To listen to today’s reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the season of Advent – which this year encompasses the four weeks leading up to December 25 – we’re looking at classic Christmas movies and how they might connect us to the miracle of God choosing to become a human being.
Aside from the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, what’s the most celebrated Christmas story of all time?
It’s a slam-dunk. Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol has been capturing the hearts of readers and audiences almost non-stop since its publication in 1843.
Dickens tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a self-centered penny-pincher who spreads misery wherever he goes. On Christmas Eve his life is upended by four supernatural visitors – Jacob Marley, a deceased business associate, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. Together they open Scrooge’s eyes to the wretchedness of his current life. Those who know him will no doubt feel happy when he dies. Is it too late for this lost soul to become a different person?
So far been there have been at least 71 different screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol.
Take your choice. You can go for heavy drama (George C. Scott’s acclaimed performance as Scrooge in 1984), snarky comedy (Bill Murray’s turn in Scrooged), or the Disney touch (Mickey’s Christmas Carol). A veritable Who’s Who of actors have portrayed the selfish miser, including Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer, Albert Finney, Christopher Plummer, Jack Palance, Henry “the Fonz” Winkler, and Jim Carrey.
In more recent years, the “bad guy” in Dickens’ story has increasingly been a self-centered woman. That includes Vanessa Williams as a cold-hearted diva, Tori Spelling as an egomaniacal talk show host, and Susan Lucci – the baddest of all the soap opera bad girls – as the disreputable manager of a department store.
There’s also The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Dennis the Menace Christmas, Bah Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas, and movie-length versions featuring Winnie the Pooh, the Smurfs, and the Flintstones. There’s also An All-Dogs Christmas Carol, which sounds really cute but turned out to be a dog.
After Matthew McConaughey starred in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, the folks at the Hallmark Channel defiantly countered with Boyfriends of Christmas Past. There’s even a Dickens spoof where one of the ghosts decides to go rogue and not confront Scrooge at all.
So which version deserves to be the definitive representation of Dickens’ masterpiece?
For more than 70 years, critics and audiences have raved about Scrooge, the 1951 British film starring Alistair Sim. It was renamed A Christmas Carol for distribution in America. Sim was considered an unusual choice. He was famous as a comedy actor in England. Many wondered if he could bring sufficient swagger and menace to the role of Ebeneezer.
He succeeded brilliantly. Every succeeding portrayal of Scrooge has been weighed against Sim’s bravura performance.
We feel drawn into Scrooge’s tortured psyche when he says to the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, “I fear you more than any other specter I’ve seen. But even in my fear I must tell you, I am too old! I cannot change!”
Those are words we hear all too often from “people of a certain age.” You may even have spoken those words yourself.
As older men and women try to keep pace in our fast-moving culture, those who are anxious about new technologies and rapid change sometimes shut down. They embrace the truism, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” So they stop growing. They pray that their church will still sing some of their favorite Christmas carols this month, and hope a grandchild will be nearby when they forget how to log onto their computer.
According to a 2017 AARP survey, more than 50% of adults over the age of 40 admitted that most weeks they don’t learn anything new. That means they don’t open a reference book, try to master a new skill, or even do a simple Google search.
But there is no natural law that says learning must come to an end during the second half of life. Research confirms that our brains have the capacity to continually develop new neural pathways all the way to life’s finish line – if we are willing to challenge ourselves to keep growing. That means that it’s not too late to start a new hobby, learn to play a new musical instrument, or master a new language.
Dr. Rachel Wu, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, points out that “adults can borrow lessons from childhood, when cognitive growth and learning are a given. We say babies and children absorb new information like sponges. This sponginess is partially because…they commit to learning, and they get encouragement from teachers and caregivers.”
The bottom line is that if older adults place themselves in the presence of fellow learners and/or a committed coach, they can learn just like children.
Dr. Wu discovered in her research that “many older adults thought they could barely walk a mental mile, but they completed a triathlon.”
So it’s time to stop believing the lie that you’re too old to change. It’s not too late to heal. It’s not too late to forgive. No matter what your age or circumstances, it’s not too late to abandon yourself to God – to find out through personal experience that God can actually be trusted with all your problems and cares.
That’s the enduring power of Dickens’ timeless story. Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning overwhelmed by regret. He now knows his life has been an utter waste. But suddenly he is buoyed by hope. Perhaps it’s not too late after all to have a new kind of life.
Watch how Alistair Sim navigates that roller coaster of emotions in these final minutes of Scrooge: A Christmas Carol Scrooge’s Transformation – YouTube. Of particular delight are the reactions of Kathleen Harrison, who plays the charwoman Mrs. Dilber. Up to this point she has experienced Scrooge only as a monster. His over-the-top joy at the chance to start over sends her screaming down the stairs.
Film critic Jeremy Arnold points out that when Tiny Tim’s father asks, “What would make Mr. Scrooge take leave of his senses suddenly?” Tiny Tim has the answer: “Christmas!”
It’s the perfect line.
Better still, it’s something that can actually happen to you and me, as well.
To listen to today’s reflection as a podcast, click here.