Friday, December 21, 2007

A Christmas Carol

On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens published his "little Christmas book", a book that was destined to become one of his most popular and endearing stories. Even today, over 160 years later, the story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, cheerful and loving Bob Cratchit and frail and angelic Tiny Tim still continues to warm many hearts during the Christmas season. Though it is one of his shortest, this story still contains many of the wonderful characteristics that are trademarks of Dickens' style and genius.

The Plot:
Ebenezer Scrooge is a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous, old sinner." He cares for nothing and no one beyond his money. He skimps any way he can. He lives in an old, musty house, does not heat his office in the dead of winter, and pays his humble clerk next to nothing. He cares nothing for the people around him from his nephew to the beggars in the street.

One Christmas Eve, the ghost of his long dead partner, Jacob Marley, appears to Scrooge. Marley had been just like Scrooge and is now suffering for it. He is bound in long iron chains and doomed to roam the earth for all eternity. Marley wishes to save Scrooge from sharing in his fate. Scrooge is now to meet with three spirits who will endeavor to save him from utter doom.

So the spirits come and each one shows him Christmases past, present and future. As Scrooge is taken through these shadows, he begins to transform and to see how much the Christmas Spirit does for the soul.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

More than anything, this story is a ghost story. It is not meant to be an unpleasant story, but one that delights you in its sensationalism. In his introduction to the story, Dickens said,
"I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it."

In this "Ghostly little book" Dickens once again uses his power of description to draw us in to this world he has created. When Dickens writes "The fog and frost so hung about the old black gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.", we feel the bitter cold and thick fog hanging in the air. We experience the pleasure of the Cratchit's humble yet happy Christmas, the pain and loneliness Scrooge felt as a boy left alone in the schoolhouse, and the utter terror and despair he feels when he sees his name carved on that old, forgotten tombstone. Scrooge's story becomes are own.

But Dickens didn't just write this story to thrill us, he means to teach us as well. Scrooge's wish for the poor and downtrodden is that "If they would rather die then they had better do it... and decrease the surplus population." But when he hears his own words echoed in regards to Tiny Tim Cratchit, he is heartbroken. One of my favorite and one of the most telling passages is when the Ghost of Christmas Present rebukes Scrooge for this remark:

"Man...if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die. It may be, that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

Ultimately, this is a story of forgiveness, redemption, and caring. Forgiving others for their offenses to you, redemption for the offenses you have given, and caring for those who live among us. We are not alone in our journey through this life, and the real spirit of Christmas is to recognize this, and to make the journey a little more comfortable for those who suffer and mourn.

The Movies:

There are a million adaptions to this classic tale and everyone has their favorite. In my case, I have two.

The Muppet Christmas Carol: This is probably a rather unorthodox choice, but this adaptation is definitely one of my favorites. The Muppets are hilarious as always, but they also manage to keep many of the lines as well as the feel from the book. And when the Cratchit family, led by Tiny Tim (Robin the frog) sing "Bless Us All", I feel myself tear up every time. It is a wonderful retelling and a favorite with my entire family.

Scrooge: This is probably another unorthodox choice in that it is a musical. In this 1970 adaptation, Scrooge is brilliantly portrayed by Albert Finney (who was only 34 at the time). This adaptation keeps the "ghostly" feel of the book. From Marley's ghost, to the phantoms floating in the night and the frightening Ghost of Christmas Future this story keeps you on your toes. Plus it has many memorable scenes that, while not in the book, give many glimpses into the world of Dickens. A scene portraying the Cratchit's buying their Christmas "feast" shows the marked differences between the classes in Victorian England. And the "Thank You Very Much" scene is so morbid, yet absolutely hilarious. Kind of like Dickens' own sense of humor. This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies and one I look forward to every year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Future is Now!

Even reading has gone wireless. has introduced the Kindle, a wireless reading device about the size of a paperback novel. This new device gives you access to over 90,000 books, top newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe, and the top 250 blogs in business, politics, etc. Suppose you read a book review on a blog (like this one!) and decide that you want to read that book, right now. Well, you can. You simply purchase the book in the Kindle store and within 1 minute it has downloaded both to your Kindle as well as online.

Okay, so Amazon has a great spill, and it seems like it could be a wonderful thing, but I'm not sold just yet. Here are some reasons why:
  • The price. I still haven't bought a $100 iPod, let alone a $400 Kindle. Do you know how many real books I could get for that?

  • The ease of buying the books. I know this should probably be a good thing, but if I bought a book (at $9.99 each) every time I thought about one, I would be flat broke!

  • The reading selection. Even though there are over 90,000 books available, something tells me that they won't be the kind I read. I think I have only read 1 NY Times Best-Seller in my life!

  • I'm a bit of a purist. I like to hold a real book in my hands, flip through its pages and even smell it. Somehow, I don't think I would get the same pleasure out of an electronic device.

But all in all, this new device is actually a pretty good idea. I don't think that it will ever replace books, but it certainly is making reading faster and more accessible in a world that thrives on the instantaneous. And anything that can get people to read more is always a good thing!

Monday, December 17, 2007

"The grate had been removed from the wide overwhelming fireplace, to make way for a fire of wood, in the midst of which was an enormous log glowing and blazing, and sending forth a vast volume of light and heat; this I understood was the Yule-log, which the Squire was particular in having brought in and illumined on a Christmas eve, according to ancient custom."

