Ebeneezer Scrooge: A Favorite Unwanted Creature

In a few days it will be Christmas again (it’s practically here, as the Grinch would say), so I wanted to do another seasonal
post. And Ebeneezer Scrooge popped into my head.

I love A Christmas Carol, and I’ve seen a fair number of the movies made of it. Originally my plan was to write about my favorite Scrooge, but I couldn’t pick. The closest I came was to narrow it down to Alistair Sim and Patrick Stewart. Very different, yes. I like Patrick Stewart’s energy, and the Sim version of A Christmas Carol spends a lot of time on how Scrooge became a miserable miser, so he’s covered a lot of ground by the end of the movie.

So I thought I’d go over some of my favorites, and what traits they highlighted in the character.

That means I’d start with old Scrooge McDuck himself. Mickey’s Christmas Carol was the first version of the story I was introduced to as a little kid. I recently rewatched it, packaged into a House of Mouse movie, and what stuck out to me was Scrooge’s vulnerability. When Goofy/Marley haunts him, Scrooge actually demonstrates some of the friendship he and Marley used to have, which you don’t usually see. He beeps Marley’s nose, to the ghost’s chagrin, and warns him not to fall down the stairs. When Marley falls (back into hell?), Scrooge looks genuinely sad, something notable that early in the story.

Continuing with the chronological theme, I’ll highlight Michael Caine, who was the second Scrooge I was acquainted with in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Despite what Miss Piggy claims, his is a very elegant, dignified Scrooge (no mean feat with all those puppets!). Even with Gonzo and Rizzo weighing him down as the Ghost of Christmas Past flies him through London, the audience doesn’t laugh as much at Scrooge’s indignity as it does the plight of the rat. He doesn’t lose his temper or really get rattled, so it’s all the more jarring the times he’s moved to tears. But the rest of his performance doesn’t feel remote or deadpan. And that takes great performance chops to pull off. Especially since it can’t be easy to act with the Muppets.

Third is Albert Finney, who is both the funniest and the most unpleasant Scrooge. That the movie is a musical is a major part of the humor… who can forget the number where Scrooge is so thrilled at a crowd of people thanking him that he fails to notice that they’re dancing on his grave? But he opens the movie flagrantly committing extortion, and otherwise victimizing the business owners in debt to him. That’s the only movie (that I’ve watched all the way through, I didn’t finish Scrooged) where the miser does something actually illegal. He’s unethical as all hell, but it’s interesting that in this adaptation, he’s a criminal.

I have to give George C. Scott some credit, even though I don’t particularly care for his version of A Christmas Carol. Nothing wrong with him. He’s a fine Scrooge, especially when you realize he was born in rural Virginia (and most Americans can’t do a good British accent). The rest of the movie just doesn’t grab me. What I do like about Scott’s performance, is that his Scrooge is one of the more pompous, whose path to humility, you can really see. He positively wilts under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s tongue-lashing, and never shows a shred of arrogance after that, even though he had been preening a moment before in response to Bob Cratchit toasting him. It’s the road to Damascus.


Now Alistair Sim. He’s probably the most realistic Scrooge in the bunch. Or at least the most human. And that’s because this adaptation lets us see Scrooge’s fall from grace in much greater detail. He’s tempted away from the benevolent Fezziwig by Mr. Jorkin (dropped in from David Copperfield), an embezzler. His sister Fan dies giving birth to Fred, which is implied in the books, but here, blaming his nephew for the loss of his sister, the strained relationship makes more sense. So we feel we really got to know and understand this Scrooge in a way the movies, and even the book, usually don’t allow. So we’re all that much happier when he reforms.

Finally… Patrick Stewart. His Scrooge has a lot of energy, and enthusiasm, no matter what the scene is. You can tell he loves arguing with the stockbrokers, in the opening, and he vigorously defends Fezziwig when the Ghost of Christmas Past ironically asks if his old employer deserves so much praise. This energy makes him more sinister during the earlier parts of the movie, and funnier and more joyful when he’s reformed. It’s terrifying when Scrooge scares the carolers away from his business doorstep. It’s hilarious when he gets into a snowball fight with them on Christmas day and heartwarming when he dances with Fred’s wife. This also is probably pretty faithful to the book, because Scrooge is probably not that old. When Marley died, Belle, Scrooge’s old love, had a new baby, and they’re typically shown as being of similar age. So, while Scrooge probably doesn’t look good due to his miserly habits, he’s not a wizened old man yet.

