Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Christmas Carol-Characters Pt 1

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol and is described by Dickens thusly:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge...I enjoy the performance, but I always thought Scott looked a bit too well-fed to match Dickens's description.

The three paragraphs that follow continue to explore the character of the character himself, establishing and underlining the secret, self-contained personality of the man.  The physical description, while somewhat allegorical to his personality, accurately paints a picture of the thin, white haired man who cares little for personal comforts and appearance, preferring to be known by reputation alone.  We see in him characteristics common to Dickens's villains more than his heroes, but then Scrooge is not properly a hero, although he is the protagonist of the work.  He does have positive qualities however and Dickens takes care to point them out where appropriate, especially as we observe Scrooge's progress on the path to redemption.
Of these positive qualities we can count Ebenezer Scrooge as a rational man, having little 'fancy' about him, he is also shrewd in business, cunning and quite intelligent.  Dickens says of him, "... or wholly forgetting in the interest he had in what was going on, that his voice made no sound in their ears, he sometimes came out with his guess quite loud, and very often guessed quite right, too; for the sharpest needle, best Whitechapel, warranted not to cut in the eye, was not sharper than Scrooge; blunt as he took it in his head to be."  It can also be said that Scrooge has a sense of humor, if somewhat sardonic, as evidenced by certain comments such as, “’You’re particular, for a shade.’ He was going to say ‘to a shade,’ but substituted this, as more appropriate.”

In Scrooge we see a character who is unlike previous Dickens protagonists in that he is already quite aged when the story begins, however as Carol is shorter than such classics as Oliver Twist by hundreds of pages, we are not dealing with the life and adventures of the protagonist, but merely a single spectacular event in that life, with attendant notes on the future progress of the protagonist.  The story is functional in its presentation of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge with Dickens drawing a picture of a thoroughly unpleasant person that becomes completely changed as a result of the events of the story.  Some critics have suggested that Scrooge's conversion is accomplished too quickly, but I disagree.  Scrooge's time with the spirits is not a fixed period of a single night but is a limbo of sorts during which time Scrooge experiences more than any living man could.  Dickens employs a three part arc to bring his protagonist to his redemption.

The Ghost of Christmas Past:  During Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Past his simple boyhood joy, empathy and sympathy are first re-awakened.  By showing him scenes of his childhood Scrooge is first brought to tears of sadness and then laughter before finally having indignation and anger awakened within him.  Given his solitary personality and his insistence that it is enough that he know his own business without needing to know the business of others, it was necessary to first crack the icy exterior of the man with a flood of memories before attempting to entreat any good nature that may be hiding within.  The Ghost of Christmas Past is somewhat sarcastic at moments and harsh toward the very end of the chapter, but is aloof throughout its encounter with Scrooge.  It is during this chapter that we learn of Scrooge's essential weakness, which is fear.  Scrooge, according to Belle, fears the world and seeks to be beyond it's 'sordid reproach.'

The Ghost of Christmas Present:  The second part of the redemption process and by far the longest of the ghostly encounters is the third chapter featuring Christmas Present.  Christmas Present is a jolly figure who takes Scrooge throughout the world to see and experience the Christmas holidays, finally terminating their journeys after a children's Twelfth Night party.  Christmas Present's method is to awaken in Scrooge a sense of joy and humility by showing him how much there is in the world and his fellow man to love and appreciate, while also showing Scrooge how much there is that needs the helping hand of those fortunate, such as Scrooge himself.  In his past Scrooge was reminded of the growth of his own dark nature and fears.  By contrast Christmas Present plays a friendlier role with our protagonist, yet when he leaves he leaves Scrooge with bitter words and a harsh lesson in the nature of the world seen through the wretched allegorical children "ignorance" and "want".

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present being shown "ignorance" and "want"

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come:  Described as a faceless, voiceless phantom seemingly a burial shroud of a figure, this ghost operates solely through gestures and has no comfort or joy to impart to Scrooge.  The first ghost awakened sympathy in Scrooge and the second joy, but the third offers nothing but fear.  Through this operation is Scrooge finally brought to his full redemption, for upon awakening he is truly a new man, in every way the opposite of his former self.