From Old Christmas by Washington Irving

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Christmas Box

The Christmas Box wasn't written to end up #1 on the New York Time's Bestsellers list, but that is exactly where it found itself in 1995. Richard Paul Evans wrote this simple yet poignant Christmas story for his daughters and self published it for a few family friends back in 1993. Little did he imagine that his story would spread to millions of people around the world.

The Plot:

Richard Evans is a young father and entrepreneur living in Utah. He has become a partner in a new business venture and is working feverishly to get his family ahead. When the opportunity comes for Richard, his wife Keri and their three year old daughter Jenna to become a live in family with an elderly lady in her Victorian mansion, they jump at the chance. The Evanses and MaryAnne Parkin become fast friends and soon they all feel like one family.

But Richard has begun to work more and more, and with the holiday rush on he is unable to spend as much time with Keri and Jenna as they would like. Then Richard begins having dreams, dreams that lead to the discovery of a mysterious Christmas box filled with aged letters to an unknown "Beloved". And Mary has begun acting strange as well. She has periods of sullenness and is earnestly entreating Richard to answer the question "What was the first gift of Christmas?" Richard must now find for himself the answer to that question, an answer that will change his life and also that of his family's.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

At first, The Christmas Box can seem like just another one of those overly sweet and stifling stories that seem to fill this season. But there is a deeper meaning hidden in this simple yet profound story and it centers around the answer to the question that Mary poses to Richard. "What was the first gift of Christmas?"

At first Richard gives a flippant answer, but then he sees that Mary considers this question the most important one that he will ever answer. It isn't until Richard learns of the pain that Mary has suffered for many years that he receives his answer and is able to see the error he is making. Through Mary and the poignant letters that fill the Christmas box, Richard comes to realize that the first gift of Christmas was a child. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16.

The years of childhood are precious, not only to the child, but also to parents. It is an innocent time that can never be recaptured and is often too easily missed. Richard had focused on making alot of money for his family to enjoy later in life. What he had failed to realize, however, was that one of the most precious times that he had been given was slipping away right under his nose. Mary had seen it happen in her own life, and she loved the Evanses too much to see it happen in theirs. "She knew that in my quest for success in this world I had been trading diamonds for stones. She knew, and she loved me enough to help me see."

Ultimately, The Christmas Box takes us beyond what this world calls happiness and success, and instead shows us the things and the people that really matter can often be found just down the hall or across the dinner table. This is a story that reminds all of us to slow down and enjoy the time that we have with our families and loved ones and to remember that the greatest gift ever given came in the form of a baby boy, given up by his Father that we might be reconciled and saved from ourselves.

The Movie:
In 1995, The Christmas Box was released as a television movie and eventually on to video. It stars Richard Thomas, Annette O'Toole and the wonderful Maureen O'Hara. The first time I ever saw it, I was about 10 and was having a Christmas slumber party with a few of my friends. The movie gripped us from the very beginning and we stayed up until 1 am just to find out how it ended. It is a great family film and has become one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time.

Friday, December 7, 2007

"Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when--the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven . . ."

From The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

My Winter Reading List

Winter is definitely one of the best seasons for reading. There are few things on this earth as delightful as curling up with a blanket, a hot cup of tea and a good book. And this winter, my reading list is rather long. I won't bore you with the entire thing (mainly because I can't remember them all) but I will give you the highlights.

New Books:

When Knighthood was in Flower by Charles Major:
Set during the Tudor period of English history, When Knighthood Was in Flower tells the tribulations of Mary Tudor, a younger sister of Henry VIII of England who has fallen in love with a commoner named Charles Brandon. However, for political reasons, King Henry has arranged for her to wed the King Louis XII of France and demands his sister put the House of Tudor first.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro:
Tells the story of Stevens the butler who dedicated his life to the service of Lord Darlington. Stevens' new employer, a wealthy American, Mr. Farraday, encourages Stevens to borrow a car to take a well-earned break, a "motoring trip." As he sets out, Stevens has the opportunity to reflect on his unmoving loyalty to Lord Darlington, the meaning of the term "dignity, and his lost relationship with Miss Kenton, an ex-coworker. Stevens muses over lost opportunities, both with Miss Kenton and with his long-time employer, Lord Darlington.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle:
Pyle's distillation of many Robin Hood legends and ballads, modified to make them suitable for the child audience he sought to appeal to.

Ashenden, or the British Agent by William Somerset Maugham:
Inspired by Maughams's own experiences as a British secret agent in World War I, this series of stories features a fictional spy, John Ashenden, whose dangerous assignments entangle him with traitors, assassins and beautiful but treacherous women.

Father Brown Mysteries by G. K. Chesterton:
Father Brown is a fictional detective created by English novelist G. K. Chesterton, who stars in 52 short stories, later compiled in five books. Unlike the more famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown's methods tend to be intuitive rather than deductive

Ishmael by E. D. E. N. Southworth:
Ishmael Worth enters life motherless and poor, and despite the wishes of everyone around, he survives and flourishes in his paltry environment. His commitment to character and integrity and his singular focus on preserving his mother’s name give his life focus and purpose. His perseverance and determination to educate himself in law give him the opportunity to influence the highest levels of government. E.D.E.N. Southworth captures the rich panorama of sights and sounds in rural Maryland in the decades prior to the Civil War.
The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott:
Written at the tender age of 17, Alcott's first novel tells the story of the Italian orphan Edith Adelon and her life with the Hamilton family in England. Her gentleness, kindness and loving spirit help her to overcome the evil plots of the jealous Lady Ida and win the love and respect of the dashing Lord Percy.

The weather outside might be frightful, but the fire and my book will be utterly delightful! So take this season to enjoy a great book on a frosty winter's day!