A Christmas Carol

Last night I watched the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. It has become a holiday tradition of sorts for me: every Christmas season I try to watch at least one of the film versions of Charles Dickens’ classic story of a mean, miserly skinflint who is haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future on Christmas Eve. All of the films present creditable versions of the story, but I particularly like the George C. Scott version because he is so believable as the initially heartless, but ultimately redeemed, Ebenezer Scrooge and because it adopts, verbatim, many of the lines penned by Dickens .

A Christmas Carol was first published on December 19, 1843, meaning that the still-vital character of Scrooge celebrates his 178th birthday today. Dickens, who by then had already begun his long and successful career as a novelist, came up with the idea for the story only a few weeks before, when he went to speak at the Manchester Athenaeum, an organization devoted to helping the urban poor. Dickens was personally receptive to the plight of the downtrodden and impoverished people of England; his father had been thrown into a debtors’ prison, and Dickens had gone to work in a factory at age 12.

Dickens initially thought of publishing a pamphlet on the problems of Want and Ignorance (later personified in his story as the gaunt and frightening children under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present) that he would call “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”  But he soon decided his appeal for generosity could be more persuasively presented as a story, and we can all be grateful for that, because it allowed him to create one of the great fictional characters and story arcs in the history of literature. By turning what would have been a dry political polemic into a story, Dickens could couch his message in a powerful tale of regret and redemption. And because he was a masterful writer, Dickens could answer key questions–like how did Scrooge get to be that way?–that allowed him to turn a greedy, unfeeling monster into a sympathetic character by the end of the story. Who doesn’t pity Scrooge and root for him to open his heart, change his ways, and hear Tiny Tim say “God bless us, every one”?

I like watching A Christmas Carol because it inevitably causes each viewer to reflect on their own lives and their own decisions and–hopefully–resolve to become better people in the days to come.

Dying Alone

This New York Times piece on the lonely death of George Bell is one of the most interesting and poignant pieces I’ve read lately.  Interesting, because it dives deeply into the machinery of public administration and the sleuthing process followed when a person dies alone, and poignant, because George Bell died without family or friends.

Bell lived alone in his apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.  He died there in 2014 at age 72.  The authorities aren’t sure exactly when he died, because his body was found only after a neighbor noticed a rank smell and called the police.  When the police arrived, in the middle of July, they found a body that had been decomposing for days in an apartment crammed with the kinds of possessions and mystifying mountains of garbage and other stuff that hoarders inevitably accumulate.  The condition of the body was such that they couldn’t initially confirm it was Bell — which required some of the sleuthing described in the story — and he had no wife, or family, or friends to identify his remains.

The Times piece is a long one.  It carefully traces the steps that are followed when a person is found dead, alone, in New York City, and in so doing it also tells some of the back story of George Bell.  He was an only child.  He worked for a time for his father, served in the U.S. Army Reserves, and began working in the moving business.  After his father died and his mother became crippled by arthritis, he took care of her.  He drank, and was known to some friends as “Big George.”  He never married, although he came close.  He was a diabetic.  He was injured at work in 1996 and began living on disability payments and a union pension — and one by one, he began to snip away his connections to the world.  After thirty years of growing isolation, his last regular acquaintance was a person he had met at his regular bar.

I’ve always thought the most terrifying part of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t the appearance of Marley’s ghost, or Scrooge’s visit to his gravesite, but the scene at his deathbed, where Scrooge lies, dead, alone, and unmourned, while his belongings are looted by people who felt no pity for him.  In that respect, George Bell was like a modern-day Scrooge, dying without leaving much of a mark on the world around him.

It’s a sad story, but also a compelling one.  One of the workers whose job is to ferret through the apartments of lonely people like George Bell, looking for evidence of relatives, has drawn upon his macabre job to consciously try to build his circle of friends and his connections to the world.  “I don’t want to die alone,” he says.

Egg No

Kish got two quarts of egg nog for the holidays.  She did so because, some years in the past, one of the boys made the offhand comment that they had tried egg nog and it wasn’t bad.  That innocent remark probably means we will buy at least one container of egg nog for the holidays, every year until the end of time.  Mothers are just that way.

The egg nog has not been touched by anyone.  Perhaps the fact that the label describes it as “ultimate” egg nog is the reason.  Regular egg nog is intimidating enough without having to deal with the “ultimate” variety — whatever it may be.  Or perhaps it is because every rational person knows that egg nog is undrinkable.  Its grotesque thickness, cloying sweetness, and overpowering odor . . . could anyone have come up with any less appealing holiday drink?

Occasionally you will run across those egg nog defenders who look at you knowingly, lower their voices to a conspiratorial whisper, and say that everyone knows you need to spike the egg nog with, say, Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum.  That’s how they drank it in the old days, such people will say.  Why do you think Old Fezziwig was so jolly in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?

Such comments simply confirm that the long-dead Brits who came up with the idea of combining milk, sugar, eggs, and rum were seriously troubled individuals who probably, deep down, hated the holidays.  It’s bad enough to be left furry-tongued after a night of pounding rum; combine that rum with the awesome, near-permanent coating properties of egg nog and I’d be scraping my tongue for days.  No one who really wanted to celebrate the holidays would develop a drink that is just going to compound and prolong the morning-after awfulness.