A Christ­mas Carol

Pasatiempo - - Essays - By Brenna O’Brien

“Mar­ley was dead, to be­gin with. There is no doubt what­ever about that. The reg­is­ter of his burial was signed by the cler­gy­man, the clerk, the un­der­taker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for any­thing he chose to put his hand to. Old Mar­ley was as dead as a door­nail.”

The huge or­nately il­lus­trated copy of A Christ­mas Carol by Charles Dick­ens lay open on my lap; the detailed Vic­to­rian words of Dick­ens were as fa­mil­iar to me as the steep, rut­ted road lead­ing up to my house. I know ev­ery stone and ditch by heart. In A Christ­mas Carol, I can tell you where ev­ery joke and mem­ory lies.

Warm, gin­ger flames of the fire jump and spit, white-hot, cast­ing an af­fec­tion­ate glow on the small adobe room. Twelve peo­ple sit around the room, lean­ing up against the hard backs of wooden benches and lis­ten­ing in­tently to my words; siz­able bowls of scald­ing green chile stew are cra­dled in their laps. As fa­mil­iar to them as it is to me, a sense of se­cu­rity and re­lax­ation set­tles over the room.

Early in the evening, we trudged down the hill, our feet hit­ting the hard, cold ground, our breath cre­at­ing smoky clouds, and the skin on our cheeks turn­ing ruddy pink. As the door of my cousin’s house is pulled open, we are greeted with a burst of light and warmth con­trast­ing against the dark De­cem­ber night. As we en­ter the open kitchen, my old­est cousin al­ready is pour­ing my par­ents a glass of deep ruby-red wine. The oven heats the room and the scents of chile and sug­ared rum balls swirl in the air, in­tox­i­cat­ing the rev­el­ers. As the adults get louder and the wine starts to dwin­dle, the stew is ready. We all serve our­selves and head to the liv­ing room to set­tle around the fire and be­gin the read­ing. Jump­ing up and down, I vol­un­teer to read the first cou­ple of pages. I open the huge book in my lap and run my hand across the thick, glossy white page. I open my mouth to speak.

“Stave One.”

The room qui­ets and every­one set­tles back into their seats. I read on, turn­ing the tall white pages un­til my voice grows hoarse. I gin­gerly pass the book into my un­cle’s cal­loused hands and go to re­trieve my cool­ing bowl of soup. The book gets passed around the room, every­one tak­ing turns read­ing seg­ments of the stave. The soup is drained to the bot­tom of the bowls, and I go to pro­duce the cook­ies and bread from the kitchen. A loaf of pale glossy braided bread lies on the counter. “Zopft,” a tra­di­tional Bavar­ian sweet bread that is delectably fluffy and glazed, is one of my fa­vorite treats. From the liv­ing room I hear my mother’s voice drift­ing up to my ears, slowly read­ing each word clearly and af­fec­tion­ately.

“ ‘You will be haunted,’ re­sumed the Ghost, ‘by Three Spir­its.’ Scrooge’s coun­te­nance fell al­most as low as the Ghost’s had done.”

I cut the bread and place it dec­o­ra­tively on a plat­ter next to the rich rum balls and flat Le­bkuchen cook­ies. I walk slowly back to the liv­ing room, bal­anc­ing the wide tray atop my palm. As I set down the plat­ter, every­one reaches in to snatch up a de­li­cious snack. My aunt gets cof­fee for every­one and we set­tle in again, sleep­ily lis­ten­ing to the last cou­ple of pages. My dad and un­cle nod their heads as they try to stay awake. I’m curled up against my mom’s vel­vety shirt, my mind purring like a con­tented kit­ten.

My cousin slowly closes the book, and while still looking down, speaks.

“End of Stave One.”

Every­one stays put for a cou­ple mo­ments, con­tem­plat­ing the sit­u­a­tion at hand. It is time to get up and go back to real life again. It takes a minute to turn our weary 10 o’clock brains back on to full con­scious­ness. The room stirs as the group goes to get up and have an­other rum ball be­fore go­ing sep­a­rate ways. We will all be here next Sun­day do­ing the same thing, al­most like a Christ­mas stretch. We pull on our heavy coats and step out into the cloudy night. I pull my scarf tighter around my neck, long­ing for the warmth and laugh­ter of the fire in the house that is re­treat­ing into the dis­tance be­hind me. As I re­call the story, I imag­ine what it would be like to join Scrooge’s nephew in hol­i­day mer­ri­ment, and an im­age of the bright room filled with the laugh­ing, smil­ing faces of my fam­ily comes to mind. I feel our ex­pe­ri­ences, al­though more than a hun­dred years apart, are al­most one and the same.

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