Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Dickens of a Christmas

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 14, 2008

It’s a heck of a first line for a Christmas story, isn’t it?

"Marley was dead, to begin with."

Not much that’s very Christmas-y about that, is it?  “Marley was dead.”

           There is no way around it, none whatsoever. Marley was dead. Dead as a doornail. D-e-a-d. Dead.

We might hope that things will pick up from there. So did Dickens’ readers, hoping from a little holiday merriment from the page they had before them. So did Dickens’ family—facing serious debt, even poverty, as the literary career of the father of the household seemed to languish and sputter and settle in the doldrums.

Dickens had a lot riding on A Christmas Carol No publisher seemed especially interested in it, so he had published the work himself. Now, here he was, at Christmas time, writing about death.

And coldIn describing Ebenezer Scrooge the first time, Dickens says, "A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days [of summer] and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas."

             A Christmas story about death and cold—and, oh yes, ghosts and poverty and despair, all thrown in for good measure. It’s a strange piece of work, this Christmas Carol.

Which is perhaps why it has held a hold on us for so many years now. Because, you know what? We’re all kind of strange pieces of work, too. So Dickens struck a chord or two within us.

There was not such a large market for Christmas stories to begin with, back in 1843, when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. He claimed later that he had gotten the idea at a Christmas Eve service at the Unitarian Chapel in London , which he had joined a short while before. (So if you need any encouragement to come to church on Christmas Eve, there it is: maybe it will inspire you to write a literary classic!)

Christmas itself was not a major holiday back in the 1840s. It wasn’t a holiday at all for many of the poor, who, unlike Bob Cratchit, did not get the day off. The wealthy used Christmas an excuse for all sorts of conspicuous consumption. For many others, it was just another day in the year. When Scrooge complains that Cratchit is robbing him of a day's pay by asking to have Christmas off, he was not alone; he spoke for many people, on both sides of the class divide, when he called Christmas a “Humbug.”

          The Industrial Revolution was at this time in full swing. The old “bottom line” was—the old bottom line. It was all about profits and returns on investment. Many thought that the epitome of progress was to accumulate as much wealth as possible. The poor had to scramble to get what they could; often, they ended up in poor houses and debtors’ prisons. In the face of all this, the religion of the day seemed well-meaning, but irrelevant, out of touch, too slow to change with the times. Philanthropists tried to help where they could, but too often they seemed like the nice old men who came to visit Scrooge in Christmas Eve, seeking a donation—only to be turned back onto the street. Attempts to change society for the better seemed ineffectual and weak; too little in the face of an economic bulldozer.

          This was the culture in which Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, and if it sounds a little familiar to us, perhaps that’s another reason why the story continues to speak to our hearts and souls.

Scrooge has become a caricature, of course, the proto-typical old skinflint, the classic miser. But we know him well, don’t we? We all have known a Scrooge or two in our lives, haven’t we? The ones who refuse to acknowledge that there is any joy whatsoever in life—that the glass is always 52% empty—and you know it—that every silver lining has its cloud—and that there’s always that other shoe about to fall—and you know darn well, it’s going to fall right on you and me, and crush us to death!

We’ve all known our share of Scrooges. But even more, we’ve known the Scrooge inside each of us, too. That part of us which refuses to accept the free gifts of grace that life offers. Which refuses to stop give up the ghost without an even score. Which wants its pound of flesh, whatever it might cost. Which crushes in the bud all that is new and which, yes, sometimes, even delights in the misfortunes of others, if there’s more in it for us.

Scrooge isn’t just a miser and a skinflint; he’s the symbol of the dark side of human nature: a dark side we all share, if the truth be told.

But A Christmas Carol isn’t just about darkness—and cold—and death—and ghosts. If it was, there wouldn’t be much there to warm our hearts; it would be an even thinner gruel than the one Scrooge goes home and fixes for himself on Christmas Eve.

And A Christmas Carol isn’t just about Scrooge.  It’s about the Cratchits, too. And Scrooge’s nephew. And the guys who come to his door seeking donations. And Jacob Marley, now long dead. And the boy who goes and buys the goose for Scrooge on Christmas morning (“An intelligent boy! A remarkable boy!”)  
Dickens presents the whole panoply of human be-ing to us, and in so doing, holds up a mirror of our humanity before our eyes. How will we choose, he asks. How would we respond? What ghosts of past, present, and future haunt us?

