In Dead Poets’ Society

Remembering the fun I had interviewing Charles Dickens last December, I thought I’d have a chat with Clement C. Moore, famous for giving us the beloved Christmas poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (aka The Night Before Christmas).

It was a tough interview. I found Mr. Moore unresponsive and hard to pin down. He answered questions in as few words as possible and offered nothing I didn’t ask directly. I tried to draw him out, but it was like talking to a dill pickle. (If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know what I mean.)

I wasn’t happy with the post I wrote, but it was due in the morning, the hour was late, I was tired, and I didn’t want to start over with a new topic.

Yawning, I clicked “Publish Post,” comforting myself with the thought that no one reads this stuff anyway, and went to bed.

What happened next was rather surprising. I’ll let a guest blogger, the late Henry Livingston, Jr., tell the story in his own, distinctive style. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did when I found it on my computer, put there by means unknown.

A Visit From the Author of ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’

‘Twas twelve nights before Christmas, and all through the blog,
Not a reader was stirring; each slept like a log.
I’d crafted tomorrow’s entry with care,
Set it to post, then retired to my lair.

Then out of the darkness I heard a strange sound,
Flung open my eyes and in bed I turned ‘round
To find my computer in sleep mode no longer.
Its screen was aglow. My unease grew stronger.

A man’s voice began speaking, and then his face, too,
Wavering and pulsing, came into view
Like a Halloween video or fun house display.
The sight and the sound made me gasp in dismay.

“How dare you!” he cried, his face angry and blue.
“You’ve failed to give credit where credit is due!
I’m quite fed up. Sick of it! Had it, d’y’ hear?
I shall not sit by while my good name you smear!”

I sat up and yawned, trying to wake from the dream,
But the flickering image continued to scream.
“I’ll be silent no more! I must have my say!
Amend your post, woman, or you’ll rue the day!”

“Who are you?” I queried, wishfully thinking
It must be unreal. With blurry eyes blinking
I turned on the light by my bedside. But no,
The monitor still continued to glow.

The face glared most fiercely. I said, “You are rude
To be shouting at me in such a foul mood.
I demand to know, mister, what gives you the right
To take over my computer and give me a fright.”

“Your post to the masses,” he howled, agog,
“It’s in error. Untruthful. You can’t write a blog
Without checking the facts to make sure they are true.
Don’t propagate myth, like the liberals do.”

“Who are you?” Again I queried the spectre,
Who looked just a bit like Hannibal Lector.
He answered, “My name was once that of a popular poet,
Henry Livingston, Jr., though few now know it.

“I created that poem about which you’ve just written,
And with which the world’s been entirely smitten
Since first it was published with another man’s name —
Who made no objections, more is the shame.”

The fog in my brain drifted slowly away.
“Oh, I get it. You’re the guy who, some people say,
Wrote the poem that is largely responsible for framing modern society’s conception of Santa Claus, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, and the tradition that he brings toys to children.”

“Quite artlessly put,” said he, “but yes,
That does rather sum it all up, I guess.
It was I who wrote it, not Clement C. Moore,
Though this has been seldom acknowledged before.”

“As I hear it,” I said, “there is evidence
That should be sufficient to build your defense.”
For the first time, he smiled. “Exactly what I
Would like you to say to your readers, and cry
Out for justice. I have been wronged.
For such an announcement I have sore longed.”

Now his eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

To speak any more he would not be persuaded,
But, dimming away as the monitor faded,
I heard him exclaim in words friendly, not terse:
Happy Christmas to all, and to all, fun verse!

Remembering that Night

Marcia Laycock is an award-winning author who writes from central Alberta Canada. Her devotional book, Spur of the Moment is now available. Visit her website – http://www.vinemarc.com/

One of my most cherished memories has to do with a Christmas project in grade school. I worked hard on it, along with the rest of my class, each of us making one character or animal depicting the nativity scene. Using wire frames and paper slathered in paste, we shaped wise men and shepherds, the baby Jesus and his parents and various animals. I picked a camel.

