Keeping Christmas

Of all the Christmas stories ever told since St. Luke penned the first and true one – of all the books and shows and movies themed to the season, all the Christmas specials – the greatest is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a tour de force for the ages. The story’s greatness is made up of many different parts – the immortal Scrooge, the chillingly evocative Marley, the color that breathes through every written line, the brilliant dialogue, witty and profound by turns. Not least among the sources of greatness is Dickens’ wholehearted embrace of joy and his endless delight in material pleasures. The Ghosts of Christmas taught Scrooge to keep Christmas with charity, which is a lesson to the stingy; they also taught him to keep it with joy, which is a lesson to the rest of us.

One of the glories of A Christmas Carol is how seamlessly it weaves together joy and pleasure. Scrooge proves this rule in the inverse. He takes “his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern;” he lives in “a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard.” Christmas Eve finds him eating gruel by a low fire in a dark, empty house. Certainly Ebenezer Scrooge, the old miser, had grown as cold as the gold he loved, and this is seen in his hardness toward all human beings, those he met and those he only heard about. But it is also seen in the unremitting bleakness of his life; he never enjoyed himself.

If Scrooge’s cold heart found manifestation in the severity of his life, the warmth and generosity of others found expression in fun and the most universal of physical pleasures. Old Fezziwig gives a party, full of dancing and cake and roast meat and mince-pies; Fred gives a party, with plentiful games and excellent food and lots of laughter; the Cratchits have their own party, the children rejoicing over pudding and stuffed goose. When the Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge out of his gloomy rooms to see Christmas, he takes him first to the shops, and the descriptions provided of the wares – Norfolk apples and Spanish onions, chestnuts and candied fruit – are truly lyrical.

Through all of this, Dickens finds his way to a vital truth: Joy, even the most spiritual, needs material expression. The joy of the LORD is your strength, Nehemiah once told the people, and then sent them off to feast. This is itself a defense of Christmas – if not to the Scrooges of the world, then to the Puritans. The material pleasures of Christmas are empty without the spiritual meaning, but with it, they are not superfluous. Joy naturally overflows into pleasure. We celebrate the coming of Christ with food and presents because this is how humans celebrate everything. There is no point in demanding purely spiritual observances from those who are not purely spiritual beings.

Especially at Christmas, when we remember how God, becoming incarnate, took on our physical nature, not to destroy it but to resurrect it anew. So keep Christmas with charity, and keep it with joy, and keep it with pleasure – for this, too, can be done to the glory of God.

The Founder of the Time

I have been continuing my read of Christmas Books of Dickens. There is a genre of Christmas entertainment – songs, movies, stories – that has been called “Christmas bubblegum”: high on sugar, low on substance. Dickens’ stories, for all their sentiment, could never be classed in it. They have too much sadness, and too much religion. (Dickens also has an unaccountable tendency to detour into ghost stories while telling Yule-tide tales.)

Here is a brief passage from “The Seven Poor Travellers” (available in full here):

Going through the woods, the softness of my tread upon the mossy ground and among the brown leaves enhanced the Christmas sacredness by which I felt surrounded. As the whitened stems environed me, I thought how the Founder of the time had never raised his benignant hand, save to bless and heal, except in the case of one unconscious tree. By Cobham Hall, I came to the village, and the churchyard where the dead had been quietly buried, ‘in the sure and certain hope’ which Christmas-time inspired. What children could I see at play, and not be loving of, recalling who had loved them! No garden that I passed was out of unison with the day, for I remembered that the tomb was in a garden, and that ‘she, supposing him to be the gardener,’ had said, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.’ In time, the distant river with the ships came full in view, and with it pictures of the poor fishermen, mending their nets, who arose and followed him, – of the teaching of the people from a ship pushed off a little way from shore, by reason of the multitude, – of a majestic figure walking on the water, in the loneliness of night. My very shadow on the ground was eloquent of Christmas; for did not the people lay their sick where the mere shadows of the men who had heard and seen him might fall as they passed along?

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, in the Name of Him who “made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

Christmas Books of Dickens

Two nights ago, in honor of the season, I picked up Christmas Books of Dickens, a volume I bought at my library’s fall book sale. The first story was, of course, A Christmas Carol.

I last read A Christmas Carol a year or two ago, and reading it again I was struck anew by what a masterpiece it is. I’m not referring only to the ingenuity of the story, or the immortal characters; I don’t mean only Dickens’ wonderful tribute to the Christmas season, or his incomparable excoriation of greed, selfishness, and the love of Mammon. The whole story flows with skill. Dickens’ mastery flashes out in a thousand glints.

There is the eloquence of the dialogue. So much of it is profound. When Scrooge begs Marley to “speak comfort” to him, the Ghost replies, “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.” You could stack up ten standard Hollywood movies that, all put together, did not carry as much meaning as that one reply.

Where not elevated by truth, the dialogue is still elevated by intelligence. Even Scrooge, irascible old doubter, makes his rejoinders well. “You,” he tells Marley’s Ghost, “may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

There is Dickens’ use of adjectives. An old rule of thumb in writing is that when it comes to adjectives, less is more. Dickens did not obey this rule. Nineteenth century literature is probably more suited to abundant adjectives than twenty-first century literature. But more than that, Dickens was a great writer; he knew better than to waste words. Consider the string of adjectives he applied to Scrooge: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

Each word sharpens the portrait of the old sinner.

Then there is Dickens’ ability to give character to almost anything he turns his pen to. There are many excellent examples of this in A Christmas Carol, but I will limit myself to three. For the first, Scrooge’s home, to the extent he could be said to have one: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with the other houses, and forgotten the way out again.”

Second is Dickens’ description of Norfolk Biffins (a kind of apple): “There were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”

Finally, Scrooge himself: “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage to him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.”

Lastly, there is Dickens’ subtle humor: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot – say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance – literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.”

Now my last quotation, when Scrooge is waiting for the Ghost of Christmas Present to appear: “Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being  only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it.”

As such an old and well-loved story, A Christmas Carol can be read online. Merry Christmas – ’tis the season.