I know there are a lot of adaptations out there I haven’t covered (like the animated versions), due to length, preference, or ignorance (beware!) so I’d be very interested to hear what you think. Sound off in the comments about your favorites, and why.

And this Christmas, as my family often does, why not raise a glass to Mr. Scrooge, the founder of the feast, and everyone’s favorite unwanted creature.


Nativity Scenes

It’s the Christmas season again, and I wanted to talk about something a little different… something that has a lot of fond memories for me, but also has a lot of memories that topple into comedy or near disaster. I’m talking about my Fontanini Nativity scene. Every year, around the first Sunday of Advent, getting it out and putting it up (often before the tree) is one of my favorite parts of the holiday.

At my parents’ house, a few years ago

My maternal grandmother started buying the pieces when I was first born. Now we have a pretty extensive collection, although she stopped buying the pieces around the time I was in eighth grade or so.

All of the memories I want to describe happened before that, though.

The first one came from when I was maybe four or five. My little brother was being potty-trained, and went through a phase where he would try to flush anything he found that was brown down the toilet. The figures of the Magi were mostly brown…. But, as it turns out, Fontanini makes products that stand up quite well to being soaked in Bleach. No lasting harm done.

My second memory happened when I was about eight. My mother had just started to let me make my own tea, and my grandmother had just sent “Bethlehem birds,” a new piece for the Nativity scene. And my brother, now in kindergarten, wanted to pretend that he was one of the birds. So, he and my mother marched around the living room and dining room squawking like barnyard fowl, and just as I was about to leave the kitchen with a very full mug of hot tea, they rounded the corner into the kitchen.

Finally, there was the following year. It was our first Christmas with our dog. She was a year old, and one evening, got wound up. She grabbed the towel we kept under the Nativity scene in her teeth and started to pull on it. I yelled for her to stop, and she did, so then I took the baby Jesus out of the manger and showed it to her. 

“This is the baby Jesus,” I told her. “Don’t bother the baby.”

She licked him and padded off to her crate in the dining room. She never disturbed the nativity scene again.

I have other memories of course, but those three stick out. Maybe because of the childhood element, or maybe because they’re something I can laugh at now (even though for 2 out of 3, I didn’t at the time). Either way, I’m glad I have them, and that I still have the scene now and can make more memories with it.


Grace and The Good Place

*spoilers ahead*

How did a show this intelligent get greenlit?

In 2017 many Lutherans, like myself, were excited for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, a celebration that just closed with Reformation Sunday 2018. It makes me wish I’d been introduced to the TV show The Good Place earlier, because it has so many applicable points to theology. Particularly, in relation to Lutheran theology.

In the world of The Good Place, the secular afterlife is based on an elaborate point system (a social credit score of sorts), a few arbitrary rules, and no mercy. Mercy is essential for the points necessary to earn a ticket to the Good Place, but the afterlife shuns it. Open a door for someone and earn 30 points. Buy a tabloid magazine and lose 75. If you’re French or from Florida, you automatically go to the Bad Place no matter what sort of life you lead. It’s the sort of system that kept Martin Luther pestering the monastery’s confessor night and day.

The Good Place system posts the almighty figure, in this case the Judge rather than God, in a very Puritan, up-religion way. It evokes the old sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” where humans’ salvation is a spiderweb over a fire, weighed down by a brick representing sin. In the context of the show, though, the Judge is less angry than apathetic to the situation. It is a system where everything is on the individual to please the higher power with no chance for mercy or grace. And for Luther, it’s even worse, because in the world of The Good Place, farting is actually a sin (you lose 7.5 points). (Famously, Brother Martin was told by his exasperated confessor, “You’re confessing every time you fart. Come back when you’ve committed a real sin.”)

As grim as the real world idea of that system is, it’s a testament to the show’s writing that it isn’t unremittingly bleak in the philosophical ramifications. Although, it does hint at it. The character Chidi, for instance, has a breakdown after learning about the Good Place system (and his impending damnation). And honestly, small blame to him.

