‘Tis the Season! For forgiveness, generosity, renewal! So, of course, we’re going to talk about A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
A Christmas Carol is a thin book, a novella really, that has resurfaced in many iterations: the 1938 movie with the Lockhart family as the Cratchits; the 1951 Alastair Sims version; and friend Laurie’s favorite, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, the Flintstones have all had a turn. The story also has generated favorite sayings: Bah Humbug! And decrease the surplus population! God bless us everyone! And the one I’ve often applied to my grandsons: An intelligent boy! A remarkable boy!
And lessons, oh, the lessons! It’s never too late for second (or third) chances. Do not blame the poor for their plight. Casting memories in a different light changes your feelings about them. Happiness is found in emotional connections with family and community, not in money. Dickens wraps all of these positive feelings and messages in the simple phrase: to keep Christmas well. He writes this without a smidge of religiosity.
As everyone knows, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come visit Scrooge to broaden his perspective. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to Fezziwig’s warehouse at the time Scrooge was an apprentice. It is Christmas Eve and the mood is joyous. This episode contrasts Fezziwig’s generosity to Scrooge with Scrooge’s cruel treatment of Bob Cratchit.
Reading the book this time, I was enchanted by the exuberance of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig’s dancing:
“And when old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsy, cork-screw, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place: Fezziwig ‘cut’ – cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.”
I have been paying more attention to dancing – in movies, on TV and even in print – because now I know how hard it is! Dancing tests the body, the mind and most of all, the relationship between the dancing partners.
Bill and I started ballroom lessons when we were in our sixties. We’re young oldsters, we told ourselves. We’re athletic, we told ourselves. We do yoga, so we know something about isolating body movements. Besides, you move one foot, and then the other. We weren’t going to be Fred and Ginger, or Gene and Cyd, but we could be the Fezziwigs, couldn’t we? We had visions of gliding across a ballroom gracefully waltzing and kicking up our feet jitterbugging.
Then we realized that we would never dance cheek-to-cheek. It should have been obvious. He’s a foot taller. My cheek would always rest unromantically somewhere below his collarbone. It’s like dancing with your big brother.
Romance on the dance floor is pretty far from our minds, actually. We are both counting SLOW quick quick SLOW quick quick in the rumba, or ONE TWO cha cha cha in the cha-cha, or one-two-three one-two-three rock step in the triple swing. To keep track of the pattern of so many dances – waltz, tango, mambo, two-step, fox trot, samba, bolero, nightclub two, west coast swing – takes a lot of mental bandwidth. We are both concentrating like crazy, not just the step-counting but the turns, the spins, the arm twirls.
I see now that those movies where two strangers manuever onto the dance floor so that they can talk in private, whether to pass on state secrets or to warn someone who the bad guy is – those movies are bunk! It’s impossible to dance “off the cuff” like that. There’s a reason they don’t shoot the scenes showing the actors’ feet.
I come by my dancing issues honestly. Nobody ever accuses the Chinese of having rhythm, I’ve been known to joke. My parents signed on to dance lessons at the Y when they were in their forties. Their teachers were Gracie and Alfredo. Mom said that they did great when dancing with the teachers. But, she complained, when they danced with each other, they were like soldiers marching.
I’ve passed the rhythm deficit on to the next generation. Practicing for his wedding, son Alex’s dance instructor said, “I can’t figure out the beat you’re dancing to.” Alex responded, “Beat? I’m dancing to the words.”
One more hitch. Dancing is a cooperative venture, but the man leads. The woman must wait for him to signal what pattern the couple will do next. But, what if he’s wrong? And he thinks he’s right? How does the designated follower disagree? Bill and I have had some of our most acrimonious arguments about how dance steps should go. For those of you who don’t dance, think of canoeing disagreements.
Well, A Christmas Carol has a lesson about that too. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Cratchit household without Tiny Tim to Scrooge. Bob tells his other children, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he [Tiny Tim] was… we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves.”
And over the years, Bill and I have learned to be more patient with each other’s – and our own – physical and mental stumbles. We can strut our basic routines to some of the most popular dances – waltz, rumba, cha-cha, swing. We have practiced our favorite dance, the tango, replete with dips, swishes and dramatic neck snaps.
In the same way that Scrooge became a better man after his encounters with Three Ghosts, we are improved by our dance lesson process. We are more attentive to each other’s cues. We let go of the perfectionist gaze on ourselves and on each other. We focus on the present.
On those occasions when everything syncs, and our sequences work out, we re-discover the best in each other. Everyone else on the dance floor fades into background. We speak our own language of movement – the turn of one hip, the pressure of a hand on the back, the grip of the fingers are all secret signals. We are in our own world, and we see that world from the happy perspective of what Dickens would just call “Christmas.”
Tell me: What does A Christmas Carol mean to you?