Our major change this year is our featured writer, none other than my son, Justin von Bosau, who has taken up the gauntlet to review as many oddball editions of A Christmas Carol (and there are a LOT!) and give us his reminisces on them, be they film, TV, Opera (???) or other. He'll be looking at them all in his own unique way, both from his training as a film and television major at Boston University and as my progeny, exposed to a LOT of cinematic weirdness growing up (moreso than healthy, to be honest!). When he gets going on one of his rants about a topic, he's one of the funniest people I know, as I think you'll agree. That and his poor, beleaguered Papa needed a break from all 24 days of this. Not to worry, though - I'll still be covering the Strangest Of The Strange aspects about the upcoming celebrations. How strange? I'm SO glad you asked!
As our overarching theme this year is Variations On A Christmas Carol, let's start with a short novel from 2016 by Nicholas Kaminsky called A Christmas Carol II: The Rise Of The Juggernauts. Somewhere in Heaven, Charles Dickens is looking down and thinking, "What The Actual F***???" If you've ever wondered the eternal question, "I wonder what Tiny Tim became when he grew up?", this is the book that provides the answer ... and unless you're a damn good psychic, I highly doubt you would have come up with 'skilled ninja in steampunk Victorian London' (!!!), but that's EXACTLY what you get. When J first told me about this novel, I couldn't believe it was a real thing, but it is and as soon as I saw it, I couldn't reach for my wallet fast enough! But wait, let's all take a breath - OK, here's the official Amazon write-up on the plot:
"Ebenezer Scrooge was dead to begin with. He did not go quietly. So said the workers at the London Institute for the Insane.
Twenty-five years have passed since the events of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic, A Christmas Carol. Mr. Scrooge—as good a friend, as good a man, as the good old city knew—has passed away. It is common knowledge that he lost his mind and spent his final days in an asylum, cheerfully rambling on about ghostly visitors, but recently there have been whispers in dangerous circles that perhaps old Scrooge was not as far gone as had seemed the case. Ever-more intriguing tales have emerged which suggest the existence of a powerful Relic capable, it is said, of placing the terrifying energies of the spirit realm under the command of whoever manages to wield it.
Meanwhile, “Tiny” Tim Cratchit has returned from an extended trip to the Far East where, unbeknownst to most, he has spent the last several years learning the martial arts in order to strengthen his crippled body and has emerged from his rigorous training a fearsome shinobi ninja warrior. Now, concealing his lethal abilities beneath the persona of the wealthy and affable Mr. Timothy Cratchit, he will need all of his skill—and perhaps more—in order to defeat the looming threat posed by a treacherous secret society and its invincible mechanical army, the Juggernauts.
As these forces of good and evil array themselves for the final, decisive battle for the city, a still greater danger looms unseen and menacing on the horizon. Even with his considerable abilities, Tim will have all he can do to survive, much less prevail, in the dark times ahead."
The verdict? It's a Christmas delight! I went into this thinking I was in for a new level of Hell, but the inventiveness of Kaminsky with the world he's created is admirable, with steampunk robots, ghosts, an occult cabal and the Relic they're all after (I laughed out loud in delight when I read what it was) is a great way to start off your holiday season! I just wish he had written this earlier, as I would have made this an annual holiday reading tradition to the young Justin. If you can't stand one more go around with the old chestnut, check this out!
I think that sets the stage for the first of Justin's reviews, so I'll turn the stage over to him - take it away, J!
A Christmas Carol (1843) novella by Charles Dickens
Marley was dead, to begin with. And what a legacy to begin!
A Christmas Carol! By Charles Dickens! Starring Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, The Ghost of Anxiety, The Ghost of Rubbing Salt in the Wound, and The Ghost of My Sleep Paralysis Demon!