A personal aside… I get annoyed by the notion from my acquaintances and friends who aren’t religious or, who are but aren’t Lutheran, that the notion of grace is just a security blanket to make us feel better, but I can’t deny that God’s mercy is a very comforting concept. But it’s still a challenge. Knowing that we cannot of our own will, please God, we are called to still live good lives and not use grace as an excuse to do whatever we want (see the horror novel Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner for more details).

There’s still about half a season left of #3 to go of The Good Place, though, and it has the potential to be renewed. I look forward to seeing how the philosophy and theology develop from here, especially given that forgiveness and mercy earn Good Place points, but the architects and Judge don’t seem to value them in practice.


Halloween Costume Recycling

Not made out of wood

I love Halloween. It’s one of my favorite holidays.

Costumes were always an integral part of my Halloween experience. I think everyone who has dressed up for Halloween started as a pumpkin; I did, anyway. And my costumes were usually homemade, or had some element of it. I think, in part, it was because my parents thought Halloween costumes were too expensive for something meant to be worn once a year, but then… they’re both just crafty people. My dad made a Jack O’Lantern out of plywood with a saw and a chisel one year.

Anyway. Looking back on my old costumes, I didn’t really notice many trends, with one exception. When I was seven, I dressed up as the Bride of Frankenstein. My mother made me a long white shift and a white outer layer that was essentially a sheet with a head hole. For the next four years, I found some way to reuse that outfit until I finally outgrew it. The next year, I used it to be Isis, the Egyptian goddess. Then one of Dracula’s wives. Then an evil spirit. And so on.

For three of those years, my little brother dressed up as different dinosaurs, also reusing the same cardboard body, but with a different mask each year. Then it fell apart, and he wore his Spiderman pajamas as a costume. He finished his trick-or-treat years by going as the Beatles: Ringo, George (in a Sgt. Pepper-inspired outfit), John, and finally Paul, echoing his look from the 2004-05 tour.

I don’t have pictures of these costumes any more (they were all on my dad’s old film camera, rest its mechanical soul), but I do remember how much fun it was to put them all together. It was a real process… the planning, putting together the materials, the actual process, and then actually getting to wear them on Halloween night.

Where the recycling element came in… I’m not sure. Maybe it was just an extra challenge. Or maybe we figured it would save a step the following year. It definitely made things more interesting.

What are your favorite costumes? Did any of you use some variation of the same costume year after year?


Character Study: Sirius Black


This is how I imagined Sirius looking around the events of Goblet of Fire.

When I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I fell in love with Sirius Black. Literally. Let’s just say that books 5-7 were an emotionally turbulent time for me.

Since my husband and I are working our way through CinemaWins’ Harry Potter videos, I decided to go back and take a look at some parts of the series, beginning with my favorite character.

The first thing, I think, to say about Sirius, is that, like many figures in the Potterverse, he’s very gray. He was never a Death Eater, and he never bought into the ideology of pureblood-supremacy. He doesn’t even show that many signs of human-supremacy. (I know, I know… Kreacher…. but I don’t think that was necessarily speciesism. I think he just disliked that particular elf.)

The biggest blot on his character, and yes, it’s a doozy, is his prank on Snape. It was a horrible thing to do.

But I don’t think he was trying to kill Snape. If he’d really wanted to, he would have come up with a way that wouldn’t have involved making Lupin culpable. I think, like Lupin said, Sirius was just trying to scare Snape. As Padfoot, Sirius was strong and tough enough to keep Lupin in check and protect Wormtail. Maybe those adventures made him think Lupin’s wolf-state wasn’t as dangerous as it really was. We won’t ever know for sure, but that’s my theory. And from what we later see of Sirius, thinking things through and impulse control aren’t necessarily his strongest suits (like attacking the Fat Lady, which is much less excusable than his confronting of Pettigrew in the middle of a crowded Muggle street).

Also, since I’m on the subject, and not to victim blame, but… Snape. Snape. Severus. If one of the boys who is usually mean to you tells you to do something dangerous… maybe don’t do that thing! It’s kind of like reading the incantation off the scroll in the creepy tomb, or something. Coincidentally… Sirius’ darkest moment might mark the beginning of James Potter cleaning up his act. Think about it. Snape’s Worst Memory takes place in their fifth year; James saves Snape from Lupin in their sixth year. James deflates his head enough to start dating Lily in their seventh year. Hell.

