing craft, you probably haven’t read it in awhile. This book was a labor of love for Dickens rather than a serial written to pay the bills, and it shows. Free from the need to sustain a story for months/years on end in order to keep the paychecks coming, Dickens demonstrates a previously unsuspected ability to tell a story taking place over a time span of less than twenty years (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield), and he lets himself go on description and characterization in way he was unable to do in a serial installment expected to advance the plot each week. We see him revel in this independence in the gleeful abandon with which he describes the riches of London shop windows at Christmas time, the passionate cries of the narrator which interrupt the story from time to time, and the flights of whimsy he indulges in in a book not expressly written for children.

Basically, Dickens wrote the story he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it, regardless of how well it fit the mold he’d found most of his success with, and 160 years later, it’s still his most popular work. The longevity of the book (it’s never been out of print) should serve as a lesson to those authors who are navigating the tricky issue of how to balance profitability and passion–  writing to pay the bills is all well and good, but the books that are going to resonate the most with readers are going to be the ones that you were most personally invested in, in which your skill set and your fervor for a story intersect and hone each other to a finer edge than either could achieve on its own.

William Makepeace Thackeray was right when he said that the Carol was, “to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” Even if you’ve seen every movie version ever made and you think you’re sick of the story, you’re cheating yourself if you haven’t read the book. It thaws out the little places where your feelings about Christmas have become frosted over by the annoying Christmas music remixes playing in the mall and the sniping over the political correctness of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” It’s not preachy, it doesn’t have any kind of “presents and food and parties aren’t important” nonsense, but rather, it reminds us why our celebrations are important, that things like compassion and hospitality are graces that we should revel in being able to employ during our time on earth, that it is okay to occasionally warm ourselves from the winter. A few passages to begin the thaw~

  • Scrooge’s nephew Fred defending the profitability of Christmas: 
”But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
  • Jacob Marley, lamenting his wasted opportunities for compassion: 
”Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed…not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I!…Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
  • And on the changed Scrooge, post-spirit-visits: 
”Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It’s quite as well that we should wrinkle up our eyes in grins, and gain weight from food eaten in good company, and go broke buying gifts to delight the people we love, as have these maladies in less attractive forms. Merry Christmas!

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  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    My three boys and I just listened to A Christmas Carol in the car on the way to and from school. The book is much creepier than the movies and it was a bit scary for them, but they were enthralled and wanted to watch the movie (the muppet version of course) as soon as we finished. What a good book! It was fabulous and even my six year old enjoyed the tale.

  • Preston Brad Rentz says:

    I’ve long been intrigued by A Christmas Carol, even haunted. I see myself both in the greed of the story and it’s redemptive value. Your post again reminded my me how deep this story touches my spirit.

  • Gary Neal Hansen says:

    Thanks Erin! I have a little facsimile of the first edition, and the old font and original illustrations add greatly to the experience of my annual reading. The story defines the best feel-good Christmas of our culture, but does so by quietly, constantly letting the warmth and traditions grow from a good sound root in the remembrance of Jesus’ birth. And equally constantly he reminds us of the great misery of so many in that same holy season.

    It is interesting to contrast this short masterpiece with any of Dickens’ long works. I’ve always been struck by how within any of those massive tomes that take a hundred pages just to get rolling he will have dozens of brilliant pieces of micro-fiction. He will spend one long paragraph giving a description that brings a character to vivid life, even though that character enters for just that one scene–maybe just that one page.

    The one production of A Christmas Carol that topped them all for me was Patrick Stewart’s one man show, which I saw on Broadway years ago. Basically one guy and a couple props, maybe a chair and a table, but afterward I would have sworn I saw every detail of every scene.

  • Peggotty says:

    Bravo! A beautiful piece of writing, Erin. I found my volume of Dickens’ Christmas stories a few days ago. I say with Fred and the parade of fellow passengers to the grave and beyond, God bless it!

  • Johnnie Alexander says:

    I’m a Dickens fan but I’ve never read A Christmas Carol. I suppose, like you suggested, I thought I knew the story from watching so many adaptations. But there’s now a copy on my Kindle. I also got a trilogy of Capote stories, including A Christmas Memory, thanks to Lynn’s recommendation. Merry Christmas!

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    Here, here, Erin! Thank you for reminding us of some of the joys of Christmastime and for sharing your passion for one of the best stories ever written. It’s one of my favorites. I read an article about Dickens and his story just yesterday, and the author said it took Dickens only six weeks to write this masterpiece. Like you, I never tire of it, and try to read it every Christmas. I’m due to do that soon. I have a lovely copy from B & N that is decorated, and right now sits atop my mantle, beckoning me hearthside to read. I know it’s cliche, but my heart will surely be warmed as I read of Scrooge’s transformation, and it’s always a reminder to me of how Christ can so instantaneously change our hearts……but that we, too, need to continue to live the change. In a world where hearts seem especially cold right now, reading A Christmas Carol is a welcome respite and undeniable challenge to live meaningfully and charitably. I might also add that another Christmas story I read every year is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. This, too, is a heart-tugger. Thanks for sharing and Merry Christmas! Please give Chip my Christmas wishes, too!

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