That time of year has arrived when ritual and custom weave their magical threads into our lives. We sip Uncle George’s eggnog and bourbon, made from a recipe which his Uncle George inherited; we feast on ham at Grandma’s table; we sing carols off-key with the lusty disregard of a drunken sailor. Movie-lovers turn to old seasonal favorites like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street;” families open presents from beneath the tree, each in their special way; children play with new toys in a tangle of ribbons and wrapping papers while mommy and daddy doze on a sofa.
Readers, too, some of them, may follow some tradition in regard to the season. A father might recite to his little ones Clement Moore‘s “Night Before Christmas,” with its parental prayer that the “children were nestled all snug in their beds.” A celebrant with a strong sentimental streak may find satisfaction in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” that classic little tale of Della and Jim, of watchchains and combs, and the meaning of sacrifice.
Some readers this season will open Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. (By season, of course, I mean that period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the old Twelve Days of Christmas before our Black Fridays, parties, and feasting made so many of the holiday-hung-over happy to toss their dead trees into the street before the New Year). A score of movies and plays about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Christmas ghosts have embedded this tale so firmly in our blood and nerves that two words alone — ”Bah! Humbug!” — can conjure up entire scenes from a London buried long ago by time and fashion.
Dickens’ tale is so familiar to all of us, in fact, that we can open this novella to any page and place ourselves immediately within the story. There is a great delight in such an arrangement, because there is great delight to be found in Dickens’ words. We all know the story of the stingy man visited by ghosts, but our knowledge has often kept readers from exploring the original story. This is unfortunate, for those who love the English language and have never read A Christmas Carol might not realize the treat they are missing. Here on every page is Dickens at his most delightful, reveling in description, puns, and conversation, the prose bubbling like the story’s steam pudding, the author’s enthusiasm for his tale infecting us with bacilli composed of happiness and joy. His jocularity and passion sweep us along with Scrooge, so that by the time the last ghost has visited the old skinflint we can truly feel Scrooge’s delight on waking in his bed with the opportunity to make amends and expiate his crimes of selfishness and meanness of heart:
“‘I don’t know what to do!’ Scrooge cried, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am 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. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”
Another story worth revisiting, older than Scrooge and his ghosts, and familiar to an even wider readership, comes to us from best-selling authors Matthew and Luke. Leaving aside the theology behind their telling (it is best your reviewer in particular leave aside theology, as his knowledge of that subject is approximately equivalent to his knowledge of homemade firecrackers, that is, he may eventually cobble something together, but is quite likely in the process to blow himself to hell and gone), let us instead look to the literary aspects of this story to explain its longevity and appeal.
We begin with a teenage girl who, according to the custom of her time, is espoused to an older man when she mysteriously becomes pregnant and is soon, as one translation puts it, “great with child.” This girl, Mary, accompanies her espoused, a carpenter named Joseph, to the city of Bethlehem, where she delivers her child in a stable and cradles him in a feeding trough for livestock. (Many will later consider this same infant’s flesh to be the food that brings everlasting life). Strange events then occur: angelic beings cavort in the skies over the tiny city, shepherds visit the stable in the night to pay homage to the child, wise men from the East follow a star and bring gifts fit for a king. Others, particularly a woman named Anna and a man named Simeon, proclaim the newborn the savior of their people.
This celebration is short-lived: Joseph receives word via a dream that the local king, fearful of a prophesy that such a child will seize his throne, plans to kill the baby. The family flees to another country before the king orders the murder of Bethlehem’s male infants in hopes that one of the dead will be the baby. Later the cruel king dies a deserved horrible death, and the tiny family returns to its homeland.
Matthew and Luke tell their story in a few pages. Here is no Dickensian excess. The prose is as simple, stark, and succinct as that found in one of Hemingway’s short stories. The authors use few adjectives and employ minimal descriptions of landscape, clothing, style, or manners. Comment on the emotions of the characters is almost non-existent.
Despite the absence of all these conventional literary devices, the story has stayed with us for a long time. Millions of people all around the world have read or heard the story. It stays with us because it possesses all the elements of a great story: love, birth, mystery, murder, shepherds and kings, angels, wise men, fools. It has, as some critics say, the power of story. One guy even called it a part of the “greatest story ever told.”