Dickens's creation of Ebenezer Scrooge has become quite famous in English speaking countries and is arguably his best known character, outstripping Oliver Twist, Pip, and even David Copperfield (American stage illusionists notwithstanding).  This is due in no small part to the character's memorable portrayal in prose and film and the work's theme, which is Christmas itself.  The Internet Repository of Common Knowledge (IRCK, aka Wikipedia) lists 46 actors to have played Scrooge (or an equivalent character in a version of A Christmas Carol) since 1908.  The work is a popular choice for holiday theatre as well (I've seen it twice on stage).  As a result of this popularity the character has become synonymous with misers and curmudgeons.  This is unfortunate as after his conversion, Scrooge becomes, "...as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Yet perhaps the reasons that people choose to use Scrooge to express the negative aspects of a person are simple: Scrooge spends more time in the book being nasty than he does nice and frankly he's more memorable as the sharp-tongued miser than as the changed man who is, by his own admission, "...as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man."
Whether you prefer him nice or nasty, mean-spirited or warm-hearted, he is in a few short pages one of Dickens's best written and most psychologically satisfying characters and an icon of Christmas as much as trees, dinners, and jolly old elves that bring presents down chimneys and long may he be read and performed to teach us all a lesson about Christmas Spirits.

A Christmas Carol

Many times when we fill out forms on the internet, such as Facebook or MySpace or any number of social sites we are asked questions about our likes and dislikes including “favorite music” and “favorite books”.  I have a hard time of it when it comes to favorite books or authors.  Honestly, what qualifies something as a favorite?  Is it the book I have enjoyed the most or the most often?
In the latter case that would clearly be Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  I have read this book nearly every year of my life since I was in 5th grade somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is a tradition of mine.  It is a ritual.

Do I enjoy it?  Of course I do.  Dickens’s longer works, such as Great Expectations or Oliver Twist (which I confess I never finished reading) are often, in my opinion, superfluous with respect to the word count.  Dickens could turn a phrase, but too often I find that the phrase turned is lost under the word-hoard unleashed upon each chapter.  If brevity is the soul of wit, then Mr. Dickens was too often soulless.

This is not true of A Christmas Carol.  In Carol Dickens demonstrates a grasp of storytelling that belies the apparent size of the book, if one were going by previous works by Boz.  Observe the passage below from the first chapter of the book, where nephew Fred is trying to convince Uncle Scrooge to come to Christmas dinner:

            “Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”
Scrooge said that he would see him—yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.

To me this is Dickens at his best.  I find the work so thoroughly enjoyable that not only do I read it every year, but I make it a point to watch at least 2 versions of the tale on telly as well (one of which is ALWAYS Scrooged starring the incomparable Bill Murray).  I collect versions of the tale and critique them.  I truly love this story and recommend it to all who enjoy a good tale, easily read and easily enjoyed.

A general introduction to the work

First published in December of 1843, A Christmas Carol was preceded by some of Charles Dickens’s more famous ‘serious’ works such as Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and Nicholas Nickleby.  Despite being shorter by far than previous works, it was not much different in tone or purpose.  Dickens believed in exposing the class horrors of the Victorian Era in his writing and did so again in Carol.  The character of Ebenezer Scrooge, so well-known to modern literature, was not unlike other ‘villains’ of Boz’s work in that he is a covetous, grasping, hard-hearted businessman; a character ripe for attack from the liberally-minded author who once worked in a bootblack factory as a boy to pay off his father’s debts.  We have every reason to believe that Dickens did believe in goodness of the human spirit, when properly guided of course, and wanted to appeal to the better natures of his readers with his work.

