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God bless this story of Christmas past

By ROBYN BLUMNER
Published December 24, 2006


I am pretty sure that this was the first time I actually read A Christmas Carol. It was assigned for my December book club meeting, an inspired choice by one of the members: short, easy, topical.

Oh, I knew the story well. But I'm guessing that, like most of us, I knew the classic through one of the many film versions rather than the written word.

I was lucky enough to see the movie Scrooge, starring Albert Finney (the quintessential Scrooge no matter what you Alastair Sim fans say), at Radio City Music Hall when I was 9. Even with the Rockettes dressed as toy soldiers kicking up their heels in perfect unison as if they were just one long centipedinal Barbie, the real event was Dickens' mesmerizing morality tale.

Tiny Tim's heart-tugging resilience and Bob Cratchit's noble poverty stick with you even as thousands of other characters in thousands of other stories fade away.

And no matter how much you try to be cynical about the smile-in-the-face-of-hardship goodness of the Cratchits, you just can't do it. They've got you by that center of the brain that responds to sentimental treacle. I weep, therefore I am.

But reading the book provides a whole filbert-stuffed-goose-worth of added morsels that are far more substantial than the visual cotton candy of the movie.

First, Dickens doesn't divide the book into chapters. He uses staves. The first "chapter" is "Stave I." Staves are verses for songs, such as carols, the book's notes helpfully offer. Who knew?

Then, there is the mastery of Dickens' writing, which is sometimes obscured by the power of his storytelling.

The plot of A Christmas Carol is so inventive, cohesive, compelling and timeless, that the delightful ingenuity of his writing can get lost.

Here is how Dickens begins his story:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. ... Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of iron-mongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Okay, fellow writers, we might as well slam our keyboards against the wall, because there is no coming close to this alacrity. And we moderns apparently don't get half the wit that is packaged in this wonderful tidbit.

An introduction in my version of the book, authored by Elliot Engel, whose books include A Dab of Dickens & A Touch of Twain, says that this rather mocking and morbid beginning was Dickens' attempt to rescue the entire Christmas genre from the cloying vapidity that afflicted it. Apparently, Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, had introduced the British to his German boyhood traditions, such as the sugarplum fairies and the like, which invaded the saccharine Christmas tales spun out at the time.

Dickens saved the Christmas story by bringing a touch of horror to it, according to Engel.

The timeless nature of A Christmas Carol undoubtedly stems from the way it entertains while raising up its reader. The four ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge - Jacob Marley, and the Spirits of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come - also visit us. We are redeemed at its end, just as Scrooge is, with a renewed sense of human kindness and obligation toward others.

Dickens made the specter of Tiny Tim's death for want of warm shelter, decent food and medical care an untenable consequence of poverty that could be avoided through generosity and caring.

He made his contemporaries see the plight of the working poor - the way man exploits those he employs - a lesson that is sadly still relevant.

In an instructive passage, the Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the "yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish" boy and girl he has clinging under his robes. "Are they yours?" Scrooge asks. "They are Man's," the Spirit responds. "This boy is Ignorance, This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

Here is Dickens' social criticism at its most seductive, tucked into the deep-green robes of a ghost described as a "jolly giant."

My favorite holiday story until now had been Truman Capote's masterful A Christmas Memory, a sweet romp through the author's austere childhood in rural Alabama. But Dickens has nudged that aside. Christmas, with its atmospherics, sentiments, lessons and delights, is all his.