Christmas is more than Dickens

Published 10:58 am Monday, December 22, 2008

With the transparent book title “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (2008), Lee Standiford is somewhat repetitious by adding the consequently almost unnecessary subtitle, “How Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.” The explanation seems unnecessary because many cultural historian had asserted this judgment. In large measure, it is reasonable. The novel did rescue Dickens’ career and revive a certain kind of holiday spirit. Yet, Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is as much a distraction as contribution. We can appreciate Charles Dickens’ cultural contribution without respecting its distraction from the actual meaning of Christmas (Christ Mass), a meaning Dickens never understood.

Earlier contributions to the development of the Christmas myth of secular celebration began with such as Washington Irving’s “Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” (1819) and Clement Moore’s even more popular poem, “The Night Before Christmas” (1823), which almost enshrined the mythical Santa Claus. The holiday (not actually holy day) tradition continued, and in 1840 Queen Victoria’s consort Albert installed a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. By 1848 the British celebration had become American, and we ran away with it.

Charles Dickens was moved by a recently acquired compassion for England’s very poor, the seed of which was his own childhood poverty. At the same time, he was slipping back into “straightened conditions,” though England’s best-selling writer. His live-in father was a spendthrift in his large family. And then his wife announced the coming of their fifth child.

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Dickens’ October 1843 speech in Manchester, the first modern industrial city, left him “disgusted and astonished” at the conditions of the working poor.

Upon return to London, he poured himself into a new kind of novel for six weeks. He delivered the manuscript of A Christmas Carol to his publisher in late November with release to be a few days prior to Christmas.

In many respects, Dickens did another take on the Bible’s account of the advent of Messiah and, so, its observance as Christmas. In Dickens’ take on Christmas, the herald angels are replaced by human ghosts, and the infant Jesus, born of a virgin, is replaced by a crippled child. His salvation is economic and not moral and accomplished not by the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross but by revived human generosity. And this, as noble as it surely is, is not the leading of the Holy Spirit. In a word, this is raw secular humanism at Christmas.

Dickens came a little closer to the Christ event with “The Life of Our Lord, written expressly for his children,” which he completed in 1849. It remained unpublished for 85 years, however, until the wife of his youngest child released it for newspaper serialization in 1934. I read parts of it to my literature students each Christmas time.

It begins: “My dear children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ.”

Delightful story that it is, Dickens ignored the gospel. Jesus, he wrote, was a very good man who was killed by very bad men, and we should try to be as good as Jesus. Nothing in Dickens talks about the Savior who died to save people from the death of their sin and make them good by his salvation.

A Dickensonian Christmas, which has become the usual, is delightful in and of itself. But a holiday with a goose and not the Christ isn’t nearly enough to make it Christmas. Hold on to all the cheer of Dickens’ fiction, but lay hold of the Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.

Merry Christmas.