gratitude & hoopla: Dickens and Christmas

gratitude & hoopla

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

16.12.05

Dickens and Christmas

Do you recall what Ebenezer Scrooge said to his cloyingly cheerful nephew? "You keep Christmas in your way, and I shall keep it in mine." By which he meant, of course, that he would keep it not at all. Here we have an early rendition of the Christmas wars. On the one hand, the cheerful many, keeping Christmas as it ought to be kept--that is, merrily--and on the other, one lonely money-changer, soon to meet the accusatory ghost of his dead partner.

I love this story, and yet I suppose Dickens may have been, however unwittingly, the very father of the de-Christianization of Christmas. For him, Christmas seems to be all about charity, merriment, love. Like Wordsworth, he understood that these things were being undermined by the money-culture. "Getting and spending we lay waste our power." A fine insight, and well worth making. Scrooge was a money-changer who needed his tables overturned, and three Christmas-eve spirits (along with the aforesaid ghost of Jacob Marley) did the duty quite nicely. The old tight-wad would never be the same.

But I wonder if Dickens did not underestimate the problem. Christmas symbols of good cheer and merry-making have been utilized ever since by the aforesaid money-culture to advance its interests. We're annually saturated with this trumped-up Christmas spirit, such that some of us have become Scrooge-like curmugeons where this holiday is concerned. [Me, I've always been partial to Joni Mitchell's less than enthusiastic Christmas song: "It's coming on Christmas / They're cutting down trees / They're putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace / Oh I wish I had a river / I could skate away on."]

Well, whether we like to admit it or not, Christmas is a cultural construct, a massive product of various long-term cultural trends. As such, to rail against its worst aspects, as I so often have done, is to bay at the moon (the moon, you'll note, no matter how the dog barks, remains serenely unperturbed). A century and a half after Dickens penned his famous tale, we all routinely (and helplessly) note that the culture's "tables" have remained solidly upright, and in fact are even decorated with cheerful Christmas bunting. Apparently, the issues are not as simple as Mr. Dickens imagined. As in his day, the "many" are celebrating Christmas merrily. And yet these same many, in their merry getting and their merry spending, have laid waste their power to perceive what should lie behind all their good cheer. The problem, you see, as another Englishman once observed, is in ourselves. Why else does "the morning after" seem so hard to wake up to?

In any case, one of those aforementioned "trends" (and only one) is the Christian celebration of the birth of a deliverer, for whom (we say) the world was and is desperately in need. But that is not the story that Scrooge discovers, when he discovers the "true meaning of Christmas." Ah, Scrooge, it was good that you became a happy and generous man. You saw your sin, and you desired to change. But yours would have been more truly a "Christmas" story, I think, had the ghost of Christmas-past not limited her revelations to your own personal history, but had swept you back across the ages and dropped you down among the shepherds in the Judean fields. Of that event--the Christmas story--Jill Carattini has recently written:
The Christ child in the manger is forever an indication of the great lengths God will go to reconcile his creation, a savior willing to descend that we might be able to ascend.
And Bill at Out of the Bloo, who has been consistently doing the best Christmas-blogging of anyone, puts it this way:
The birth of Jesus was the pivotal event in the history of the universe up to that time. And it was not an event that allows us to remain by the manger cooing at our infant Lord. Jesus came to accomplish a great salvation; the great salvation of a race blinded, bent and broken by sin so grievous that it took the incarnation of God himself to remedy it. This salvation cannot be ignored; Jesus came to earth and the result is the rising and falling of many, the revelation of the thoughts and intents of our human hearts, the final identification of each one of us. In the end, we stand either with our Lord, identified with him and his cross of suffering, or we stand with those who rejected him and put him on the cross and killed him. There is nowhere else to stand, no middle option.
Why do I say that Dickens may have been the father of the de-Christianization of Christmas? Because this most famous of secular Christmas stories depicts a reformation of the heart and soul that is prompted not by a revelation of our desperate need for a Savior, and the corresponding realization of the "good news of great joy" that that Savior has indeed come. No, Scrooge is merely confronted with his own mortality. Scrooge is born again, yes, but apparently not from above. In fact, Dickens' story, though it is saturated with fine feeling and Christmas ideals, carefully skirts the real issue. That earlier tale-teller, Luke, saw more clearly what truly lies behind all authentic Christmas cheer:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

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