I’d like you to imagine a dark economic time — tough to do, I know, but bear with me. An ambitious but struggling author needs some quick cash. He’s got a debt to pay off. He drops by an editor’s office and asks if there’s anything he can do with a quick turn-around time for cash upfront.
“Well,” says the editor — and here you might imagine a particularly surly Ed Asner playing the part — we have a need for a Christmas story. You know, something just oozing with the spirit of the holiday. Sweeten it plenty and spice it up with nutmeg, if you know what i mean, because people like their Christmas stories gooey. Oh, and have it on my desk by Monday because it’s nearly Christmas as it is.
The author blanches. The author quails. He’s no hack. He’s a serious writer. He raises a mirror to society and hopes that in catching its reflection, society will realize its flaws and aspire to change. He wants to entertain readers, sure, but he also wants to make them think and more, to act. A piece of sentimental claptrap like this — a Christmas story, of all things — makes him shudder. What nonsense. Christmas is a tired tradition and on the wan, anyway. Bah, humbug, he says. It’s beneath him.
Yet, the debt that must be paid, the responsibilities that must be shouldered, and more — a whiff of nutmeg from his own past — makes him reconsider. Is Christmas so bad? When people are more likely to throw a few coins into a pot for the poor, gather with friends and family in the warmth of their homes, and count their blessings? Can’t he find some bit of yuletide spirit in himself to bring such a story to life?
He mutters something noncommittal, takes his advance, and leaves. His walk home takes him past a cemetery, and his imagination is sparked. What, he thinks — what if a Christmas story had a climax in a graveyard? What if — and here, I think he must have laughed sardonically — what if the holiday tale he writes is ghost story, a dark and forbidding tale? What if — best of all! — What if, fixed at the center of this disposable feel-good fare is the meanest, least lovable of heroes? He’ll turn this whole thing back on that editor, he thinks, and the usual readers of such treacle. He’ll write a Christmas story that gives small children nightmares, and while he’s at it, a story with a sharp political message. He hurries home to write the most famous Christmas story of all time.
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, this is a terrific story about writing, and, though obviously embellished by me, true at the core. It is, of course, the story behind Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, one of the stories that has been so installed in the consciousness of Christmas-celebrating cultures that we don’t realize the preposterousness of the vision and the brilliance of its execution. It’s worth thinking back and appreciating what old Boz did.