“I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their house pleasantly….”
Thus wrote Charles Dickens in the preface of what is arguably his best known story, “A Christmas Carol.” The actual title of the book was “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas.” To this day, Dickens’ story of a man’s change of heart is familiar to just about everyone. It has been the subject of motion pictures, musicals, feature length cartoons, and countless television adaptations. And Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” has become the mantra that keeps many holiday-hating old geezers going during the season of shopping and madness that we call Christmas.
A common complaint about Christmas is that it has lost its meaning; that what was a religious remembrance has become a festival of gifting and wrapping and keeping the economy sound. As for salvation, Black Friday is the annual salvation of an economy; the coming of the Christ child–whose presence signals the release of humanity from bondage to sin–is at best anti-climactic and peripheral, at worst something that we now are embarrassed to talk about. This year, instead of a“Christmas tree,” the governor of Rhode Island ceremonially lighted a “Holiday Tree” in his state.
Yes, many are angered by the seeming “war on Christmas,” and the increasing secularization of this holiday. But, truth is, it may have been Dickens’ story of Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas–past, present, and future–that enshrined secularization of Christmas.
By the seventeenth century, Christmas was already as much a secular as a sacred holiday in England, and the first “War on Christmas” was waged not by atheists but by Puritans.
Although the pretext for the holiday celebrations was rooted in the religious remembrance of Christ’s birth, many of the more secular traditions that we associate with Christmas were already in place–and the celebrations sometimes got out of hand. The Oliver Cromwell Association notest that Christmases past were quite elaborate:
“The celebration of Christmas in seventeenth century England had many similarities with our own celebrations. Christmas Day itself, 25 December, was marked as a holy day, celebrating and commemorating the birth of Christ, but it also formed the first day of an extended period of celebration and merriment, lasting until early January – the Twelve Days of Christmas…..Churches, public buildings and private houses were often decorated with holly and ivy, rosemary and bays. People visited family, friends and colleagues, eating and drinking and exchanging presents, and the more affluent distributed ‘boxes’ containing money to servants, tradesmen and the poor. Special food and drink was available and was consumed in larger quantities than normal, including turkey and beef, mince pies, plum porridge and specially-brewed Christmas ale; taverns and taphouses did a roaring trade. “
Yes, there were parties, celebrations in the streets, carnivals and all sorts of carryings on: the twelve days of Christmas would have rivaled the New Orleans Mardi Gras in their decadence and immorality.
When Oliver Cromwell came to power, the largely Puritan Parliament began to “reform” society along more Godly lines. The celebration of Christmas was the first to go, or to be attacked. The reasons for this attack on the holiday were, first of all, the extravagance associated with the celebrations, which Puritans abjured, and the fact that the religious focus on Christmas hearkened back to the Roman Catholicism which England turned away from under Henry VIII.
But when England was restored to monarchy in 1660, and the old traditions slowly regained momentum. In truth, they never were eradicated. The “round hats” did their best, but people continued to behave during the Cromwell years the same way they had before. There’s an interesting message here, I think, for people who fear the “war on Christmas.” Powers that be can do what they want, but the people and their traditions can survive by just ignoring what becomes “politically correct.”
The appearance of Dickens’s short story in 1843 focused the minds of readers again on the mostly secular aspects of the holiday, and like most stories that get passed on from person to person, they create a paradigm for the way we behave. The frequently Victorian motifs we see in Christmas cards, in decorations around the house, are undoubtedly shadows of the ideas about the holiday expressed in works like those of Dickens. Art may mimic reality, but after a while reality starts to mimic art. And the focus on the secular aspects of the holiday may have served to separate the secular and religious notions of the season in the minds of readers from then on.
But what of the story itself? The story is one of transformation of character; or, rather, reawakening of character. And it is this, more than anything, that makes “A Christmas Carol” among the best and most unforgettable in literature. Oh, Dickens had his axes to grind: he was roundly critical of capitalism as it existed in Victorian England, and it was this dark and all absorbing capitalism that made of Scrooge the curmudgeon that he was. My favorite section of the story comes when Scrooge is approached by some men who are collecting money for the poor. “Are there no prisons?” Scrooge asks. He is assured that there are prisons–and workhouses; but the brave young missionary isn’t put off by Scrooge’s question, but goes for the kill:
“What shall I put you down for?’
‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.
‘You wish to be anonymous?’
‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’
‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’
‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Dickens’ story is powerful because the Ghosts are more scary than mere apparitions; more scary because they reawaken Scrooge to life by reminding him that he once loved, that people who barely make it through life are dependent upon him, and they could be made much happier–perhaps even continue to live–because of him. He has made a choice not to care; but the Ghosts show him what life is like, for everyone–himself included–because of that choice.
Perhaps Christ is not the subject of this Christmas story, but I can’t help thinking that he would endorse the message. This story is not at all inconsistent with the religious theme of the season. Christmas is a time when hearts can change. That’s scary, though. It’s easier just to go on the way we are.
Perhaps it requires a good scare to wake us up to what we are, and what life would be like if we were just a little nicer to each other.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris