Put the Dickens Back in Christmas

In the late 1600’s in colonial Boston, the celebration of Christmas was against the law. Indeed, anyone evidencing the “spirit of Christmas” could be fined five shillings. In the early 1800’s, Christmas was better known as a season for rioting in the streets and civil unrest.1 However, in the mid-1800’s some interesting things changed the cultural response to the feast and, in 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday (which is to say that prior to 1870, Christmas was not a day-off in America). What happened?

American Christmas demonstrates the amazing influence of literature on a culture. The first important book was by the author, Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winckel fame):

In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended – in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.2

The second book, however, was, by far, the more influential: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When Dickens is dubbed, “the man who invented Christmas,” it is not far from the truth. For the American cultural celebration of Christmas largely began through the popularity of Dickens’ classic story. That same fact, though, accounts for much of the non-religious aspects of America’s celebration.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does not overlook the birth of Christ. It presumes the religious aspects of the day and its presence is woven throughout every part of the story-line. There is a brief mention of Bob Cratchett and his son, Tiny Tim, attending Church on the day. But it was not this part of the story that caught the popular imagination. All told, it was the “spirit” of Christmas that sold America on the importance of the day.

Dickens wrote in the depths of the Victorian era. That period was marked, both in England and America, by a rise of romanticism, a popular sentimentality for “old things,” “traditions,” and “customs.” The century before had been dominated by the Enlightenment, when all things rational ruled the day. Indeed, it is not incorrect to see the sentimentality of the Victorian period as a reaction to the coldness of reason. It was a swinging of the cultural pendulum.

America’s religious history has been a conflicted mix since the very beginning. The New England colonies (among the earliest) were settled largely by Puritans, dissenters from the Church of England, who wanted a radical reform of English Christianity. Unable to achieve their desires in England, they came to America and established their Churches here. They opposed Church festivals and frivolities of almost every sort. Their strict and dour form of Christianity waned and morphed over the decades, becoming a fairly moderate version of generalized Protestantism. The lower colonies (Virginia and to the South) were settled (officially) by Anglicans. However, migrations quickly populated those areas with dissenters, particularly the Scots-Irish who were largely Presbyterian with Baptists as well. Catholics were a tiny minority, restricted, for the most part, to Maryland.

English Churches outside of the Catholic and Anglican were non-liturgical. The “feast” of Christmas was as absent as the “feast” of anything else. It was not part of their consciousness. Thus, the growth of a popular Christmas in the mid to late 19th century took place outside the walls of the Church. It became a cultural holiday, with an emphasis on family and the home.

Surprisingly, Christmas is probably far more a part of Protestant Church life in America today than at any time in our history. But the echoes of cultural Christmas remain strong. When Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, Christianity in America revisits its conflicted past. It is not unusual to see Churches of a more Evangelical background cancelling Sunday services, deferring to Christmas as a “family” celebration. For liturgical Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.) such a practice seems scandalous in the extreme.

I might note, however, that the “power” of Christmas as an event in our culture, is rooted in the culture rather than the Church. In the Orthodox Church, Christmas is but one of twelve major feast days. If those feast days fall anytime other than a Sunday, attendance at Church will be thin indeed. And though Christmas is one of the three greatest of the twelve (Pascha, Christmas, Theophany), only Christmas and Pascha (always on a Sunday) receive great attention in America. Those of us who feel a certain superiority in our Church’s celebration of the Christmas feast, would do well to reflect on our own neglect of the other feasts.

This is not an article about what “should” be. Cultures are what they are and got that way by their peculiar history. If America were an Orthodox or Catholic country in its beginning, many of the other major feasts would likely be national holidays and their customs would be widespread. Such is the case elsewhere in the world.

There are protests against the secular Christmas that say, “Put the Christ back in Christmas!” From a liturgical point of view I’ve wanted to add, “And put the Mass back in Christmas!” It is, after all, a feast of the Christian Church. Neither of these, however, will likely be dominant in a culture that once had little Christmas at all.