Anyway… let’s talk about Sirius’ pedigree. Given the sheer number of genocidal maniacs in the Black family tree, I think it’s safe to say that there was some kind of mental illness running, no, galloping, through the lineage, made worse by in-breeding, and sadly, there is no wizarding psychiatry. His parents wanted him to be Death Eater, after all, and were thrilled when his brother joined up. (And even though Regulus turned out to be a surprise white-sheep, what Regulus did to Kreacher is still incredibly unethical. Even though he had the noblest of intentions.)

Back to Sirius… given the family history, and the fact that he was locked up in Azkaban for thirteen years, it’s probably nothing short of a miracle that he’s only slightly unhinged in Book 3. Who could keep all of their sanity in that situation? Even though he does fly off the handle and stab the Fat Lady, break Ron’s leg, and stalk Harry, the amount of control he shows in later books is nothing short of heroic.

Even in the midst of developing an implied drinking problem, he doesn’t slug Fred Weasley when Fred lashes out while they’re waiting for news of Arthur Weasley after Nagini’s attack in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He also doesn’t just not hit Fred, he doesn’t do anything violent. He doesn’t break a glass to calm himself down first, he just takes a few seconds to collect himself and declares that everyone in the room needs a drink. That shows real growth. Book 3 Sirius probably couldn’t have done that.

On a similar note, I hear that the fact that movie Sirius punches Lucius Malfoy instead of hexing him is criticized, but that’s totally in character. Also, just from a layperson’s perspective, if you’re mad enough, it might be more satisfying to use physical force instead of magic sometimes. And I don’t really like movie Sirius all that much. Gary Oldman is a fine actor, but I think Michael Wincott would have been a better choice. I always pictured Sirius as sounding like him. But they nailed that part of his character.

I don’t blame Gary Oldman for being upset that his character was getting killed off, especially after barely knowing freedom. But he died finally out of the dungeon that was Grimmauld Place, and in the thrill of battle. It’s oddly fitting, even though I really wish he’d been able to stick around, and not just because of my pubescent infatuation.


Bread in Hell

Inge’s punishment

There’s a fairy tale I read when I was about eight or nine, and it has really stayed with me over the years. It’s not one that comes up very much… “The Girl Who Stepped on a Loaf.”

I had to Google its origins… originally, it was written by Hans Christian Andersen.

The gist of the story is that there was a little girl named Inge, who was the most beautiful person in the world. People would come from all over just to stare at her. Eventually she was “hired” by a rich family, but they didn’t have her do any work. They just dressed her up and continued to display her. Needless to say, this ruined her character, and she became known for cruelty as much as her beauty. But nothing changed in the way she was treated. Then the rich family sent her to visit her mother with a loaf of bread as a gift. It had rained before Inge started the journey, and she soon came to a puddle. She used the bread meant for her mother as a stepping stone, was frozen to it, and sank into Hell, where she remained, stuck in the act of stepping on the loaf. On Earth, the people who stared at and spoiled Inge laughed at her, and used her as a cautionary tale to frighten their own children into good behavior. For years, she suffered there, learning her lesson over and over, wishing something could be different. Only one little girl expressed pity for her, and prayed for her to receive mercy. As a result of those prayers, Inge was released from Hell, and changed into a bird.

I could come at this fairy tale from so many angles… the objectification, the self-satisfied blaming, the theology… but I’ll only come at it from two.

I’ll start with the blaming. That’s always been kind of a sticking point for me. Probably because of the school I went to. One of my history teachers insisted that the passengers aboard the Lusitania were at fault for being on the ship, and by implication, deserved to be torpedoed. When one of my English classes had a segment on Greek mythology, the teacher made us all agree that Persephone deserved to be kidnapped and forced to be Hades’ wife for daring to stop to pick flowers in a field.

What the hell is wrong with them? Seriously.

Anyway… Inge is clearly somewhat culpable in her fate. She used her mother’s food as a stepping stone, which is indefensible. But, she didn’t get to that point in her life without help. And even the people who liked her in life, her mother, and foster family, don’t look at their contributions to her fault at all. They only say “oh, if only she hadn’t been such a bad person” not “gee, maybe we should have treated her like a person instead of a painting and actually disciplined her.” In fact, the only person who brings that up in the entire story is Inge herself, while in Hell. She wishes she’d been punished for her misdeeds on Earth, so that she could have learned better and not stepped on the loaf.

