I begin celebrating Christmas sometime around mid-July. It harkens back to Saturday morning cartoons hocking a “Christmas in July” ratings stunt so they could cycle through the Christmas episodes of their shows more than once a calendar year. Since then, I’ve annually found ways to celebrate the out-of-season Holiday Season that range from movie nights with hot wassail, to gingerbread village building competitions, to eating red and green decorated sugar cookies on the beach.
As the actual Christmas break approached during my fifth grade year in Ms. Craiger’s class, she set us to work putting together a miniature production of A Christmas Carol. We were to invite our parents to come see the play and afterward, they’d be our guests of honor at our class’ Christmas party. This was the early 90s, when public schools could still have Christmas parties and therefore seasonally alienate any student who was raised outside of the Santa in a manger with Mary and her reindeer tradition.
Rather than having formal auditions, parts were assigned and I didn’t get the part I felt I deserved. A week prior, I’d taken the stage as Sherlock Jones in front of a full sanctuary at church in The Mall and the Night Visitor, yet under Fuhrer Craiger, I’d been relegated to a bit part as one of the gossipy crones cackling at Scrooge’s demise. This degradation was made even more painful by the fact that a few years previous, I actually played Tiny Tim in the production of A Country Christmas Carol at church. If anyone knew this story in all its iterations, it was me. But on the page next to my name, was Crone #3. I was embarrassed at the sight of it, believing I’d be a disappointment to my mother. How could I live with myself knowing she had to watch me say two lines and then sit off to the side for the rest of the play? This notion, by the way, was completely in my head. My mother would’ve been proud of me regardless of how big my part was, but I irrationalized the situation until I was obsessive and twitching.
I went into fight-or-flight mode. Creative Type A people are familiar with this. If I couldn’t be one of the leads in the play, then I could to lead the show in a different way. I spun through the rolodex in my mind as to what made the plays at church so professional and for me, that was the backstage area. Anyone can put some furniture out to be the set, but the backstage area is what isolated that actor on stage and directed your attention where to look.
The sanctuary at my church had a wooden, vaulted ceiling that curved to a high point. At once southern and gothic, large cathedral lights hung above the congregation. During the productions at Christmas and Easter, a backstage area was fashioned on the sides of the stage using heavy black felt curtains that I imagined were borrowed from Broadway. When Ms. Craiger went down the list of needed props and asked for volunteers to supply them, she mentioned needing curtains to conceal the “backstage” area of the classroom. “Oh, I can get curtains,” I said proudly. “I can get black felt curtains.”
The way the thick felt curtains created a darkened backstage wonderland at church made being a part of the productions feel important. It was no longer the side entrance to the stage where the pulpit stood; it was the entrance to a new world of imagination, where God was creative and existed within the music rather than in the shouted words of an old white man. By creating this for our Carol at school, I was contributing in a way no one else could, which in turn meant recognition and copious amounts of thankful applause. I may not be the lead, but I would stage manage the hell out of this show.
“You told them what!?”
That was my mother’s audible reaction but I know it was the censored version of what was going on in her head. I figured it was just fabric and I’d seen plenty of that at my grandmother’s house. “Who has the money to buy a bunch of thick black felt for a one-time-only in-classroom production of A Christmas Carol?” She had a point. No normal person who isn’t on The Real Housewives of Wherever would go to that level of volunteerism for a one-and-done junior version of A Christmas Carol within a small classroom of a suburban elementary school.
Rather than providing me with the sexy black felt curtains I’d promised my teacher, my mother sent me to school with a stack of well folded bed sheets. They weren’t even the nice bed sheets; they were the faded set we no longer used. As the color drained from my face, so did my delusions of a public curtain call “thank you.” Arriving the morning of the performance and having to tell Ms. Craiger this was the best I could do was the height of embarrassment. That was until I had to hang them on the rope line by the door before the performance. That felt like a public flogging with imaginary cabbages and taunts of “you tried too hard” thrown at my big-headed fifth grade self. I can still see the sad pale blue bed sheets hanging in that classroom from my seat next to my mother while I waited to say my two lines as Crone #3. In Whooville they say, my ego shrunk three sizes that day.
That must’ve stirred something inside of me because over the Christmas break, while rummaging around the garage with my brother and sister, we wound up pretending to be the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. We had a very healthy imaginary life, be it with Legos, Ninja Turtle action figures or costumes from our closets. At some point that afternoon, we transitioned from frivolous make-believe to rehearsing the story to perform for our parents once my father got home from work. I am fairly certain this was at my behest, as I have always been, like Dolly Levi, the one who arranges things. My brother took on the role of Scrooge while my sister and I filled in the rest of the parts.
Extra furniture stored in the garage became our set pieces and the driveway light became our follow-spot illuminating what became a loose interpretation of The Muppets Christmas Carol. I hid behind the blue Aerostar parked in the garage and hit the spade of a shovel with a hammer, the sound echoing out as the bell tolling one o’clock, and within that afternoon, we put together a non-Equity minimalist production of A Christmas Carol.
It was Christmas Eve, a day when the air crackles with possibilities and excitement sparks through our synapses like red and green fireworks. That evening, we informed our parents over our pre-theatre dinner that we’d prepared something for them to watch and when dinner was over, we excused ourselves to prepare for our show, an excuse we used to get out of having to clean the dishes. We set up a few more lights so there’d be special effects, put our set pieces in order and when our parents took their lawn chair seats, we began our carol.
It may have been juvenile, but it was something the three of us had an equal hand in creating. That and we were proud to show our parents that our imaginations were being used for creating stories and not pipe bombs and bottle rockets. My brother wore a bald cap with manic white hair sticking out the sides like Doc from Back to the Future, my sister wore a dress to be the Ghost of Christmas Past and I wore my father’s bathrobe to become the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
About ten minutes into our tale, the door to the garage opened and from inside the house walked the entire extended Brinson family. They’d been at my aunt and uncle’s church for Christmas Eve service and unexpectedly stopped by our house afterwards. It was very much like a scene out of Everybody Loves Raymond. Rather than scrapping our show, we started over from the beginning like true professionals. This time, we had an audience three times as big. We told Scrooge’s abridged redemptive tale to our family, tolling the shovel spade with each ghost and ending with a unison “God bless us, everyone.”
As redemptive a story as it is for Ebenezer, it may’ve been even more so for me. My fifth grade ego had been shredded when I failed to impress my blonde teacher and my classmates. I was so single-minded about showing off to them and being the big man on campus that I ended up looking even more foolish than Crones #1 and #2. That evening in the driveway, I realized the audience who actually mattered was the one sitting in lawn chairs and on the bumper of our big blue van. As a family, they watched us act out our loosely adapted, Muppets-inspired, Dickens classic in which I spent most of the show hidden behind the van hitting a shovel spade with a hammer.
And it was perfect.
2 Replies to “Expect the First Ghost When the Shovel Spade Tolls One”
Ryan Brinson I LOVE THIS! And I would love it even if I did not personally know all the ‘characters’ involved. Sitting in my cube laughing out loud.
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Ryan, this story was both sweet and inspiring. I just finished reading the original story with my English 4 students, and I found the ending quite moving. I think it is wonderful that your family encouraged such depth, culture, and creativity in all of you. May you still live in the light of the lessons that Christmas taught you, and may your Christmas be merry and bright.
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