Another suggestion I might make is to “put the Dickens back in Christmas.” I can think of no better homage to the man who “created” the modern celebration of the holiday than to read his delightful A Christmas Carol. If you do not want to read, watch one of the many faithful cinematic versions of the book. My favofite is the version with Jim Carrey .

But, more than this, would be the moral of Dickens’ story: Christmas is well-kept by a life of generosity and kindness. That dear story is one of profound repentance, the healing of relationships and the righting of wrongs. Dickens’ Christmas was synonymous with a life lived in accordance with the gospel. He said it well at the end of his story:

Bob Cratchit was very surprised, and so were many people who found Scrooge so changed. Scrooge became a better person. To Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. Scrooge became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city or town in the world could know. It was always said of Scrooge, that he knew how to keep Christmas well. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

I absolutely think that Christmas should be a time for Christians to gather in Church to give thanks for the birth of Christ. But outside its doors, no one of us could do better than Scrooge. The busy-ness of Christmas, as well as the business of Christmas, could do well to listen to the words of Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, the tortured soul doomed to wander the world in chains. Scrooge observed to him that he was always a good man of business. Marley replied:

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Would that such business were as popular as the tinsel and trees. Thank you Charles Dickens, for having said it so well.

Footnotes for this article

  1. For a short article on the history of Christmas in America see this article.
  2. ibid.

22 comments:

  1. One of my brothers has the habit of saying ‘God Bless Us, Every One’ quite frequently. Yes, I’m pretty sure he says it with the capital letters.

  2. Thank you for this Fr. Stephen! I try to read “A Christmas Carol” each year during Advent and I always find a “turn of phrase” or “wording” that strikes my heart as what Our Lord, the Lover of Mankind, wants us to think of our fellow men and women. I also try to watch a variety of the movies, some are very old and freely available on the internet. It is interesting to see what parts of the story a movie chooses to emphasize or how it chooses to express the ghosts. Our family favorite is “A Muppet Christmas Carol” and the full length version with all the songs. Glory to God for All Things!

  3. Well said, Fr. Stephen. I’ll dissent from the Jim Carey version of A Christmas Carol, in favor of the 1999 version with Patrick Stewart!

  4. Fr. Stephen, have you read Samantha Silva’s book entitled “Mr. Dickens and His Carol”? I find it delightful and pertinent, also. Thank you for your articles and for all you do for your extended congregation!

  5. The words that have always taken precedence over everything else are Marley melancholy: “I wear the chains I forged in life…” Which gives rise to his admonishment to Scrooge to repent. So even in the “non-churchy” version of Christmas repentance is the key it seems.

    It would be quite easy to tell a thoroughly Orthodox “Christmas Carol” without doing a great deal of violence to the original I think.

    God forgive me a sinner, and lead me into a true and joyous celebration of our Lord’s Birth.

  6. My favorite memory of childhood was of my father getting out that old leather bound book on Christmas eve and reading “A Christmas Carol.” I attribute much of what I am to the shaping of that work. I learned big heartedness and charity from it. How well I remember the time in front of the fire listening to my father read that tale. I agree, let us put the Dickens back into Christmas. How I wish I could hear him read it again this year.

  7. I categorize American Christmas as one of those weird things that I’ll never understand. If I must watch a Dickens-ish movie, it will be Bill Murray’s Scrooged.

  8. Ook,

    I believe the Christmas tradition is just one more way God chooses to reach out to all His children. He is in everything, speaking to us always. Being swallowed by a whale was weird too, but it made a connection!

  9. We watched the 1984 cinematic version with our kids last night. When i was a child I was always taken with this story and the haunted universe it promised. 30+ years later I am still fascinated by its implications. You, Father, call it the ‘one story universe’ which I like very much.

    Last night i was thinking on what all that ‘means’ in a way. My own journey to Orthodoxy was haunted and strange. But I suppose God will never cease to look for us, no matter how we turn our backs. If we allow for it, God will find us and help guide our shoulders in an about face back to Him. Much like Scrooge. And just like Scrooge, we are invited to be fully human.

