A Tale of Two Ebenezers

. . . And an Edinburgh Churchyard 1charlesdickens
“His name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.”  The Scotsman, December 24, 2004

Ebenezer Scrooge– his story is synonymous with Christmas these days, his changed fate is the stuff of redemption stories (“Christ was born for this” to be sure), and his hauntings both thrill our narrative nerves and warn us of our own shortcomings.  Most of us roll our eyes when A Christmas Carol comes on TV for the umpteenth time in the wind up to Christmas, but it’s a tale well told and it probably deserves its stature as a holiday classic.

These days, Dickens is even recognized as a key “inventor” of our modern Christmas traditions.  He and his Victorian age put a certain stamp and feeling on the holiday that we still embrace: carolers, Christmas trees, gifts and goodies, and a St. Nick who was less complex and more “festive elf” than the saint of years past and countries east.  None of the traditions was new, but the packaging and cheer of it was differently polished and easily palatable.  The general rallying cry? “God bless us, every one!”

Charles Dickens had a well tuned sensibility about what made for a good tale.  But how funny would it be if this Christmas tale of his was founded on a misunderstanding? What if Ebenezer Scrooge was birthed by a mistake, a misplaced letter, and an imagination that barreled full speed ahead?

It’s said that Charles Dickens kept a diary.  And that diary kept a secret about A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843.   While in Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a stroll through Canongate Churchyard (or Kirkyard, as the locals would say).  It was evening and the light was dimming.  He paused at the tombstone of an Ebenezer Scroggie (1792-1836) and mused at the inscription “A Mean Man.”  What horrible person had this Ebenezer been, that his epitaph would be so harsh?

Not only did Dickens note this in his diary, but clearly he puzzled it over to the point that Ebenezer Scrooge was born and fully fleshed out in a tale that would delve into that miserly past but offer a redemptive future, if only Scrooge would take it.  Poor, mean old Scroggie could finally be redeemed.

Except that, as the kirkyard tale goes, Scroggie wasn’t a mean man. In fact, by some reports he was quite the bon vivant.   Scroggie, who was a vintner and corn/grain merchant, was actualy a Meal Man.   Dickens needed better glasses.

You can’t verify this story, I’m afraid.  Scroggie’s grave marker was removed in 1932, during kirkyard redevelopment.  However, you can read more about Dickens and Scroggie here.

If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can enjoy your own stroll through Canongate Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s quite a beautiful church on the Royal Mile, close to the Houses of Parliament and Holyrood Palace.  Back in September, I found myself strolling the Royal Mile and happened into the church.  It was a slow day, and a young docent was eager to bend my ear about the bright and beautiful space.  Interestingly, the space is especially bright and beautiful because of it’s sad past.

The church was built in 1690, with a Dutch gable to the façade.  It’s simple and elegant, and just a little different from everything around it in Edinburgh.

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The front façade of Canongate Kirk

The interior was to be refurbished in the late 1930’s, but WWII intervened and a war time of belt tightening and serious endeavors put that on hold temporarily.  In December of 1945 the work was started, and it was finished in 1952.  This is significant because, according to the docent, it changed the tone of the work done.  The parish, as the United Kingdom, had suffered and lost much during the war.  The number of young soldiers who did not return home was a wound that would be long in healing.  And so the decision was made that the interior space must be light and bright, must be cheerful and uplifting– a reminder that, though sorrow was heavy, the world was a beautiful place and this was a space for rejoicing as much as grieving.

Still today, the interior of the church uplifts.  To me, it has a nautical sensibility, at least in its coloring (though it’s possible that I’m influenced by the sea gull cries that are heard over the skies of Edinburgh– a constant subliminal reminder that you are in a port town nestled by the North Sea).

canongate interior (2)

If you find yourself in Edinburgh, it’s worth your time to take a peek into Canongate Kirk.  I guarantee that you won’t leave saying “Ba Humbug”!

A very merry Christmas and happy holiday season to you all! (And may God bless us, every one!)

 

All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost*

(*Originally posted December 17, 2015)

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.

 

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it.  We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.

We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.

But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.

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“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” ―  Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–an uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted.  It was the right sort of house for that:  imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.

I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.

 But then nothing happened.  

Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.

Still, nothing happened.  

After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened.  What a rip off!  I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!?  Not a fair trade off if you ask me.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut ghosts are people too; they have their own agendas.  I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life.  It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life.  What was Christmas like for them?  Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver?  Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage?  Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?

And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area?   Was the occupation oppressive or a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals . . . who must have been haunted already by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war.

And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II.  What about those Christmas dinners?  Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark?  Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe?  Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me.  I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided,  like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.

Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either.  I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.

It’s better not to know, I tell myself.

Still, I want a ghost for Christmas.  I can’t shake that feeling.  It’s part of the old house package.

 

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  -William Faulkner

I had a ghost once, a few years ago.

I know, I know–just hear me out.  This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances.  The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening.  For that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening (the story becomes infinitely more plausible at that point).  And one more thing–the children aren’t around.  If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.

I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story in a few days.  That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined.  It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.

Meet me here then, if you dare, and I will tell you my story.

chistms carol page