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THE MANIC MANIAC- Who is Ebenezer Scrooge?
The most frightening ghost story of all...on Christmas
By Joe Crosby
December 22, 2008
Scrooge (Alastair Sim) gets visited by the spirits in the classic tale A CHRISTMAS CAROL(1951).
© United Artists
Stories of fear, ghosts and pitiful fates are as much a part of Halloween as costumes and candy. But the holiday season--Christmas, if you're so inclined--is decidedly more optimistic ... or maybe "merry" is the better word. Its tales are spun with garland, dripping sweetly with tree sap and eggnog, and warm like the flickering hearth 'neath your stockings. This, however, is contrary to the greatest Christmas (holiday?) story ever told. That story is one of phantasms, dark spirits, regret and sadness. It's about dreary distances, past and future. It's about an epitaph written long before the final breath. It is fear, a representative of our coldest hours and our most loathsome thoughts. Not least, it's pretty effing scary.
See, A Christmas Carol is only a cheery--ahem--is only a merry Christmas tale at the end ... "God bless us everyone," and whatnot. But the previous four staves (divided in five, like the parts of a song or carol) are only as warm as Ebenezer Scrooge's temper. There are soft spots, sure, but they're soft with nostalgia or regret on his part, and soft with sympathy on the audience's. Even Charles Dickens' full title tells the tale: A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. And ghost stories, in popular fashion, aren't necessarily knee-slappers.
Scrooge blasts Christmas for its absurdity, and taking into account its tawdry commercialization of today, maybe that's not far off. He lives in a large, hollow space with little more than a bed to sleep in. It creaks and bends, and an apparition approaches up his rickety stair case with the whistling of an imminent steam engine.
The Ghost of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge a life he might want to forget, but very much remains in and forms his bitter consciousness. As a boy, he's lonely. As a young man, he's a workaholic and loses the woman he cares most about. The scenes depicted are drab: a student alone in a schoolhouse as the cold, desperate winter swirls around him; a party of which he is an outsider, where happiness occurs through a lens, not within himself.
HIs harsh reality is revealed to him by the Ghost of Christmas Present. His apprentice, Bob Cratchit, plays patriarch to a lean holiday and a leaner, sickly young child, evident is his foreboding future. The Cratchits scorn Scrooge, and his nephew, whom he earlier rebuffed, mocks him. And as the spirit nears death, he opens his green fur-lined robe to reveal two grim visions. Two tired and hungry children, Ignorance and Want, represent the world's blind and suffering state.
And finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the most horrifying in both form and message. With only a grotesque hand visible from his black and ominous cloak, the spectre points to horrible deaths, of Tiny Tim and of Scrooge himself. By now, Scrooge is sad, frightened and defeated.
It's not until the end that any sort of merriment is introduced. And even then, it proves not what actually is, but only what could be. A Christmas Carol is an allegory, mostly because Scrooge's life is intended to represent everything that Christmas is not. But in the process, we're left wondering about our own shortcomings, our occasional moments of selfishness and our more somber moments, at work, with anger, living amidst the less merry parts of life. Because the reality of A Christmas Carol, if the second ghost were to confront it, is not that we are the ideal that Scrooge contrasts. We are Scrooge, living in a world of want and ignorance despite the possibility of peace.
Still, Dickens' Christmas classic has been re-imagined more times than Santa Claus. There's a long version, a short version, a version for readers and a version for listeners. It's a play, a movie and a television special. It's been modernized (Scrooged) and bastardized (A Diva's Christmas Carol). And during this time of year, some form of it becomes a near requisite for the holidays, as necessary as pine needles, wrapping paper and some other Christmas Story. It's intended to, so it's said, capture the Christmas spirit.
But as it stands, it captures the opposite, leaving the spirit of the holidays at arm's length. It's a haunting depiction of who we are in our meeker moments, battling our own ghosts. So, this holiday, when the fifth stave arrives, and Scrooge embraces his family and saves the Cratchits, don't smile in complacence of how things are. Instead, smile because you know it's within your capacity to fulfill how the holiday can be. And remember that it's a ghost story that helped get you there.