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Willem Lange: A Christmas Tradition That Survived a Near-Death Experience

Montpelier

“At this festive season of the year ... it is more than usually desirable to make some provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands in want of common comforts, sir.”

Those words, and a few thousand others, begin to crowd my semiconscious each November, as the afternoons deepen (“... the city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark outside already”) and the frost begins to linger on the ground (“ ... damp, cold, bleak, biting weather”). My annual encounter with Charles Dickens is only weeks away. Time to begin getting ready.

I have no idea when I first read A Christmas Carol, but there’s no doubt when and where I first heard it: a couple of days before the start of Christmas vacation at the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1953. An emeritus professor of oratory, rhetoric and speech had been reading it every year — except for a couple of years during the Second World War — since 1908. He was closing in on 50 years when I first heard him. The annual “reading” was a really big deal. We got dates, dressed as if for church and expectantly filled the college chapel to hear him. I was absolutely captivated.

Most people are introduced to Dickens during, perhaps, sophomore year in high school, when they’re assigned A Tale of Two Cities. This is a mistake. If the intention of the teacher is to create an appreciation of Dickens, this is not the way to do it. The bathetic swan song of the soon-to-be-guillotined Sidney Carton — “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” — is an affront to our sensibilities. Dickens was often unabashedly sentimental, as in the death scene of Little Nell, for example, or the plight of the poor orphans Oliver Twist and Pip. This was a sop to the hoi polloi, who snapped up his stories as fast as he wrote them. But the result is that many readers today fail to pick up the humor in his stories — A Christmas Carol among them.

Everybody’s seen or heard the role of Scrooge played by, among many others, Alastair Sim, Fredric March, Lionel and John Barrymore and George C. Scott. And we all know the story of his redemption from an unmourned oblivion after death by a series of visits by helpful or threatening spirits. But all too few of us pick up the fun in the story — as when Scrooge confronts the face of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, in a door knocker, “with a dim light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar,” or, as when Marley’s spirit appears entire: “His body was transparent, so that Scrooge, looking at him, and through him, could see the two buttons on his coat behind. Scrooge had always heard it said that Marley had no bowels.”

Dickens, much oppressed by the financial demands of his own lifestyle and the constant pleas for help from his extended family, wrote the story in the fall of 1843 almost in desperation. I have a facsimile edition of his manuscript, much blotted, crossed out and amended. How a printer, working by candlelight, ever set it in type is an enduring mystery. It came out just before Christmas. He priced it too low (again, to please his indigent readers); it sold like hotcakes; and over the years he gave hundreds of readings, often as benefits. In 1867 he began a speaking tour of the United States, and read the story to President Andrew Johnson and company in the White House. Returning home exhausted, he never quite recovered, and died a couple of years later.

The story, as I have it, is that in 1904, Delbert Lean, a graduate student at the Emerson College of Oratory in Boston, was rummaging through a used-book store and came across a script used by Dickens’ stage prompter in his American performances. The script was the proverbial pearl of great price. Lean snapped it up, and beginning in 1908, when he had become a professor at the College of Wooster, used it in his annual readings. He estimated, near the end of his career, that he had performed it over 700 times. I remember thinking, the last time I heard him, near the end of his run, somewhere in the late ’50s, “Who’s going to carry on with this after he’s gone?”

I waited until 1975, when I finally got the confidence to try it. I typed the script from a 33-rpm recording of a Lean performance. I borrowed a set of tails from James Sykes, then the head of the department of music at Dartmouth, and invited about 30 people to a reading in our parlor in Hanover. Mother made a magnificent trifle — a “Tipsy Parson” — that we all shared afterward.

The response was so positive that the next year we did it for two nights, which meant two trifles and a tired wife. So we moved it to St. Thomas Church, where it’s been ever since, and will be again this Saturday. Last week it was in Montpelier, at Christ Church. It’s almost always done as a benefit — in Hanover for the Haven, and in Montpelier for the soup kitchen. It’s invariably a pleasure to channel the old professor and remember how he inflected each phrase.

Still, as December looms, the hour-long recitation grows to daunting proportions. Scrooge, “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” seems as impervious to my memory as he does to any hope of redemption. But Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s party — where Topper, pretending to be blind, peeks through his blindfold and chases the plump sister with the lace tucker all around the room — sets the stage for the wonderful moment when at last Scrooge awakens, sticks his head out the window into a brilliant Christmas morning, shouts, “Halloo, me fine fella!” and drags us all back into the fellowship of the human race.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.