A Christmas Carol
“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.
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.