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Reflections on “A Christmas Carol”

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“A Christmas Carol” is my favorite story. The following  combines some earlier writings with new thoughts, and particularly reflects the politics of this year. I publish it with hope.

Scrooge is an Outsider who has let his perception of that control his entire life. He has let it shrivel his soul. And he is redeemed. He is given gifts that the rest of us can only imagine: a second look at the moments that made him feel an Outsider, a second look at the moments where he chose the path of Outsider even when another path was open, and perhaps most important, a look at the lives of people who have chosen not to live as Outsiders, even though poverty or lack of social status makes some others see them that way.

These people are Insiders, not by being taken into others’ lives but by giving themselves to others–every one of them: sister Fan, “who had a large heart”; employer Fezziwig, who “has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil”; sweetheart Belle, who releases him from their engagement, “with a full heart, for the love of him you once were”; the Cratchits, who celebrate the mother’s cooking of what little they have and the father’s earning of his pitiful salary and their all being together; nephew Fred, who gives his uncle “the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not,” not in hopes of fortune for himself, but “if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you. If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that’s something”; the men who spend their Christmas Eve soliciting for the poor, because “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

Once when four old friends and I talked for hours, one of them, a hospice nurse-counselor for the terminally ill, asked us some hard questions. One was “What is your purpose in life?” We all answered as honestly as we could, and at the end, I observed that the common theme I heard from us all was reaching out from ourselves to “do” for others.

“‘It is required of every man,’ the Ghost returned, ‘that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!'”

That’s the only kind of afterlife that makes any sense to me–one in which, as Marley says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

And the only kind of LIFE that makes sense to me is one in which we do “walk abroad among” our fellow humans, making them happy, rendering their service (of whatever kind) light; in which we truly say, with Marley:

“[Humankind is] my business. The common welfare [is] my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, [are], all, my business!”

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Grade School Christmas Pageants

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When I was in Catholic grade school, we always had Christmas pageants. The spectacular was the year I was in eighth grade. Our parish hall had a stage at one end and a kitchen at one side. All parish and school activities took place there if they weren’t held in church or outdoors: enchilada dinners, volleyball games, basketball games, PTA meetings, plays, everything. Mother Mary Scholastica, who in another life might have been a Marine drill sergeant or a diva of some art, directed. The girls’ choir stood on risers at the back of the stage, with screens in front of us, singing appropriate carols while the Nativity was acted out in front of the screens. At the dramatic moment, the curtains closed briefly, the screens were quickly removed, and the curtains swung open to reveal us, in white robes and gold tinsel halos, singing the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” chorus of “Angels We Heard on High.”

I’m sure that the impact on the audience of our parents was powerful. This was a working-class parish in the barrio of Westminster, California. Our fathers had built the school buildings mainly with their own hands. At the end of every summer, we students came to help the sisters clean the classrooms for school. Possibly no one in that hall had ever been to a professional live concert.

Then the “Three Kings” came walking through the hall: three eighth-grade boys who, incredibly, were not afraid to sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” all by themselves. They were dressed in all the velvet and glitter the sisters could come up with; I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Scarlett O’Hara, they used the drapes. I don’t remember the third king, but one was my dear friend since-first-grade Jimmy Ristrom, who, already at that age, had a big bass voice, and a second was Richard Martin, with whom I was madly in love as only a 13-year-old can be. (The universe has blessed me with reconnection with both of them these past few years.)

I can still sing–and sometimes do when I’m alone–the alto parts to “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and of course “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” singing along with a CD or the radio. I no longer believe in the religious underpinnings, but I still believe–as much as I believe in anything–that we can be better than we are, that we can make things better for others, that honest and unselfish love matters. I still value being open to whatever life brings, as was Mary in the Christmas story; seeing the possibility of greatness in the meanest surroundings, as did the shepherds; caring for those who need us, even if we don’t understand, as did Joseph. I still try to live by the best of what I learned in those days.

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