In all seriousness, this 1843 novella is THE quintessential Christmas story. The only other text that comes close to such universal understanding and celebration of the season is “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823, more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”, whose authorship remains murky but which was probably written by Clement Clarke Moore or Henry Beekman Livingston. “The Night Before Christmas” captures, in so few words and in iconic lyricism, a single encounter: a fellow waking up, the scene of his slumbering home waiting with bated breath for Christmas morning and the joy it’ll bring, and the mythic figure of St. Nick himself wonderfully invading the home--an otherworldly figure; a spirit; an inhuman quasi-deity of the holiday that somehow encapsulates the best of humanity. It is a short piece, and the book my father read to me each Christmas Eve before bed captivated me with the most lovely illustrations of this cackling mirthful wizard.
Dickens’ book takes this Spirit of Christmas (to use an egregious pun) and expands on it from a single scene to a lifetime.
For anyone among us who may not be familiar with “A Christmas Carol”, we begin with a corpse:
Marley was dead, to begin with; dead as a doornail. After musing over if a doornail is, in fact, the most “dead” nail possible, we learn that Jacob Marley was rather a bastard of the “Sorry to be cutting off your life support; it’s purely business” penny-pinching variety. Mr. Marley is survived by his equally terrible partner, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, a scraping, grasping, covetous old sinner if there ever was one. You can tell Mr. Scrooge is evil right from the start: he hates Christmas! Though maybe that’s because Mr. Marley died on Christmas Eve--now seven years ago…
Mr. Scrooge, in his counting-house, remains frigid and unmoving to the pleas of his clerk, a poverty-stricken and beleagueredly-pleasant fellow named Bob Cratchit, to get more coal for heat. Christmas Eve descends upon London’s afternoon with a wall of thick fog and dense sunlight, through which visitors approach:
First, Scrooge’s nephew, Fred--a man of infinite patience and joy, trying unsuccessfully to raise Christmas Cheer in the old miser and inviting that walking carcass to dinner. He is rebuffed. Second, two Victorian gentlemen mistaking the counting-house and its owner for something akin to personable humanity, come in to ask for alms for the poor. Granted, most of us are apt to politely turn down the intrusive request for charity, but none with such vitriol as Scrooge blatantly wishing for the poor to die, and decrease the surplus population!
My word, but Bob is a brave soul to be stuck with such a figure for a boss! But, we realize sadly, he is as much a slave to the necessity for money as many of us. Cheerful start, this.
Bob does, at least, get Christmas day off! Not without some grousing from the big E, but at least he has the full day--with the stipulation to be here “all the earlier the next morning!” And so, as London’s fog dampens the descending sun and even the stars, and all that remains are those streetlamps standing tall and vague as lighthouses, Bob exits the counting-house to the frivolity of children playing in the snow, and Scrooge wanders empty streets home to his stark quarters.
Keeping no company, the loneliness becomes eerie and quiet. Scrooge makes his way up the front steps of his dark, empty house, when--
In the place of the door-knocker, the spectral head of Jacob Marley! Bandaged around to hold the limp cadaver-jaw in place, hair floating as if underwater, looking out at him!
(It is here I must admit, a bit guiltily, that this scared the living daylights out of me as a wee lad.)
As Scrooge blinks and regains himself, the door-knocker is a door-knocker again. He grumbles his favorite catch-phrase, “Humbug!”, which is what the merchandising department would use as his pull-string “It Really Speaks!” phrase, if there ever was such a frightening invention of capitalism as a talking Scrooge doll. Anyway, he goes upstairs, tucking himself down for a nice yummy bowl of gruel.
Well, until every bell in his house goes ballistic and suddenly, with a rousing of ancient and laborious chains, Jacob Marley’s ghost enters. Scrooge, for his part, manages to take it sort of well--at least, in the sense that he keeps his cool by scoffing off the reality before him--until the “Fake News” ghost rears up and screams its factual face off and proves that reality is reality.
Marley’s back--and this time, he’s pissed!
