The Tradition of the Christmas Carol

I grew up surrounded by literature. My dad is an English professor with a specialty in Early American Literature, it’s just always been a huge part of my life, even to the point that Edgar Allan Poe was my bedtime stories.

My favorite way that my dad’s profession bled into our home life, though, was always his colleagues and the talks that he would let me come with him to see. I love to hear people talk about what they are passionate about and do what they love, so I tagged along to as many presentations as I could.

The best event my dad ever brought me to was Dr. Marc Napolitano’s performance of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Dr. Napolitano was relatively new to the department that year – I think it was 2013 – and I hadn’t met him before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew the story of A Christmas Carol, everyone knows the story. I’d never read it, I was still in middle shool, but I was familiar with the plot. I’d seen renditions of it through disney animations and such. Worst case scenario, what I was walking into was some professor standing in front of a crowd and droning on about the significance of the story or something else that wouldn’t hold my attention.

It absolutely was not that.

For two hours, I sat next to my dad, absolutely riveted by Dr. Napolitano as he stood in front of a full room of students and other professors and gave a one man performance of A Christmas Carol, with voices and expressions and a passion that I’d never seen before. He was the only person up there, but each character was unique and all it took was a shift of his shoulders and a different lilt to his words for me to know that someone different was speaking. He was phenomenal. This was A Christmas Carol as it was supposed to be.

Looking back on it now, Dr. Naoplitano’s performance was a perfect example of how little it takes for an old work to take on new life. He was so passionate about this text that he was willing to memorize it in its entirety and stand in front of a crowd to bare his heart as he performed it so that he could share it with others the way he saw it, which was no small feat especially since Dr. Napolitano was a small, quiet man with a gentle smile and an even gentler voice. None of his shyness was present during his performance, his voice was booming. Even now I can hear him.

“Are there no prisons?! Are there no workhouses?!”

The fluidity of A Christmas Carol comes to my mind as we start to tackle it in class. After seeing that performance, I’ll be honest, no other adaptation of Dickens’ work has been good enough for me. Somehow, Dr. Napolitano had taken this thing that so many people knew by heart and made it his own. He made it new and he made it riveting, and I know all too well how hard it is to make a room full of cadets at USMA pay attention for that long.

After that first performance and until three years later when Dr. Napolitano left the academy, my family made it a tradition to go see his performance. In 2015, he left USMA and accepted a job offer at USAFA, and my childhood best friend who is a current cadet there assures me he’s still continuing his tradition of sharing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with anyone willing to listen.

Twelve Hundred Ghosts and the Universality of “A Christmas Carol”

Whenever I read anything for a class, I like to poke around on the internet for any interesting tidbits relating to the text. Call me a nerd if you feel like it, but I find it incredibly interesting to hear other people’s takes on the things I’m reading because I feel like it enriches my own understanding of the material. Such was the avenue upon which I discovered what might be the be one of the strangest and most interesting YouTube videos I’ve ever seen.

It’s called “Twelve Hundred Ghosts”, and it was put together by a man called Heath Waterman. It’s about an hour long, but you certainly don’t have to watch the whole thing (although I’d recommend it!) to get what he was going for. Waterman has edited together video clips, sound bites, music, and illustrations from over 400 adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to create a semi-cohesive version of the story.

Yes, you read that right. Four hundred different versions of A Christmas Carol.

Movies, TV episodes, cartoons, comic books, musicals, and even advertisements. From Mickey Mouse to the Muppets, it seems everyone and their mother has taken a shot at adapting the story, and in watching this it’s pretty obvious that some are much better than others. But still, Waterman passes no judgement. This is not a video of criticism, nor of making fun of these derivative works. It’s in total a celebration of the enduring spirit of the classic story.

Think about it. This is a book that was published centuries ago, and we’re still finding new ways to adapt it. Throughout this video we see many traditional Victorian Scrooges… but we also see modern Scrooges, female Scrooges, black Scrooges, gay Scrooges, and even animal Scrooges. I think that really says something about the universality of Dickens’ narrative. The type of story he told doesn’t only apply to the time he lived in, nor to the gender, race, or sexuality of its leads. The story of redemption, of a callous soul learning the error of their ways and striving to become a better person, is ultimately a human story. And although the video does often stray towards the comedic, I think the motivation behind it has real heart.

I’ve always thought the core of Dickens’ story was the idea that no human being is beyond redemption. In creating the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens crafts a hard-hearted man who cares for no one, and as a consequence the audience is all the more satisfied to watch the character slowly realize the effect his cruelty has had on the other people in his life. The moment where Scrooge realizes that his stinginess when it comes to paying Bob Cratchit may very well lead to the death of Cratchit’s ill son is, to me, one of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments in the entire literary canon.

In creating “Twelve Hundred Ghosts”, Heath Waterman imparts to us the sentiment of redemption being a possibility for all better than any single adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever could. Seeing all these different versions of Scrooge, all of whom exist in different time periods, and who have vastly different lives, realize that their philosophy of uncaring will only hurt those around them, embodies the universality of Dickens’ story. In this way, with this video, we can all see ourselves in at least one version of Scrooge, and understand that no matter when you live, what you look like, or who you love, you always have within you the ability to change.

You can watch “Twelve Hundred Ghosts” below. I would highly recommend checking it out — if you have an hour to spare between studying for finals, that is!