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December 22, 2012

Caroline Todd: Spending Christmastime with Scrooge

Posted by tom

Charles Todd, whose latest mystery is THE WALNUT TREE: A Holiday Tale, is actually the mother-and-son writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd. Caroline’s father read A CHRISTMAS CAROL to her family every year on the three nights leading up to Christmas Eve. One year, her dad even took them to a live reading at the local movie theater. Experiencing Charles Dickens’ classic together became an integral tradition for the Todd family that made every holiday season special.

In my house growing up, it was a tradition to read Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL on the three nights running up to Christmas Eve. I can’t tell you when it started. It was just there, a part of the holiday celebration. My mother would be upstairs doing mysterious things with wrapping paper, while my sister and I sat on the couch next to my father as he read the story of Scrooge. The lights would be burning on the tree, and there would be fruitcake in the poinsettia tin in the kitchen, soaking up the peach brandy spooned over it every week, and there was a coconut  cake in the refrigerator to take to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Day for Christmas dinner. Stockings were already hung up by the fireplace, and there was usually holly on the mantel above. It was time to be read to. And we got to stay up a little later so that my father could finish each part.

I couldn’t have told you where England was or who Scrooge was, but the sound of my father’s voice reading about Marley’s ghost or the Visitations was exciting and comforting at the same time. I didn’t know what a counting house was, except that in a nursery rhyme the King was in his counting house counting out his money, so it was an important place. I loved old Fezziwig, everyone had fun with him, and I cried for Tiny Tim until he got better. And with the years, the characters became good friends we shared our Christmas with. My father read to us even when I came home from college for Christmas and the year that I brought my fiancé home to meet my parents. After that, it was up to me to establish traditions for my family. 

I never knew where the book had come from. I suspect my father, who loved to read, had had it for a very long time. Very likely it was a gift from his own parents. But Christmas without Scrooge would have been unthinkable.

One year, he took us to the movie theater in our town, where the stage was also used for any production from plays to opera. This particular year, there was nothing on the stage but a table, a straight chair, and a goose neck lamp. A tall gray-haired man walked out to the table, sat down, and with the light shining on the book before him, he began to read. No one stirred. The audience was held captive by that mesmerizing voice. His name was Professor Koch, and he was reading A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Every character had a voice. Behind him on the empty stage, keeping his shadow company were the images in my mind.  I knew the story almost by heart, and still it was magical.

Like my father’s readings, the Professor’s was in three parts, with an intermission in between. I couldn’t wait until the lights dimmed again and he came back out on stage.  When it was over, I didn’t want to move. I think this must have been my first live performance of any kind, and I was hooked. Even my little sister never squirmed.

After that, whenever my father read A CHRISTMAS CAROL, I could hear echoes of Professor Koch’s reading --- the deep bluff voice of Fezziwig, the whiny voice of Scrooge, the sonorous rolling tones of Marley, and the piping voice of Tiny Tim. 

Many years later, when Mike Ashley asked us to contribute a mystery short story in the style of Dickens for an anthology he was editing, there was no hesitation on our part.  Charles and I chose Scrooge, setting the story 10 years after Marley’s visitation. We were writing about an old friend, not simply a character in a book by someone else. We knew him well. 

Did I read A CHRISTMAS CAROL to my family? Of course. Did we ever watch the screen or TV versions? Yes. My favorite cast George C. Scott as Scrooge. But it was not the same as sitting down together and sharing it word for word. It was Tradition, and it always made Christmas special.