The ghost explains that Scrooge, for being a right git, is walking the fine line of eternal damnation that Marley’s now stuck in. Literally being crushed by the weight of chains “forged in life, link by link and yard by yard”, he muses that Scrooge’s chain is now much longer, and that the only escape is to make Mankind your business! In order to do this, Scrooge will be haunted by three ghosts, one coming each night for the next three nights (interestingly, lining up with Christmas Past--the day before Christmas--Christmas Present on Christmas Day, and Christmas Yet to Come the day after; reminiscing, enjoying, and hoping for more). Marley then has to leave--in so doing showing a truly haunting scene of a wretched woman and her infant alone in the frigid snow on Christmas Eve night, surrounded by phantoms of similar miseries begging to help ease her pain to no avail.
“Merry Christmas,” I mumble through shell-shocked lips.
Scrooge goes to bed, only to wake up to a light, and a figure of ever-changing visage and age: The Ghost of Christmas Past. It guides him through the beginning of a character arc, where Scrooge’s backstory of how he became such a miserable old goat is told in vignette after increasingly-saddening vignette. Left alone on Christmas Eve at his all-boy’s school, only to be rescued by his beloved little sister! Yay; I hope nothing bad happens to her.
Oh, she-- she died, actually. Survived by her son, Fred, whom you shunned, Ebenezer. Thank you for reminding me, Spirit.
Here’s the best dang job you’ve ever seen, with old Mr. Fezziwig who can dance like no-one else at the best dang Christmas Eve party you’ve ever seen! Here’s Scrooge and his fiancée Belle, a charming woman! Yay; I hope nothing bad happens to her!
Here she is rejecting Scrooge on one fine Christmas Eve so many years ago, because Scrooge had grown too fond of money and she was content to live modestly or even poorly, as long as she had love. Look; look at the life you would’ve had where she’s happy with a large family. And you’re all alone due to your mistakes.
Cool, man.. merry-- merry Christmas.
Scrooge, rather put off to anguish by the past, extinguishes the spirit like a candle with a giant hat it was holding the whole time. He then goes to bed, only to be awakened by boisterous laughter and, upon examination, a figure so vibrant and explosively there that he can be no other than Father Chr-- The Ghost of Christmas Present! Who might be wearing the same green robe and long beard as the spectral St. Nick from an earlier poem, but who decidedly is different. Maybe.
Christmas Present takes Scrooge through the festive day’s affairs; London, the bustle of Christmas, the sights and the smells, the happiness, the goodly people putting aside their petty squabbles for the simple joy of humanity and the enjoyment of such a day as Christmas! He goes to visit Bob Cratchit’s hovel, where a gang of children impress mirth and family that boasts nothing special but a whole lotta love (quite a bit more innocently than the Led Zeppelin song). And there--Bob himself coming in with the youngest Cratchit: a cherub of good Christian faith and benevolence named Tim (nicknamed Tiny Tim due to his stature). But-- Spirit; Tiny Tim is frail, and walks with a crutch and seems so sickly! Will he live?
“I see a vacant seat, and a crutch without an owner.” Christmas Present gravely replies.
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race," returned the Ghost, "will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
"Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
So after that verbal beatdown, they go to visit Fred and his rocking Christmas party, only to discover that Scrooge is thought of by most there as a disagreeable, asinine creature, but Fred nonetheless--bless his heart--wants to reach out and give the old man company.
Christmas Present, content with twisting the knife so far in Scrooge’s guts that the dang blade snapped off the handle, leaves us with one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen in any kind of Christmas mythos. The good spirit, that benevolent figure, pulls aside its robes to reveal that underneath its joy, the entire time, are two spiritual urchins of filth named Ignorance and Want--they are Man’s, and cling to Christmas Present against his will as a plague.
These spirits of Black Friday Sales vanish as Christmas Present literally dies and fades to the grave, leaving us with Scrooge in the bone-chilling street at midnight. “Well!” we half-heartedly chuckle, looking around nervously, “surely this can’t get any worse, right?
Dickens, laughing quietly and sweeping forth his hand, brings forth The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Shrouded in black, it is a tall and silent form, covered completely save one white, ever-pointing hand. I’ll be hiding under the blankets if anyone needs me.
