Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Christmas Carol

This is the other time of the year when my OD kicks into gear ... OD being obsessive disorder in the sense that I may be obsessive, but gawd dammit I am not compulsive ... the one time to produce the course catalog at MRU (that major research university for which I toil for wages) and this time to produce the annual Christmas Party that my roommate and I offer up in celebration of the "season" or by way of marking the solstice or for the love of Santa Claus. This is the 19th time in 21 years that I have been the host of this party, in various combinations with various people over the years. The roommate aforementioned is working from home today, but he just made a brief appearance to prepare a cup of hot peppermint chocolate in order to ward off the truly cold cold that has enveloped us here. So I will take advantage of this big mug of chocolate to blog a wee, not having posted for over two weeks.

I am on vacation for three weeks ... the present week to prepare for the big party and then the following two weeks because MRU is closed for the winter break. Of course, I will read email every day, and I have a series of very compressed one-pagers that I volunteered to create ready for day one of that truly New Year, 2009. There is no rest from work in modern work world ... but whatever pissiness I might have had about that in the past pales before the indubitable fact that having a job is something for which one must give thanks as the dubya era slithers into raw and uncompromising memory.

My good friend Roy and I attended for the 13th consecutive year the American Conservatory Theater's production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. What a romp. This is the new version, that meaning that this is only the third season for the present version. There is not much to say other than that the performance, and Roy's and my outing to it, always marks the beginning of Christmas, and it is such a sheer unadulterated joy. So rather than review, I will reproduce below a little piece that I wrote a number of years ago on Scrooge.

But first, a few notes ...

I mentioned in my last post that I did not know the issues behind the Thai disturbances. It turns out ... and I thank my good friend Frobisher for pointing this out ... that the reason that very few, including folks like me who have a long background in Southeast Asia, know the background is because of a deep state-run plot to hide it from the world. It is all about the monarchy and its role in covering for the elite who benefit from the rigid caste-like character of modern Thai society. The lèse-majesté laws in Thailand are ludicrously out-of-line with its projection as a democratic country, and foreign journalists who run afoul will find themselves unceremoniously booted out. It is only The Economist which, albeit without a byline, had the guts to publish the facts ... here and here. And now, after years of disturbances reminiscent of the Republican riots in Florida in 2000, the elite classes finally have their guy in power. Perhaps the peasants have had enough, and they in turn will march off to the airport. If they do, believe that the government will not be so chary of force as it was when the housewives of privilege were the opposition.

And then, in a whoddathunkit moment, tossed shoes are the thing of the day. In his interviews afterward, dubya looked like the broken lump of trash in the dustbin of history that he is. Street art at its finest. My friend Bob Ostertag, who blogs at the Huffington Post, has a Throw My Shoes Too project. Check it out.

So on to Scrooge ... and my thoughts thereof from 1997 (give or take a year or two).

Bah, Humbug!
The illustration is by Ronald Searle, from A Christmas Carol, 1960.

It is no surprise that Christmas brings out the inner curmudgeon as surely as it brings out the inner child. Most of the year, I cultivate a certain, shall we say, gay curmudgeon in myself. But I stow it away come Christmastime. Others find Christmas to be the ideal season during which to display their humbuggery, taking ample opportunity to guffaw and harrumph.

The greatest of the humbuggers is, of course, Scrooge. And in Scrooge we find a proof of my thesis here because his story is the central myth of the Victorian Christmas as we know, remember, and practice it. (Both this year and last, my friend Roy took me to the American Conservatory Theater's exquisite performance of "A Christmas Carol." If you live in San Francisco, by all means make plans to see it!) In other words, is it not curious that this great Christmas story addresses humbuggery, even if humbuggery meets its match.

Humbuggery, then, is as much Christmas as sleigh bells and wassail. But, the humbugger is not even so much our alter ego as our familiar. He participates with us as we play our Christmas games. He searches Christmas out so as to have a venue to humbugger. The twinkle of lights inspires him as it does us. And, most importantly, he understands and believes that behind Christmas is something greater than what stands before us.

Modern humbuggers often ramble on about the commercialization of Christmas. Of course, they would equally rail against the commercialization of life itself in a larger sense, but that would undermine the special holiday pleasure of taking Santa Claus's name in vain. Modern humbuggers often snicker at all the lights and sweetmeats and specificities of Christmas, averring that it is all hollow or meaningless. But they too line up, demanding, "We all want our figgie pudding" just as do dedicated Christmas sprites.

Because humbuggers merely celebrate the season of warmth and giving in a different fashion ... and we must give them the same courtesy and acceptance as we give all the various Christmastime celebrations. Let them grumble by the raging fire, and pass them another mug of wassail.

Now, some will say that they truly hate Christmas, perhaps because of some childhood trauma, or because they despise what they see as its phoniness, or because the season as we presently enjoy it devotes insufficient time to religion or ideology.

There are two arguments we can make here. The first is that this is a season whose very message transcends the specific religion or ideology or practice to become a greater reflection upon the qualities which draw us together, which make us better people. That this celebration is associated with a specific tradition or culture is no surprise, nor should it be. Surely it is a great social good that we carve out a season of the year to remind ourselves directly that there are greater goods and larger purposes, that goodwill is a facet of human being to be cultivated. The humdrum of our everyday lives does not provide the same collective venue as a designated season for higher reflection. So we use the opportunity of an ancient, syncretic tradition to remind ourselves of the currents of warmth and kindness that course through even the Scroogiest of us all.

The second argument, not unconnected to the first, is that all is not what it seems. We might say that the phoniness of Christmas masks its inevitable ability to inspire. We might say that the bright lights enable the Scrooge to contemplate human kindness while attention is focused elsewhere. We might say that the "phony" displacement of attention from the intractable problems of this terrible species to which we belong enables reflection otherwise unattainable. We might just say simply that a pause for joy is good for you, so take your medicine whether you like it or not.

Which, I think brings us back to poor Scrooge. He was cured of his humbuggery by ghosts who scared him into jolliness. We often think of poor Tiny Tim, or the efficacy of ghosts, or even the terrible effects of the promise of inevitable death. But I say, think back on Scrooge. Were not the ghosts creations of his own mind? Did he not reflect upon his own life, his own choices and the effects of those choices on those around him? Did he not find Christmas within?

So Scrooge is just like our putative humbugger ... a man of goodwill and joy unwilling for whatever reasons to express those qualities in the very season which epitomizes them. So the next time your mean Uncle Al or your surly Aunt Bess grouses at all the trouble, hand them a glass of Christmas ale with a smile and a pat on the back.

And say this: Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

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