You could frame it, as her not wanting to accept blame onto herself, but she does condemn herself. And she is right. She was not raised. And as soon as she became a liability, the people who’d professed to love her, didn’t hesitate to throw her under the anachronistic bus. It evokes celebrity culture, definitely, but it’s also a sad truth about people. They don’t want to admit when they’ve been wrong, and it’s easy to throw a mess into someone else’s lap, especially if they can’t defend themselves. It’s even a joke in my family. If something goes wrong, we’ll laugh and say, “It’s Aunt Cathy’s fault, because she’s not here.” Dark humor, I guess.

And now for the theology.

What comes to mind clearly is Jesus’ words to the disciples, post Ressurection. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:23).”

That’s weighty responsibility, and we see if played out in Andersen’s fairy tale. When Inge is condemned by everyone who had admired her in life, she is literally damned. But when the child asks for forgiveness, she is forgiven.

The retain and forgive is honestly pretty disturbing… how many people do we neglect to forgive in an average day? I work in a call center, and my forgiveness numbers aren’t that great, if I’m brutally honest. And think of other cultural examples of this forgiveness admonition. The Tom and Jerry cartoon “Heavenly Puss” asserts that Tom will go to hell unless Jerry forgives him, and it takes Jerry a long time to understand the stakes. Tom’s terror is palpable.

But back to the fairy tale. The fact that Inge’s salvation comes from a child is also theologically significant. This time from the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus admonishes the disciples to become like a child (18:3). To humble themselves, become the lowest thing… and that’s what the forgiving child is. She is expected to sit politely while self-satisfied adults tell her scary stories to keep her in line, but she still has pity for someone in a worse position than her. Unlike countless others before her, she doesn’t kick down. She is this story’s Christ figure.

This story, which is a cautionary tale against pride and vanity, still subverts the formula. The finger shakers aren’t the heroes, and the villain-protagonist learns something that no one else does. And the little girl, the child, holds the insight that everyone else lacks. When someone goes wrong, we shouldn’t just take delight in their wrongness and make fun of them. In fact, blaming them only, and not examining yourself in the process, is to engage in another wrong. We are called to forgive, even though it is incredibly difficult.  Could any of us stand up to the scrutiny of making our worst mistake a cautionary bedtime story? Without the option of forgiveness, where would any of us be?


Postcards, Past and Present

My dad had two cousins who traveled a lot. And they always sent my brother and I plenty of postcards from all over the world. Then, when I was a sophomore in college, one of them died. Postcards started up after a while, but the gap prompted me to start sending postcards of the kids in my life.

I recently received the Mammoth Site postcard, and the Cinderella card has not been sent yet..

It’s been fun, if occasionally difficult, to send postcards. I say difficult, because a lot of places that I remember having entire racks of postcards when I was a kid (like the zoo), now have one style at the cash register. If that. Art museums seem to be the only venue that have not reduced their inventory of postcards. But as I don’t go very many places, I’ve fallen onto collections of Disney postcards. They’re actually quite useful. My little cousins love them, and I once sent the Speaker of the House a Dumbo card (tee hee).

And that, finally, brings me to the point. Postcards have a fun, nostalgic history, but seem to have largely become purely utilitarian in recent months. Probably the last postcard most people received was the reminder from their dentist that it’s time to schedule their six-month checkup, or something of that nature. My dad is apparently one of only a few private citizens who still actually buys postcard stamps at his local post office (I use forever stamps on mine).

It’s true that in the Internet age, less actual mail is being sent (and no, I the Internet blogger will not rail against Facebook, Twitter, or email), but why not send more postcards, at least? They can’t be much longer than a text, given how small the allotted space is, and they cost less than $0.40 to send! The recipient can even use them for decoration if the picture is particularly appealing.

Then there are the memories and the appeal of having something tactile when looking back on the good times of previous years. I love scrolling through photos, but having something other than a mouse or touch pad is nice, too.

Or you could just take my Dumbo example and run with it, and annoy your least favorite politician, if nostalgia and vacation pics aren’t your cup of tea.