It seemed like an easy project until I got to the legs. I had trouble with the legs. They wouldn’t support the heavy wire, glue and paper body. Every time I propped it up, it fell down. So I took the legs off and made a camel lying down. I thought it was wonderful and brought it proudly to my mother. She oohed and aahed, of course, then asked, “What is it, a duck?”

I was crushed, but eventually we both fell into fits of giggles that lasted….well, let me see, it’s been about forty years. Perhaps because my mother felt guilty for crushing my budding artistic talents, she put that camel under our tree every Christmas, even when I groaned in protest. At some point during the season, she’d say, “Do you remember that day…?” and we’d giggle again.

Many years after that day, my husband and I began another tradition with our children – an evening drive around town to look at the lights and decorations. On one such wintry night, as our van turned into a snow globe moving slowly through huge fluffy snowflakes, my husband decided to find some Christmas music on the radio, to help set the mood. He flipped the dial from station to station and came to rest on CBC, Canada’s national station.

A carol was just ending. Then a familiar voice filled our van as Alan Maitland, a well-known Canadian broadcaster, began a recitation of The Gift of The Magi, that wonderful story of giving from the heart. Our girls leaned forward to listen. An unusual stillness descended as the poignant story unfolded. The real meaning of Christmas engulfed us as we listened and drove through the falling snow and twinkling lights. It was a night we will all remember, perhaps even as long as forty years, because one of us always mentions it. Someone, at some point in the season, says, “Do you remember that night…?”

That’s the point of Christmas, the reason for its existence. It is a time when we should all say to one another, “Remember….” Remember the long trek to Bethlehem. Remember the star and those men from the East who followed it. Remember the humble place where the Savior was born. Remember the angels announcing the arrival of Joy and Peace on Earth. Remember why He came.

Although none of us were there, it is very much our story, our tradition, our unique moment. The story belongs to us all because His birth was God’s gift to us all, as the angels announced, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for ALL the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born TO YOU; he is Christ, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11, capitals mine)

The true meaning of Christmas lies in the remembrance of that birth. As we get caught up in the flurry of the season, it would be well to say to one another, “Do you remember that night…?”

In Which We Speak with the Ghost of Author Past, or, An Interview With Charles Dickens

Charles John Huffam Dickens, (1812-1870), pen-name “Boz.” One of the most popular English authors of the nineteenth century, with seventeen novels, several volumes of short stories, and numerous poems, plays and non-fiction works to his credit. His plots and characters are still among the most well known in English literature.

I’d like to thank you, Mr. Dickens, for taking the time to talk to us here on the Novel Journey blog.

I’m thoroughly delighted. I was not hitherto conversant with the curious term “blog,” but the explanation you offered makes good sense. As you may know, I’m no stranger to journalism, which is what blogging is, in a very real sense. It’s quite satisfying to get back into the business in even this peculiar way. The instantaneous distribution to a widespread audience, without the use of paper and ink, is quite a fascination to me. I’m loving it, as your generation might say.

I’m impressed. You’re quite a progressive thinker, for a dead guy.

I like to think I was the same in life as well. Your Wikipedia – another intriguing conception, by the way – describes me as “a vigorous social campaigner” in addition to my authorial accomplishments. And I like that. It’s gratifying to see my efforts were not unnoticed.

They received a great deal of notice, from what I’ve read. Your fictional works were remarkably effective in changing the public’s opinions regarding class inequality.

I don’t wish to be immodest, but I cannot deny it. One instance, to illustrate: the shocking images of poverty and crime I depicted in my second novel, Oliver Twist, brought these injustices to light to such a degree that within a few years after its publication, the authorities cleared out the slum in London that served as my model for the story’s “Jacob’s Island” neighborhood. In most of my writings, I hoped to bring the plight of impoverished souls to light in the hope that those who were in a position to do something about it might be provoked to action.