Scrooge follows the phantom to the seedy underbelly of London, where a group of shady folks sell off a dead man’s items for good cash--including his bed-curtains, pilfered while the corpse grew cold in said bed! Scrooge goes to the bedside to see the covered corpse but doesn’t have the courage to pull the sheets back from the expired face. Scrooge then goes to see Bob Cratchit mourning the death of Tiny Tim, and wow, seeing such a happy family as quiet as the Spirit just hollows out your heart and makes a nest of black feathers there.
Yet to Come, who must be tired of Scrooge not getting the hint by now, brings him to a graveyard and shows him his own gravestone--he’s the forgotten man, dead and brought up only to scorn. Scrooge has a breakdown as the black-veiled unknown points ever-downward at the name written irrevocably in stone.
I’m going to actually pause the summary a moment to express that this was a BEDTIME STORY ON CHRISTMAS EVE. Every year, my parents would sit down with me, and my dad would read the entire book to me, doing wonderful voices of the characters and the events. When that grew too long and too tiring, we would watch an adaptation of it. Every year. It’s an odd choice to scare the living bejeezus out of a kid and then want them to go to bed!
But, here’s where Dickens gets away with it: the last chapter shows that it was all Just A Dream™ and that it’s in fact Christmas Day!!! The Spirits did it all in one night so he can enjoy the day! Scrooge, bursting with joy at not being dead and loathed for all time, goes about buying the biggest Christmas goose for the Cratchits and sending it anonymously, then goes to Fred’s house humbly to ask forgiveness for being a right ass for so many years. Fred, blessed fellow, lets him in, and the next day Scrooge plays a joke on Bob (who runs late; not there all the earlier the next morning due to making merry), by seeming gruff and instead laughing and becoming not-Jeff-Bezos: actually raising his salary and making the office livable and humane!
Tiny Tim lives, and to quote his pure heart: God Bless Us, Every One!
The enduring wonder of “A Christmas Carol” that makes it such a perfect encapsulation of the season is all the same childlike marvelousness that made “The Night Before Christmas” a similar success--mixed with a shockingly adult sense of morality and mortality. All the elements of the earlier poem are there: the snow, the dark night of waiting with bated breath--the payoff of such wondrous joy the next day. The Christmas season seems to grow longer every year, having already trampled the Thanksgiving turkey (and the trampleable Detroit Lions. I’ll still root for you, even having watched the Bears win so, so many times! Eventually the Detroit Cratchits will win!) and now starting to battle the Jack-o’-Lantern-headed Rider of Midnight for ground in October. What better feeling encompases the whole season--at its purest--than the bated breath with which we wait through long nights for the payoff of a joyous Christmas morning?
Dickens, likewise, captures the otherworldly enchantment brought about by all our myths of Santa Claus. Yes, we adults think; he’s not real--but isn’t he, though? We still strain our ears for the sleigh bells clinking in the clouds; we still believe in our heart of hearts that some kindly soul laughs in the face of the frigid wind after we’ve fallen into our Christmas slumbers--adding nothing physical to the wrapped boxes under the tree but imbuing the hearts of those who haven’t completely shut him out with a weightlessness. There’s something magical brought about on Christmas, and Dickens taps into it--and how it might as easily sour, if we focus on the wrong things.
What elevates “A Christmas Carol” is just how frigid the winter night is before Christmas morning. Marley is uncompromisingly damned, wandering like a doomed vessel through the sea of a foggy London. Christmas Past feels like the safest ghost to be near, yet they can decimate the heart through passive truth. Christmas Present is righteously jovial and righteously cruel--almost petty--in turns; all the shades of heightened fervor and ferocity the day brings on. Christmas Future is, strangely, the calmest ghost--but in its unknown is the unnameable fear that we already know the answer. Scrooge is put to the chopping block metaphorically, and you get the sense that if he did not learn the error of his ways in treating people with compassion--a far bigger issue than “loving Christmas” but exemplified by Christmas’s ideals (another way the season becomes all the more mythic for the reader)--Scrooge will not wake up clutching the bedpost. No: if he didn’t learn, Christmas Future may leave him in the cold graveyard--his final rest.
