For me the ritual of “A Christmas Carol” has never been about screen adaptations, or even about Dickens’s original story, which he wrote in 1843 in the hope that it would get him out of debt. No such luck — but stage versions did spring up almost immediately, and that’s the tradition I was raised to love. His were my first ghosts of the theater.
As much as presents and trees and “The Nutcracker” live, as much as my dad hushing the living room so he could play his record of Dylan Thomas reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s “A Christmas Carol” was part of my growing-up Christmastimes.
The year my parents skipped it and sent my brothers and me on our own to the Pabst Theater, we sat in the nosebleeds, where the sharp angle of the rake scared me almost as much as the hulking, black-clad Ghost of Christmas Future, and the silent, crouching figures of Ignorance and Want. Even from there, I delighted in the exuberant party at the Fezziwigs’ warehouse, where young Ebenezer apprenticed.
By high school, Scrooge’s line about prisons and workhouses was so embedded in my brain that I borrowed it for my AP European History exam. To this day, I call fingerless gloves Cratchit gloves, in honor of poor Bob Cratchit, freezing there in the counting house. And in recent years, this one most of all, I have fervently wished for a Ghost of Christmas Future to terrify us, en masse, into averting some looming, horrendous fate.
There are those who find only mawkishness in “A Christmas Carol” (certainly I’ve seen gooey handling send it over the edge), but to my family that play was as entwined with the holiday as was midnight Mass. If one was more choral and candlelit, both were communal, each drawing a kind of faithful to hear familiar, necessary messages of morality and generosity. Not a bad sermon, really: Dickens on avarice, economic injustice and the plight of the working poor.