I guess your scheme worked. Your vivid themes and graphic characterizations are legendary. Literally. But I’m curious. How biographical is your writing? Did your passion for the struggles of the poor come from personal experience? Are your characters based on real people?

Somewhat. Yes. At times.

Would you care to elaborate?

Certainly, so long as you don’t require me to answer your questions in the order you asked them. My short-term memory isn’t what it once was.

Quite understandable. Just share with us whatever you’d like.

Thank you. As your inquiry suggested, my formative years did, in fact, influence my writing. I came from what you might call a middle-class family, although that term doesn’t quite convey the reality of the day. Our situation was a bit tenuous, as my father, a clerk in the Navy pay office, spent a great deal more money than he could afford in an effort to maintain his social position. When I was a boy of twelve, as a result of his fiscal irresponsibility, my private education came to a temporary halt due to his incarceration at Marshalsea debtor’s prison.

My mother and the rest of the family moved to Marshalsea to be near him, but I remained in London, boarding with a family friend and working at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse in order to pay for my lodgings and send a few pence to my mother. A short while later I moved into a back attic at the house of an insolvent-court agent, a good-natured old gentleman with a quiet old wife and a lame and impaired grown son. Aspects of these kind people who shared their homes with me served as inspiration for people in my stories. I also borrowed the name of one of my co-workers at the blacking factory, Bob Fagin, for one of my characters.

After only a few months in prison, my father came into a modest inheritance, with which he was able to pay off his creditors and secure his release from Marshalsea. Unfortunately, my mother had come to appreciate my contribution to the family income and insisted I remain at the factory. It was quite some months before she finally relented and allowed me to resume my formal education, and I confess I bore some resentment toward her many years thereafter. However, all these experiences, though horrifying, were as educational, in their own way, as the formal schooling I missed. They provided story lines, gave vividness and depth to my writing, and created within me a lifelong interest social reform.

Of all your writings, which is your favorite?

My personal favorite is probably David Copperfield, which is also, not coincidentally, the most autobiographical. But it seems my most popular, and, from what I see, most enduring work, is a story I called A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. The title was, admittedly, a bit cumbersome, and it quickly became known simply as A Christmas Carol. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Heard of it? Who hasn’t? For many people, it defines what Christmas is all about. The characters of Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Christmas ghosts have become archetypical figures in the cultural consciousness. I can’t tell you how many plays, films, TV specials, parodies and sequels have been inspired by your story. In fact, my first introduction to the tale was in the form of a cartoon featuring Mr. Magoo.

As people in your electronic world would respond, “LOL.” I’m not fond the Magoo version, but I must confess the Muppet adaptation amuses me.

You’ve seen it?

You might be surprised at what I’ve seen. I’ve always loved the theatre, you know. Incidentally, A Christmas Carol was the subject of my first-ever public reading, performed two days after Christmas in 1852. It was a great success all around, and I received so many requests for readings, I created a special version for just that purpose. I continued to read excerpts to audiences until shortly before my death. People just couldn’t seem to get enough of it. And, quite frankly, I never tired of it myself.

What prompted you to write the story?

There was no particular premeditation behind it. Christmas has always been a particular favorite of mine, and I wrote about things most dear to me. Moreover, I needed the money. Once I came up with the idea, I dashed it off in just a few weeks. With pen and ink, mind you, on good, crisp paper. None of this laptop computer nonsense you so-called writers use today. Delete key? Bah! There’s nothing so satisfying as the scratching of a freshly sharpened quill across the page, the smell of the ink, the stains on the fingers…

Yeah, sure. Where’d you come up with the title?

A Carol? Whereas in your era the name refers to a Christmas hymn, in my day, it described a particular type of ballad. In keeping with the musical theme, instead of dividing the story into chapters, I called the sections staves. Just a fun little twist. It never pays to take ourselves too seriously.

You often injected humor into your work, but, as in most of your fiction, A Christmas Carol carried some serious themes. For instance, could you explain the plug you put in about keeping the bakeries open?

