Column: It’s time for old Ebenezer to visit again

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Scrooge and the Ghost of Marley by Arthur Rackham, pen, ink and watercolor, from Dickens's A Christmas Carol, 1915.

For the Valley News
Published: 12/3/2019 10:10:20 PM

Every year, as the right-hand side of my diary shows busy December encroaching on dark November, an even darker shadow looms between me and the utter relaxation of Christmas Day. It’s my old friend — and yet nemesis — Ebenezer Scrooge, emerging once again from the attic of my consciousness, where he’s been stored for the past year.

In 1875-76, Charles Dickens made his second and final tour of America and, though in failing health, gave about 400 performances of his writing — among them, of course, A Christmas Carol. Early in the 1900s, a young Harvard graduate student of rhetoric, browsing a Cambridge bookstore, came across a prompter’s script that Dickens had used during his tour. The graduate student became a professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio (my alma mater) and for 50 years recited the story for packed houses in the college chapel. I saw the performance at least twice, the last in 1959, when the old fellow was finally about to give it up, and lamented that when he was gone, there’d be no one to carry that baton.

Turns out there was. In 1975, I borrowed a set of tails from Professor Sykes of the Music Department at Dartmouth, picked up a truckload of folding chairs from church, and dared to read the same script for an invited audience in our living room, hewing as closely as possible to the way I’d heard it.

This coming Sunday, Dec. 8, I’ll be reciting it for the 44th consecutive year — now, as for many years, at St. Thomas Church in Hanover. I’m shooting for 50 years, like my predecessor, but he started much younger; I’ll be 90 if I make it. Each year it gets a tiny bit more difficult to do, physically. But each year it also feels like a more precious story, and a more important message for us to hear. Because there’s at least a little bit of Scrooge in each of us, and in our nation’s current predicament, there seems to be a greater-than-ever need to exorcise it.

An example: I pay my church pledges by automatic deductions from my checking account. But every first Sunday of the month, the cash (“loose offering”) dropped into the collection plates goes to the so-called Discretionary Fund, which a volunteer church member administers for the benefit of the less favored among us, giving out vouchers for, among other things, bus tickets, gasoline, rent or food from the food shelf. Each first Sunday before church I debate whether to put an extra bill into a handy pocket, and as I hear the usher’s footsteps coming up behind me, think, I help to support the prisons and the workhouses, and those who are badly off must go there. That’s pure Scrooge. But in the next couple of seconds I do the right thing. The one who has two coats must give to him who has none.

Scrooge can be forgiven for his miserly nastiness. Orphaned, sent away to school, bereft of family, disappointed in love, he’s turned his gift for handling money into a closely guarded fortune. After rudely dismissing the gentlemen seeking a Christmas Eve donation “to buy the poor some meat and drink and means of warmth,” he “return(s) to his labours with a much improved opinion of himself.”

We might similarly be forgiven for slightly Scroogelike behavior this time of year, when it seems that every organization and charity in our world is pleading for our financial help. They vary widely, but they’re all deserving — from the local animal shelter to the newspaper delivery person who’s had a hard year; from the home health care and hospice that helped my wife so much in her last years to the Vermont River Conservancy; from Heifer International to the Vermont Food Bank. Even Wikipedia asked for help today, though quite politely. You can’t help ’em all, but you can’t be Scrooge, either.

The audience donations from this weekend’s A Christmas Carol performance in Hanover will go, as usual, to one of my favorites, the Haven homeless shelter in White River Junction. And my son will be visiting from Arkansas to see the old man safely home. I’ll never forget one ride home to Montpelier in my truck on slippery Interstate 89. Near Randolph, late at night, I began to spin in circles. Finally I managed to drive into the V-shaped median. In four-wheel drive, I was able to back up a foot, turn the wheels sharply, and drive back up onto the highway. Mother was with me. “Imagine explaining ourselves to the state police if they’d had to come,” she said. “You were in a tux, I was in a gown, there was $2,000 in cash in a basket on the floor, and the leg of lamb in back that I picked up at the Co-op looked a lot like a human leg.”

She had a point. Can you imagine a trooper trying to figure out our duds, and how we got so much money performing Christmas carols? I still see her watching at the back of the church during the reading.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.




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