“Bah humbug.” The sentiment of old Ebenezer is rather in vogue these days.
It’s fashionable to deplore the vulgarly overdone Christmas lawn decorations and tacky plastic Santas whilst complaining about how early the seasonal music is being played in the shops. Blasting the shoppers and their busy sidewalks all dressed in holiday style is virtually de rigueur. There may be room for a cultural critique of overdone Christmas commercialism, but that cynicism isn’t reserved just for over-enthusiastic cookie bakers or repetitive Christmas music. It’s blasted at the heart of the holiday, too.
In those temperatures, it sounds almost annoyingly Pollyannaish to say something like, “I just love Christmas and I’m so glad it’s here again!” If you talk like that, you’ll make people angry. But if you talk like Ebenezer, you’ll be just fine. You’ll find a sympathetic ear as you assail the crowds and good cheer alike – and the annoying reindeer with their silly reindeer games.
The Scrooge mentality
You would think that nobody ever read Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol,” so prevalent is the old Scrooge mentality. It makes me think that perhaps, unbeknownst to me and my fellow Christmas enthusiasts, that there was an alternative ending in a second manuscript discovered in a dusty old drawer in one of Mr. Dickens’ bureaus. This alternative ending is considerably more bleak and existentialist, and was posthumously published not so long ago, since gaining traction in the popular psyche, thereby reawakening the ghost of Ebenezer’s past – the return of “Bah humbug.” Imagine how this alternative ending might have gone, and how popular it would be now, with our dark, dystopian novels and vampire fiction.
In this new version, we see a more pessimistic Dickens reprising the old miserly Scrooge on Christmas day, just hours after the departure of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge has the best of intentions to change his ways that morning, but suffers a massive relapse of foul temper over dinner at his nephew Fred’s house. Fred’s cousin makes an off color remark about the wine that Scrooge brought for the evening, and Scrooge storms out of the living room and refuses to participate in any of the after-dinner holiday games. From there on, it only spirals into more darkness and humbug.
'Unforgiven' vs. 'A Christmas Carol'
In fact, this alternate ending would transpire much like the ending of the film “Unforgiven,” when Clint Eastwood’s character William “Will” Munny, after having renounced the violence and alcoholism of his past, dramatically reverts to his old ways and exacts revenge on Little Bill and his entire posse in the saloon before downing a glass of whiskey at the bar, in utter defiance of redemption.
If “A Christmas Carol” went like “Unforgiven,” Scrooge would burst out of his nephew’s home, fire Bob Cratchit, binge on that twelve pound Christmas goose he bought for the Cratchit family, and then pass out on his bedroom floor. If the Ghost of Christmas Past tried to visit him again in a last ditch effort at redemption, Scrooge wouldn’t even notice or care. Upon learning that his father had lost his job, Tiny Tim’s health would immediately take a dramatic turn for the worse. The book would end there, a desolate statement of nihilistic futility. The ghost of Tiny Tim would caution the reader on the final page, “We’re all doomed, every one of us.”
But I don’t like that ending. There is something about it that is unsatisfying.
And yet, at the risk of oversimplifying, that’s exactly how “Unforgiven” ends, changing a few names here and there. Granted, there are some other significant differences in the two stories, so, the comparison is not entirely adequate. Yet, as two narrative studies on the issue of redemption, “Unforgiven” and “A Christmas Carol” create almost perfect bookends, offering nuanced, but opposing viewpoints on the issue of whether a man can actually change for the better.
What would critics say today?
Both have been wildly successful; “Unforgiven” won four Academy Awards, generated nearly $160 million in global box office revenue, and was recently recognized by the American Film Institute as the fourth best American film in the western genre. “A Christmas Carol” has obviously done pretty well too; to speak of its success is almost redundant, so central is its place in our collective consciousness during the holidays. It has been adapted into countless films and theatrical productions, and has never gone out of print since its initial publication in novella form in December of 1843.
So, both stories have been very popular. But you have to wonder, if they were both released in 2010 for the first time, which would do better? Which would the critics pan? Which would strike a chord? One can only imagine, but let’s look at what people are reading these days to find some clues. On the New York Times Best Seller List for hardcover fiction during the week of Dec. 12 we find titles and descriptions such as:
“Full Dark, No Stars,” by Stephen King (Scribner). Four long stories, light on the supernatural and dealing mostly with grisly human behavior.
“The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson (Knopf). The third volume of a trilogy about a Swedish hacker and a journalist.
“The Emperor’s Tomb,” by Steve Berry (Ballantine). The former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone travels to China after a woman close to him is tortured for the return of a mysterious artifact.
Tiny Tim's timely message
With all due respect to these very skilled authors, I don’t see a lot of redemption on that list – retribution, maybe, but not redemption. Frankly, I just don’t see much room on that list for “A Christmas Carol,” as originally conceived by Dickens. And if it were written today, you can imagine what the reviews might look like: “Hopelessly naïve. Utter cliché. Disgustingly annoying, with its one-dimensional characters and condescendingly trite platitudes – the Ghost of Christmas Past should remain just that – a ghost. This book is better off dead.”
But it’s not dead. “A Christmas Carol” was written, and it’s still in print today. The play is most likely being performed right now in a theater somewhere. To paraphrase the words of Dickens, the spirit of this great book walks abroad among our fellow men, traveling far and wide, wandering the Earth. Books like “Hell’s Corner” will come and go, but the Ghost of Christmas Past will always be, shining through the cynicism of any era. And so will Tiny Tim – his message warming the hardened hearts, blessing us all this Christmas – every one of us.