(Now I just want to see a poster called “A Christmas On Elm Street” with Scrooge’s shocked face: “If Scrooge doesn’t wake up festive… he won’t wake up at all.”)
Because of how idealistic the holiday is, with its worldly peace and love, there is no time wasted trying to cut to the emotional core: Dickens lives in emotion in the writing, and with expert nuance can conjure up stronger feelings in us than if this book had been written about, say, Arbor Day. Not that Arbor Day isn’t awesome, just-- look, you know what I mean! We become children again; we’re waiting for December the 25th and spritely St. Nick to hop down our chimney. The adults of Stave I, in a way, are painted in broad strokes as unreachable emotional figures--they are commandingly loud, as all adults seem when we’re young (aside from Bob, diminutive, letting us empathize with him further)--and only as we progress and mature in reading the story do we see the subtler strokes that’ve composed Mr. Scrooge. We evolve with him, lost within emotion, until finally it is Christmas and we’re doubly ecstatic to have made it home again!
Now, I am no historian. I do not profess to be the expert on Victorian England, or Dickens’ life and all the factors that led him to writing this book or influenced its writing. As I can learn from Wikipedia (which my high school teachers insisted is not a reliable source, but which has a nifty page called “List of List of Lists” which I like looking over), England at the time of Dickens’ writing “A Christmas Carol” was trying to relearn Christmas, in a sense. Traditions were being “explor[ed] and re-evaluat[ed]... including carols, and newer customs such as Christmas cards and Christmas trees,” and Dickens’ novella here--which was wildly successful--helped cement the tone of the holiday further. Beyond pure emotion though, it touches heavily on the classes within Victorian society; the wealthy (Scrooge, Fred) and the poor (the Cratchits) and does all it can to bridge the gap, to make people relatable, and to humanize. Best of all, it does so without drawing so much attention to it: Tiny Tim is in dire straits due to a lack of medical care, but he is treated as one person instead of a social group: Dickens never gets hellbent writing in preacher’s tones about DONATE FOR GOODNESS SAKE! We are destroyed through Scrooge’s internal destruction, seeing little Tim’s cold and lifeless body. And after reading the book, we want to reach out and help as well.
There is a lot to be said too for the story as a Christian allegory: the lost sinner finding his way and coming back into the good fold. However, knowing very little about eclesiastical literature, all I’ll say on that topic is I can see how the story would work in that light, and I think there’s something very pleasant about the idea that there’s always hope for a better future if someone has a good heart to reach for it.
“A Christmas Carol” works because of its goodness. It’s well-written, it’s accessible, it’s short. It doesn’t overcomplicate itself or dredge in the misery of its messages: it is a dark little song, sung in five Staves with the voices of a timeless crystalline choir. It is excellently illustrated by John Leech. It can be found, illustrations and all, here in PDF form from Project Gutenberg. And, much as I could go on and on and on, it is survived into infinity by a score of adaptations--nearly four hundred listed on Wikipedia alone--that demonstrate its impact and legacy and will only continue to grow. I don’t think I have a full four hundred presents under the new-tradition Christmas tree to unpack for you all--but I have some surprises yet. (Unlike the Spirits, I’m not sure I can do all of that in one night!)
So, let’s take a look at these adaptations in the month--and possibly multiple years--to come!
And hey, if all that reading is too much, an animation from GradeSaver to help can be found here for you to cram the night before the English test! My favorite parts are Scrooge being terrified of Marley while facing away from him, and the animation making him look like he’s crawling forward over his grave like some strange seduction for the aptly named Christmas Yet to Come. They even helped me remember the brief mention of the young couple joyous that their creditor was dead, in Stave Four! I would’ve gotten marks off my essay for forgetting.
Thank you, Justin! As I said on his birthday, the young man has a singular voice and believe me, you are in for a real treat with his film reviews. This was just a warm-up, wait till he finds something he DOESN'T like!
But hey, cheer up (like our friend here)! We'll be back with 23 more days of the ridiculous and the sublime to keep you company as we count down to the Big Day itself. See you tomorrow!