The original readers of Dickens knew the Cratchits quite well, too, of course.  They had seen hundreds of Tiny Tims live out their short and brutal lives all–too-briefly in the face of a society that didn’t seem to care. As one writer has put it: “The story was an arrow aimed straight at the conscience of Victorian England.”  It was a risky move for a literary figure to make. How would his readers respond, Dickens must have asked himself. Would they respond like Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who inquires as to the Cratchits’ welfare, and then hurries home to make plans for his own Christmas feast? Would they respond like the solicitors, who come asking for donations, doing a little something to help the poor, albeit probably not very much, not nearly enough, in the face of the unmet needs of their society. But at least, they tried to light a candle rather than curse the darkness (and lighting candles in the darkness is an important part of what Christmas is about).
Would Dickens’ readers heed Jacob Marley’s admonition: "’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!’”
Or would they shake their heads, put down the book, and say: “Ugh! What a downer!” or “I don’t get it.” Or—“Who does that Charles Dickens think he is? I’m tired of all these go-gooder liberal guilt peddlers. Sorry, but charity begins at home (and stays there)!”
How do we respond to Scrooge’s transformation? By seeing it as a bit of Xmas nostalgia, and nothing else? By reading it as merely a charming old Christmas fable, just another story? Or do we bring the message of Dickens within—to do battle there with our own inner Scrooge?
Dickens must have wondered when he wrote his work what the reaction would be. He’d probably be wondering still, in a sense.
Such a treasure chest this little story is (to me, at least, and I’m sure many of you would agree)—on so many levels: literary, historical, spiritual, even socio-economic. Small wonder, then, that Dickens’ strange little Christmas story was such a success, even commercially. (It made Dickens a lot of money over the years.) But even more important, it transformed the way many people in Britain and in America(where the book became even more popular than in its homeland) came to see Christmas. As David Bumbaugh of the Unitarian Universalist church in SummitNew Jersey , has written:
“In…  A Christmas Carol, Dickens set the iconography of the great festival for all the subsequent generations. It is from Dickens that we derive our vision of snow falling quietly over a quaint old city, transforming its gray squalor into beauty. It is from Dickens that we derive our image of carolers, wrapped in mufflers and cloaks, wearing tall hats and bonnets, standing under softly glowing street lamps, as they sing to people hurrying hither and thither with packages under their arms. It is from Dickens that we derive our dream of a family gathered together around the hearth in perfect harmony and total accord. More than anyone else, Charles Dickens created the contemporary dream which we work so hard to incarnate every year when the great Winter festival comes around.”

Dickens went further, too. In his morality tale of the tight-fisted, grasping misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge and the poor, patient, loving, kind Tiny Tim, Dickens transformed Christmas in the popular mind from the sedate and detached religious festival it was in danger of becoming into a season of redemption and hope. As Rev. Bumbaugh goes on:

“The story of how a rich man was impotent to embrace life and love, and how a poor boy could love and hope despite life-threatening illness and want becomes a parable of promise and renewal when the magic of Christmas makes each of them the agent of the other's salvation. The life affirming cripple calls the miser back to life; the money of the miser saves the crippled boy's life. Christmas is a time of redemption for these two crippled beings who, at [that profound moment of grace], are fortunate enough to find each other. And that becomes a central part of our iconography of the season.”

Dickens didn’t only save Scrooge. He may have saved Christmas (in the modern mind, at least), as well.

Dickens reminds us of the profound interdependence that beats at the very heart of life, and that each of us has our own important role to play in the unfolding of our common human drama. The French critic Andre Maurois believed that the insistence of Dickens upon details—details—details—in writing down every aspect of a given situation in his work—all of the turkeys, sausages, stuffing—everything anyone could ever want to know about the plum pudding, the mistletoe, the holly—all of these long, detailed, descriptive passages that seem so “typically Dickensonian”, that perhaps drove us to distraction when we had to read Dickens in high school—arose from a deep sense within Dickens—a spiritual sense, really—that everything was critical to the existence of everything else.

Likewise, in the works of Dickens, people are shown to be deeply and intricately interrelated, too—and their actions are shown to reverberate in the lives of others, even more deeply than they realize. Everything—everyone—is connected and related, it seems. Sometimes, we grasp the reality of our interdependence only suddenly, violently—or in the apparent workings of providence, or fate, or grace—or when a ghost all but knocks us over the head with it.  But life is so much more than merely fate, Dickens says, and there are, truly, no mere coincidences. Life is, rather, the process of our own choices finding their consequences; seeds planted perhaps in the far distant past, finally coming to fruition, in ways never imagined possible.
Dickens also believed that most people were basically good most of the time, and that evil was perpetrated by a tiny fraction of society at the expense of all others. Looking around at the great mass of humanity, Dickens saw people who were basically decent, honest, and fair. But Dickens also allows that those with a depraved view of reality can impose their skewed sense of right and wrong upon those weaker than they are, and he would have agreed with Edmund Burke that all the forces of evil need to prosper is for enough good people to stand back and do nothing. 

But even for these worst scoundrels—even for Scrooge himself-- there was always hope. Even the most despicable, self-centered, loathsome creatures could change. A change of heart—a conversion experience—was always possible.

Even if the ways of the world are evil, this is not the way they need to be. “This is what will be,” voices of despair might well point out, in their frightening vision of the world that is to come. But remember Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Future (the most frightening ghost of all) finally finishes with him: “Assure me,” Scrooge implores the spirit, “that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

Dickens says—even to Scrooge—“You betchya you can change!” Dickens gives us hope that we may wipe away the writing on the stone and redeem ourselves and our nation and our world. Whatever the darkness—without and within-- we can, through our own honest efforts, recreate that place where the light still shines and neighbors and friends abide and help each other.  We can discern for ourselves, and for our society, our reason to begin again.

What we choose is what we are, Dickens believed; and we are free—every moment of our lives-- to choose the kind of man or woman we will be.

Dickens, like Blake before him, knew that we human ones “were made for joy and woe”, and he is truly masterful in portraying the tragedy amidst the joy and the joy amidst the tragedy of these lives we lead. That is why he touches us so deeply and so timelessly, perhaps; for that, truly, is where the true essence of spirituality lies, it seems to me—in the joy amidst the pain, and the pain amidst the joy.

In a different work, Charles Dickens once wrote “The truth of life is love.” And that perhaps boils it all down to its most essential point.

We sons and daughters of a different age—a time no less conflicted, no less the best of times and the worst of times-- could do worse than heed these simple words of that great man, Charles Dickens:

“The truth of life is love.”

If we heed those words, and act to make them real, each in our own way, then God will, indeed, bless us every one. And we will bless each other, and bless the world, as well.

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