A Christmas Carol is at once a ghost story and a morality play.  Many of the traditions that are now held dear in Commonwealth countries and America owe their popularity to Charles Dickens and his “Ghostly little book” that put a happy secular face on a post-Puritanical solemnity during the Yule-tide.  The influx of European elements from Germany and Scandinavian countries was thoroughly mixed together, like a Christmas pudding, and turned out into the event we know today.  Throughout the book Dickens borrows some of his normal wordy style, but pares it down to a manageable fare for the reader’s feast as he describes with succinct but powerful prose the traditions of “his” England and “his” Christmas, traditions which he bequeathed to us all.

The book is short, a novella really, and divided into 5 chapters (called ‘staves’ in the contents) beginning with “Marley’s Ghost” and ending with “The End of It”.  A quick Google search for “ghost of Christmas (past/present/future)” will yield a plethora of hits, but it is worth noting that within the table of contents Boz refers to these figures as “spirits” of Christmas, not ghosts (they are, however, called ghosts within the chapters themselves, several times).  This is important as these were not meant to be ghosts (the spirits of deceased humans) but indeed ‘spirits’ as is used for supernatural beings that have never been human, such as fairies and gnomes.  These are the “concepts”, the “ideas” of Christmas and thus not fixed to any single human concept, but are part of the ideal, the very quintessence of the season.  Like Father Christmas himself, these are the icons, the beliefs of the people and so more angels and devils than wisps of animating force left behind in the mortal world.  The message is clear, for Dickens was not the sort of man to use a word casually; these are the very stuff of the season itself, boundless and bounded, timeless and timely, glorious and sordid as appropriate.

Join me, won’t you, as we explore A Christmas Carol as a book and in some of its film adaptations in the coming days, and as always, keep your Yule Log lit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Niemand macht Weihnachten wie die Deutschen

More or less.

German Christmas traditions have had a major influence on modern Christmas through Victorian London and Charles Dickens.  I suppose I should say "Germanic" Christmas traditions and include other Teutonic or Nordic groups as well.

Growing up I recall my uncle having a collection of nutcrackers and I even remember seeing smokers in Christmas shops.  My family went to many Christmas shops.  My mother would go to a Christmas shop in the middle of July at a beach.  She really dug Christmas.
Smokers are these neat little incense burners that look like people, usually holding a pipe, and the smoke comes out of their mouths.
A traditional smoker.  The incense smoke comes from the "O" shaped mouth opening
These are functional, which is more than we can say for the nutcrackers.  Nutcrackers are now decorative, collectible items.  I enjoy them.  They are inaction figures indeed.  They also say "Christmas" to us.  Thank you Germany, oh and Tchaikovsky.

A traditional nutcracker
Nutcrackers have been updated over time, but the classic form remains and that is what I like about them.  They stand like little soldiers, brightly colored, but they do not suggest war.  You cannot look a nutcracker and think of war.  Nightmares maybe, but not war.  Of course put these guys on your front line and you might not need to fight.  The enemy, upon seeing 1000 nutcrackers each 7 feet tall and grinning with those dead, dead eyes, marching forward, slowly, inexorably, would likely drop their weapons and fall to the ground crying for mother and whatever god they pray to.
Or maybe just run for their collection of hard to open nuts.  Either way, we win.
If you are looking for nutcrackers you can find them everywhere like Target, Michaels and even Wal Mart, but I did a little poking about online and found some very nice sites.

Erzebirge-Palace is a great website for German handcrafted holiday items, such as nutcrackers and smokers:

What else do we get from Germans?
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, thy pagan roots are covered in presents
Yes, Christmas trees.
From the ancient Jul Log to the Victorian practices of the very German Queen and Prince Consort of England (Victoria and Albert for those who don't Google) the use of living green decorated to symbolize the winter festival is ancient.  The practices of Vicky and Al became the fashion in England and America and now everybody has to have one.  It became very cool in the 60's to have ALUMINUM TREES (with or without COLOR WHEEL!)
Aluminum Tree (my dad still owns one)
Color Wheel using a powerful spot light and rotating translucent plastic disk to cast changing colors over the aluminum strips of the tree (dad has this too)

If that's not going from the sacred to the profane I don't know what is.  Okay, I can think of far worse examples, but this is not the place for that sort of thing.
Lots of good info on this phenomenon (not meme, there was no interwebs back then) here:
These days Christmas trees come in all varieties from live trees a family can cut down themselves (a tradition in my house for many, many years) to cutsey little fiber optic jobs you sit on a table, but we owe this particular tradition where we bring the outdoors into our house, light it up and give it presents to Germany (and by extension the whole Teutonic peoples). Yep, not pagan at all...

