Every year, without fail, the holidays become a time of wonder.
“I wonder where we put the Christmas decorations?”
“I wonder why only half the tree is lighting up?”
“I wonder why Alvin wants a hula hoop anyway?”
You know – the important mysteries of life. The ones that go back to the first Christmas, when magi from the East came bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh because they were the only boxes that could be found in the basement.
But in the cold and the dark, it’s tempting for another undercurrent to start bubbling to the surface.
“I wonder how this season got here so fast.”
“I wonder how we’re going to make it through the month.”
“I wonder why we’re bothering to celebrate this at all.”
It’s easy to go there. Understandable, even. Especially in times when so many people are filled with so much tension for so many reasons. When the dark and the cold start closing in, a string of Christmas lights can feel like a feeble barrier with which to hold them back. What the dickens can anyone do about it all?
What the Dickens indeed.
My association with Ebenezer Scrooge goes back to elementary school. In sixth-grade, I played the tight-hearted old skinflint in our school musical, stalking and dancing around a hastily-constructed stage in the gym that shook slightly with every jump and thump. (I’m pretty sure cafeteria tables were involved somewhere.) It was a gleefully wonderful way to celebrate the season, to share in an audience’s laughter and applause, and of course, to learn just how long it takes to wash white shoe polish out of your hair when the show is over.
I saw a lot of old Mr. Scrooge after that. Who didn’t? After all, he’s a Christmas villain without peer (sorry, Mr. Grinch) whose story has been told and retold and recycled and transformed. Some great actors have plunged their teeth into the role. Alastair Sims. Michael Caine. Albert Finney. Mr. Magoo.
Of all of them, though, my favorite remains George C. Scott. His Scrooge never ranted, rarely sneered, didn’t flourish or posture like a comic-book supervillain. He was quiet. Even understated. There was no doubt there was steel beneath the surface, and you could feel the chill, but he didn’t have to raise his voice to make it known.
With a few quiet words, we could all identify with him. With a man who had been hurt and then scabbed over the wound, who pulled back from a time of year that seemed to mostly bring pain and expense without any recompense for either.
“What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?”
Many of us are there. Even if we’re not quite ready to see every wisher of “Merry Christmas” boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.
But the reason the story endures – maybe one of the reasons we endure – is that it doesn’t stop there. It gets Scrooge to look beyond himself. He’s shown the people that once meant something to him. He sees the people he can help now. He even gets a glimpse of how much that help, or its absence, could mean after he’s gone.
Yes, he goes out and buys a goose, and joins his nephew’s Christmas party, and gives Bob Cratchit a raise, and all that. But those are just outward symptoms. The real change is that he’s acknowledged he’s not alone, that other people matter. The bills are still there and always will be (even if he’s better able to meet them than most), but there are still other people he can reach out to, and give joy to, and draw joy from.
That’s the heart of the story. And the season. And a little something extra to draw on when the world seems dark.
We do not have to stand alone. We can share our fears. Share our joys. And be a little stronger for it.
And isn’t that a wonder?