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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

Why Dickens Is The One Christmas Tradition We Need To Keep

“There are many things from which I have derived good, but by which I have not profited,” returned Scooge's nephew. “Christmas among them." --Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

My family was only partially successful in keeping Christmas traditions. Tradition is tied to religion and ethnicity, and we had neither, really. We were only nominal Presbyterians, and Prebyterianism isn't known for yule logs and wassail bowls. Ethnically, we were Slavs on my mother's side, but any connection to the old country with its feast days and folkways had been purposefully severed by my grandparents. Names had been changed, and the old language was never spoken, lest we seem insufficiently American. My mother, rest her soul, did manage the Santa smoke and mirrors thing marvelously, and we left cookies and hot cocoa, and sometimes went caroling, or for a drive to "look at the lights" in the rich part of town, but that was about all she could manage on her own.

Beyond these few observances, there wasn't much that could be counted on to occur in the same way and with the same magic year after year, and not much that I've carried with me into adulthood and passed to my own children. There was, however, one Christmas tradition that was never neglected, and observed with as much reverence as any sacrament, and that was to make absolutely sure that before the day was over (and preferably in the late, snow-blue hours of Christmas Eve, before being marched off to bed so that my exhausted mother could wrap all thirty packages), we watched together some version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, preferably one that was old enough to wear the dust of authenticity (my personal favorite was the 1938 edition with Reginald Owen as Scrooge--produced by Joseph Mankiewicz and with a score by Franz Waxman).

Like It's A Wonderful Life, O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, and any other Christmas story worth retelling year after year (including the original one), A Christmas Carol is a darker parable than its many lightweight adaptations would suggest. The dense, toxic fog of coal-smoke pervades Dickens' London, the cold is unforgiving, and the poor are truly wretched. Through this bleak milieu walks a character who "edged his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance." Ebenezer Scrooge lends himself to parody, but this is not the way Dickens wrote him. Not simply vile, stingy, and pitiless, he is one of those people who can suck all joy out of a room just by crossing its threshold. For Dickens, he was all that stood in opposition to the hopeful bells of Christmas morning. And there was no question that his counting house stood for all that we would now call Social Darwinism. Thus, his redemption is nothing less than a miracle.

Dickens was a masterful storyteller, and so he took care--even given the novella's fable-like tone--not to make Scrooge a caricature of greed and selfishness. His coat of bitterness was an accretion from a long life of failed hopes and failed heart; his misanthropy was born not only from a misreading of humanity, but from the loss of love, the loss of grace, and a defensive abandonment of empathy. But somewhere beneath this crust of pustulent sores, there was still a man. And this--the redeemability of even those souls left gathering dust at the pawn shop--is the enduring message of Christmas.

It wasn't hard for me to imagine my family as a twentieth century version of the Cratchits. We were as poor as the proverbial church mice, chased by debt and constant uncertainty. As with the Cratchits, there was illness in the family, though it wasn't Tiny Tim's polio but my father's manic-depression (or whatever--they simply called it "a psychosis") and what had been left in the wake of his abandonment that kept our home enshrouded in a choking miasma that, like Dickens' London fog, seemed to "come pouring in at every chink and keyhole." The empty chair at the dinner table was not for Tim, but for my dad. And so, the roles of both Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit fell to my mom, with occasional help from the pastor of our church. There was a Scrooge in our story, too, and I prayed each Christmas for her to be visited by her own ghosts, but that's where life differs from fiction. My grandmother needed at least three nights of haunting.

What made the Cratchit family worthy of their central role in A Christmas Carol was their determination to "keep Christmas," as Dickens put it, in spite of their hardscrabble lives. This is true down to the littlest and weakest of them, Tiny Tim, who we learn from The Ghost of Christmas Present will not live to see another December 25, "if these shadows remain unaltered by the future." When we first meet the Cratchits, last-minute preparations are underway for a modest but lovingly-made Christmas dinner, and Bob has just come in from church, carrying Tiny Tim on his shoulders. Mrs. Cratchit asks her husband if the little boy has behaved himself, and Bob replies that he was "good as gold," and then adds, with a catch in his throat, "...he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” Even when Mrs. Cratchit scowls at her husband's toast to Scrooge as "the master of the feast," it only takes a gentle reminder from him for her to soften and join in raising her glass. After all, their lives are far richer than those of the ragged families who huddle around the fire grates. "I'll toast his health," she says, "For your sake and the Day's."

For your (his, her, their) sake, and the Day's. That's all you need to remember for a happy Christmas.

Doubtless there are postmodern critiques of A Christmas Carol that mark Dickens as a classic Christian reformer in the Age of Empire, and find his sentiments ironic and his charity a little too easy. But they are making the error of all deconstruction, because A Christmas Carol is not simply a product of its time and its author's social status. It speaks, using the Christian language its readership knew best, of something timeless and trans-religious, something that all too many self-described Christians of our time have evidently forgotten in their equation of Christian righteousness with privilege and insularity. Dickens could not make it plainer or more relevant than to give the following speech to the Ghost of Christmas Present (a stand-in for Christ himself), in response to Scrooge's complaint about losing business on Sunday, "in the name of your family":

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

Take that, Westboro Baptist Church, Ralph Reed, and all you Ayn Rand-ian Christians.

What finally turns Scrooge is a glimpse of what may be the most terrible future of all: not death, but the discovery that, for lack of love, your life has added up to nothing. Scrooge, being the owner of a counting house, understands credits and debits, and sees that his are not at all in balance. In giving his villain this epiphany, and this chance for "reclamation," Dickens may indeed have been a creature of his times, when faith in "progress" reigned and the possibility of grace was granted to all. Our Wall St. traders, disruptive innovators, and megachurch faith peddlers often seem to have hearts far harder than that of Ebenezer Scrooge. Their bent, and that of our age, is more nihilist than optimist. But that, like so many things, is just a matter of perspective. If I could wave the Ghost of Christmas Present's magic torch and sprinkle a little of its goodwill tonic over the people of the world, it would be in hopes that at least a few of them would adopt my family's tradition, and "keep Christmas in their hearts," even if only for one day a year.

God bless us, every one.

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