Now a celebrity opinion:
What do you think, Johnny Bravo?
I dig them metal trees, man.  I can see my reflection in 'em and man, I'm pretty!
Until next time, keep your tree lit.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

First Day of December

Greetings, gourdlings.  Today is the first day of December.  It is also the first night of Hanukkah, so shalom to all my Jewish friends.
It is not yet winter, as that won't happen for weeks, but December marks the beginning of the pre-Christmas attack.
Oh, technically Jul (Yule) has not begun either.

So today, to get us all in the Xmas mood, I'd like to talk about the humble, much maligned fruitcake.
Naughty cake, so naughty, half-naked like that...

Yep, that's it, right there.
Public Christmas Enemy #1.

I like fruitcake.  My wife hates fruitcake.  It is popular to hate fruitcake and yet it is also popular to give and receive the fruitcake.  So what gives?
My mother liked fruitcake and I like fruitcake.  It's been around in one form or another for centuries.  So why, if it is so hated, does it endure?  Were all the fruitcakes in the world made at the same time and the hygroscopic nature of the confection has made them unspoilable such that the same fruitcakes are seen on the shelf every year only to be returned, like so many copies of Dianetics to Scientology HQ, to their point of storage to be put back on the shelves again come November in the good old US of A?  Had the New Orleans levees been made of such cake would Katrina have found herself bitch slapped back into the Gulf of Mexico to sulk?

We can see in the choice of materials for the fruitcake that it is a winter food.  Dried or candied fruit, nuts, alcohol, dense cake.  This is a confection made not with the fresh fruits of the summer and early fall, but the preserved goods that are meant to carry one through the dark part of the year.  It is a filling, hearty cake as well, and the alcohol acts as both preservative and punch.  It is akin to the plum duff, Christmas pudding, and the German stollen.  This cake means business.

Many have probably never tried fruitcake.  It looks unappealing when you see it in a store cut into rectangular solids, bits of candied fruit sliced open like a produce autopsy.  The entire thing looks like it will go into your colon and have a sit in to fight for the rights of cakes everywhere.  Try it.  You might like it.  Fruitcakes, even the grocery store brick-o-cake, have a rich flavor that is sweet, nutty, and a little odd, but pleasant.

In these enlightened times perhaps we feel we don't need the humble fruitcake anymore.  We have greenhouses and genetically altered fruit.  We have refrigeration to store our perishables.  We don't want for things like apples, which we can have year round or oranges.  We don't know the simple joy of getting a fruity treat out of season because our jaded asses are accustomed to it.  Take away our ability to get fruit all year round and we'd make a Federal case of it, for truly it is in the Constitution that we have a Separation-of-Church-and-State-god given right to fresh fruit year round.  So it is no wonder we don't respect the fruitcake.

If you got a fruitcake for a gift you'd think, "Well it's the thought that counts, right?".  Then you'd think that the thought was obviously not a nice one and you might say, "Screw that.  I'm glad I didn't get them a present.  Yeah, bite my crank grandma!"
Which is appalling and you should be ashamed of yourself.
And now for a guest celebrity opinion:  What do you think, Krampus?
I find that the modern human has lost touch with the traditional socio-economic realities of his species over the long-term lifespan, given the overall age of the planet, the changes of human cultures and general drive toward a more materialistic world view, which ironically drives mankind to seek spiritual fulfillment through mock re-creation of lost cultural mores for which there is no proper evidence or grounding.  Um, I mean, "Rahr!" 
Opinions of mythical fertility deities turned devalued holiday icons do not necessarily reflect the opinions and/or beliefs of the management.  That they do, is not necessary but is damned convenient.

So until next time, keep your menorah lit.