The bakeries? Oh, yes, that would be lost on modern audiences, wouldn’t it? You see, the poor in London at that time had no home ovens. They’d prepare their dough, meats to be roasted, or what-have-you, in their own kitchens then take them to the bakery to be cooked in the commercial ovens. But in the 1830s, legislation was introduced in Parliament that would require the bakeries to close on Sundays and holidays. That was all fine and good for the bakery owners; but it would deprive the poor of their only means of a good meal, which they likely only had on Sundays and holidays anyway. I had already attacked these plans in a pamphlet published under a pseudonym, but couldn’t resist slipping my opinions into my Christmas story as well. How could those self-righteous, short-sighted ministers deprive the common man of his Christmas goose in the name of religious observance? I don’t think our Lord would have approved of that, do you?

I think you’re quite right. But wasn’t A Christmas Carol just the first of a number of Christmas stories you wrote over the years?

Indeed it was. The first and the best. In some people’s minds, it came to define me. In fact, after I passed away, someone is quoted as saying, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” A bit silly, perhaps, but touching. Yes, I loved Christmas, and published a total of five Christmas books as well as something like sixteen Christmas stories that appeared in periodicals, though none achieved the acclaim of the first. I created the genre, by the way. No one had ever thought to do Christmas books until I started it.

So you don’t mind being mocked by Muppets, parodied by Beavis and Butthead, or having your Scrooge character portrayed by a zucchini?

Beavis and who?

Let me rephrase that: it doesn’t bother you to be so closely related to Christmas in the cultural mind?

Absolutely not. Why should it? I’m proud to leave such a legacy, and it’s my greatest wish to see everyone embrace the Carol philosophy. That is, that the Christmas spirit would prevail throughout the year. But I don’t understand what you said just now. What’s a zucchini?

Google “VeggieTales Easter Carol.” You might be surprised at what you see. I want to thank you again for speaking to us today. Do you have any parting words for us, Mr. Dickens?

Indeed I do. In this and every season, God bless us, every one!

Some Thoughts on Christmas Kitsch

I sat at the table for five hours watching people walk by. Every now and then someone would stop and pick up one of my books. I’d chat with them, telling them the book was a collection of devotionals. Sometimes I’d share how the Lord had used it to make a change in someone’s life. Usually they’d smile and move on. They’d move on to buy trinkets at other tables loaded with kitsch – painted plastic santas, angels made of dishtowels, and snowmen made of styrofoam.

As the day wore on I got a little discouraged. And, as discouragement often does, it started to move into bitterness tinged with anger. Why were these people so eager to grab things that had so little value and would last for such a short time? Why weren’t they more interested in buying something that could nourish their souls? It made me want to scream, but I kept quiet and tried to keep smiling when someone glanced my way.

As I drove home later that day I ruminated. I love that word – it means to turn over and over, as in a cow chewing her cud. And that’s what it felt like as I drove along – my stomach was churning; I was stewing over what had happened, and I wasn’t being very complimentary to those people who had not bought my books.

Then that still small voice whispered from somewhere beyond – “And what about you?”

“Me, Lord? Um … What do you mean?”

I didn’t really have to ask. I knew what He meant. I too make choices every day, choices that are just like those kitsch-hunters. I choose things that are of little value and momentary pleasure over the riches and everlasting joys of Christ. Every day.

I was humbled there in my car, and had to do an attitude adjustment. I had to ask God to forgive me for my “holier than thou” thoughts. I had to thank Him for those who did buy my books and thank Him for what he was going to do in their lives through my mere words. And I had to ask Him to forgive me for all those times I’ve chosen the kitsch of the world over Him.

The verses in Deuteronomy filled my mind – “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (Deut.30:19-20).

There’s an awful lot of kitsch in this world, especially at this time of year. It’s tempting to allow ourselves to be distracted from the real story of Christmas. As the season unfolds, may we all avoid running after what cannot satisfy. May we all choose life – His life.