Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Many Christians consider it somewhat ironic that the story which has come to define the spirit of Christmas barely mentions Jesus. In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” only Tiny Tim and his father go to church on Christmas Day, because the rest of the family is at home helping prepare the feast. In fact, except for Tim’s observation that “it might be pleasant [for parishioners] to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” and a very oblique reference to Christ’s taking of “a child, and set[ting] him in the midst” of his disciples (clearly meant to reflect the analogy of Tiny Tim), there are few explicit mentions of Christian faith and practice at all.
It could be, however, that the reason this story so perfectly epitomizes the nuance of the Christmas season is precisely because the average person in our society, like Dickens’, is not overwhelmingly pious. It’s hard for many people to relate on a visceral level to the story of a birth two millennia and half a world away. It’s much easier for most readers to understand what a difference kindness and compassion could make in the life of a poverty-stricken crippled boy in Victorian England.
For this reason, Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” has come to be the Christmas story. Sunday school teachers aside, Dickens’ story is the one we repeat when we want to invoke the real meaning of the season, and the celebration of the holiday as Dickens evoked it has become frozen in time—we still cook a big family dinner as Mrs. Cratchit did; we still decorate our house in the Victorian style. The way our secular Christmas developed out of Dickens’ sentimental and yet curiously affecting tale is a fascinating study in itself.
First it is important to set the stage for Dickens’ tale. When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” the fabric of society was being transformed by the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Bob Cratchit’s family situation was one Dickens knew well, for it had been, in fact, his own. Dickens had therefore a vested interest in the welfare of the poor. In all his books he champions their cause passionately. For Dickens, there was simply no other cause that approached it in importance. In “A Christmas Carol” there is no reflection of a completely pious celebration of Christmas—in other words one characterized by church attendance alone; the two alternatives presented are celebrating Christmas with family, friends, and feasting, or not celebrating it at all.
This is certainly not to say that Dickens originated the idea of the secular Christmas. But certainly the popularity of Dickens’ story canonized the idea of the secular yet spiritual Christmas, and what’s more, it froze Victorian Christmas customs in time to preserve them as the “real” way to celebrate the season. Decorating magazines on display at newsstands at Christmas provide ample proof that turning one’s home into a Victorian mansion is still the correct way to decorate for the holidays. Overkill was the watchword of Victorian taste, and we still overdecorate for the holidays, festooning our homes with garlands of ribbons and shimmer and greenery, turning them into little shrines to opulence and abundance.
Feasting, merrymaking, and gift-giving have long been a central part of the Christmas celebration, as we can see that they were in Dickens’ time as well; note the partying at the home of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as well as the considerably more scaled-back but still happy celebration at the Cratchits’. Although Dickens stresses that the amount of money one has is not proportionate to the amount of enjoyment one derives from the holiday, he still seems to encourage spending as much of one’s income as one can afford in order to make the day merry. Scrooge recalls a party that his old employer, Fezziwig, gave each Christmas for the employees: “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” The point is to create an atmosphere that provides a joyous break with everyday life, and if that costs money, so be it.
But more than that, Dickens’ emphasis on relieving the miseries of poverty places a central focus on sharing whatever abundance we have with others—not only our family and friends, but on those whom society has otherwise disenfranchised. It is for this reason that even today, collections are taken to relieve the keenest needs of the poor, if only for one day. We can find all sorts of excuses for the lingering presence of the poor in our midst, but not on Christmas.
It has been pointed out by many that the angels who announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds in the fields proclaimed “peace to men of good will”, not “good will to men.” But it is precisely this spirit of generalized and universal good will, inherited from Dickens, which characterizes our contemporary spirit of Christmas, eclipsing the holiday’s religious aspects. Many Christians see this “secularization of Christmas” as a terrible thing.
But is it such a terrible thing to have one day a year when we are all filled with unreasoning joy and the encouragement to share that joy with others? Yes, it would be great if we could celebrate “Christmas all the year.” Yes, we tend to go a little overboard with the shopping and the decorating. But behind it, the philosophy is sound; Christmas, which commemorates the birthday of the Prince of Peace, is also a time to make each other happy. Christmas gives us a time to share our abundance, and feel not obligation, but love and joy. If this is the legacy of Charles Dickens, then a wonderful legacy it is.
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