    The ‘magic’ of Christmas is that at this time of year perhaps more than any other in American culture, it feels *so very possible* to be as human as we are invited to be. No author detailed this better. The ‘Dread Mystery of the Incarnation’ is truly awesome.

    Thank you for the post. Merry Christmas, father, to you and your family. Merry Christmas to the other people frequenting this page as well.

  10. I admit I prefer the 1984 George C Scott version but I have not yet seen the animated Disney version staring Jim Carrey. I shall try to watch it tonight (or at least this week).

  11. Byron,
    I watched the Carrey version 9 years ago at an extremely crucial point in my life. Any version would likely have had the same effect – but it was that one that I saw. And so, I have an emotional bond with it. I rewatched it this year (as I have each year since) with my wife.

    My wife and I were married on Dec. 19 in 1975 – during Christmas break when she was a senior in college, and I a junior. It turned terribly cold. We honeymooned in Charleston, and it was unseasonably cold. So, mostly we sat in our room and watched old Christmas movies. Believe it or not, it was my first time to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, also Christmas in Connecticut, and The Bishop’s Wife. All the great classics. To this day, these are movies we watch again each year with very rich and warm memories (we’ve forgotten how cold it was).

    This past Saturday was our 45th anniversary. We’ve both been under quarantine because of COVID exposure, though we were just cleared today. So, locked in together again – with my favorite person in the whole world. I have very little of which to complain.

  12. Father, I watched the Jim Carrey version last night. Very good, but I must say prefer live action. I still need to see some of the older versions, which are considered classics.

    I have never seen Christmas in Connecticut or The Bishop’s Wife. I now have them on my list to watch (although I’ll have to fit them in around The Year Without a Santa Claus, which is a guilty pleasure of mine.)….

  13. Byron,
    One of the things I’ve learned this year is that I take no pleasure in watching anything alone. If my wife is not here, I cannot bear to see a movie. It is simply the shared pleasure of watching something together that I enjoy. There are any number of things in these idle evenings that we have started to watch, only to stop, and agree that it’s not for us. And, any film that she enjoys is a delight for me.

  14. Father what a blessing to be “cooped up” with your wife. I recently had six weeks with my lovely wife. We were not under house arrest but she could not use her right a due to shoulder surgery. We seldom went out and were together 24-7 during that time. Quite an exercise in humility for both of us. It was harder on my wife because she is gregarious with lots of family locally. I am a bit of a troglodyte anyway.
    Since I retired in April I am working harder than ever being a house husband.
    We too enjoy watching TV together. Classic English detective shows for their wit and overall humanity. They make the point that every human life is valuable.

    May our good Lord continue to bless, sustain and protect you, your bride and your parish.

  15. I’m so grateful for for this blog and community! May God bless you all in this feast of His Incarnation!

    I’m also grateful for the list of Christmas movies. I see such occasions as simply times to sit and cuddle and laugh together.

    It might be good to do similar with stories read aloud too. I used to do that for my younger brother when we were children. Sometimes we would improvise the story to be more funny than intended, mainly to laugh together and to enjoy our silliness together.

  16. A Christmas Carol is so well beloved in my family. Our favorites are the Patrick Stewart version, followed by the Muppets. 🙂 I like that the TV musical with Kelsey Grammar (sp.) includes the scene with Belle and her husband and her houseful of noisy, happy children. My boys especially like the Jim Carey version. We give extra points to any version that includes Ignorance and Want. I am accused of keeping a big, goofy smile on my face whilst watching The Man Who Invented Christmas. I am a huge Dickens fan in general and an A Christmas Carol (in Prose, Being a Ghost Story Christmas) in particular. This article was a joy to read, and it was fun writing this comment, too. A blessed Advent!
    P.S. In addition to Father’s classic recommendations above, I recommend Remember the Night with Fred Macmurray and Barbara Stanwyck. It is about the love of family making all the difference.

  17. Not only do Bob and Tim go to church on Christmas, so does Scrooge!
    Right after Scrooge repents of his miserliness to the gentleman collecting for the poor, Dickens gives us these four words:
    He went to church

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