Joy to the World: A Christmas Carol and the Attack on — and Defense of — Christmas
By Steven D. Greydanus
The "attack on Christmas" may be a hot story this year, but it’s nothing new. Over 350 years ago Christmas was forbidden in England by an act of Parliament under Cromwell’s anti-Catholic Puritan party; businesses were ordered to remain open, and even traditional Christmas fare such as plum pudding and mince pies were condemned as heathen. In Puritan New England, Christmas remained outlawed in Massachusetts until the second half of the nineteenth century.
Today, of course, the attack on Christmas comes not from anti-Catholic Puritans but from anti-Christian secularists. Traditional creches and even Christmas trees and Santas have been banished from public spaces. Retail chains have allegedly prohibited employees saying "Merry Christmas" and in at least one case evicted Salvation Army workers collecting for charity in front of their stores. At least one school distict banned the use of seasonal red and green, and another school struck even snowflakes and snowmen as acceptable references in its "winter concert."
Christmas movies, of course, remain a staple in Hollywood, though they are almost uniformly lame nowadays. Also, once upon a time it was common for Christmas films to make some mention of the actual meaning of Christmas, but in recent years such references have been pretty much entirely replaced by the concept of the "true spirit of Christmas," an anemic invocation of goodwill and camaraderie, vague faith, merry-making, and the like. A fine Boston Globe review of Christmas With the Kranks ridiculed the film for being "too chickenhearted to mention Jesus" — yet what was the last Christmas film that was not "chickenhearted" by this standard? Even the music in holiday films is resolutely secular; the soundtrack for The Polar Express featured over a dozen Christmas-themed songs from "Deck the Halls" to "White Christmas," but not so much as a "rum pa pum pum" of a genuine carol.
The non-religious Christmas fable is not, however, an invention of modern Hollywood. C. S. Lewis traces it back to Charles Dickens’ beloved short story "A Christmas Carol," in which Lewis notes a marked absence "of any interest in the Incarnation. Mary, the Magi, and the Angels are replaced by ’spirits’ of his own invention, and the animals present are not the ox and the ass in the stable but the goose and the turkey in the poulterer’s shop" ("The Decline of Religion," God in the Dock).
To be fair to Dickens, "A Christmas Carol" isn’t entirely devoid of Christian references. Setting the tone for the story in an opening-scene speech on the value of Christmas, Scrooge’s nephew first acknowledges "the veneration due to its sacred name and origin" before going on to speak of what, "apart from" that — "if anything belonging to it can be apart from that" — Christmas means to him (i.e., "a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time," etc.). The ghost of Jacob Marley alludes to the "blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode." And Bob Cratchit, returning home from church on Christmas day, repeats to his wife Tiny Tim’s comment about hoping "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."
But these are passing references. Lewis is right to say that "A Christmas Carol" isn’t really interested in the coming of Christ into the world. (The Christian element in Dickens’ tale is so thin that he even botches the name of a popular hymn, misquoting "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" as "God Bless You, Merry Gentleman.")
Does this mean that "A Christmas Carol" — a holiday staple with classic film versions starring Alistair Sim and George C. Scott, remade as recently as 1999 with Patrick Stewart in the lead role — is actually part of the attack on Christmas?
Another great English apologist, G. K. Chesterton, argues not. In a pair of essays on Dickens and Christmas — "Dickens and Christmas," chapter 7 of Charles Dickens, and "Christmas Books," chapter 11 of Appreciations and Criticisms — Chesterton defends "A Christmas Carol" precisely as a defense of Christmas, even though he acknowledges and indeed insists that we "must not ask Dickens what Christmas is, for with all his heat and eloquence he does not know" ("Christmas Books").
It is, Chesterton contends, a mystery, almost a divine joke, that Dickens, a "bustling, nineteenth-century man, full of the almost cock-sure common-sense of the utilitarian and liberal epoch," was at the same time so ardent about "defending the mince-pies and the mummeries of Christmas" ("Christmas Books"). What Dickens defends, to be sure, is not what Christians celebrate at Christmas. But he does defend the way in which Christian society has historically celebrated it; and that in itself, Chesterton argues, is a worthy thing — a point that may seem increasingly relevant in these Scrooge-like times.
"In fighting for Christmas," Chesterton writes, Dickens "was fighting for the old European festival," Christmas being "one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making" ("Dickens and Christmas"). Yet the merriment of Christmas goes beyond that of other Christian festivals. The hymns of Easter are joyful, but are more often stately and nuanced than the carols of Christmas, which tend to be boisterous and emotionally uncomplicated. Even the traditional English greeting "Merry Christmas" expresses this uniquely jolly Christmas spirit. Note the specificity of this word "merry" to this particular holiday; nobody says "merry Easter," "merry birthday," "merry Thanksgiving," or anything else. Christmas is uniquely a festival of merry-making, of mirthful joy and celebration.
Compared to other holidays, there is even an extravagance to the merry-making of Christmas — extravagance that is distorted and exaggerated in the grotesque excesses of our year-end shopping craze, but which isn’t synonymous with such excesses. Easter also is celebrated with feasting and festivities, but Christmas, coming as it does at the onset of winter, puts greater stress on the enjoyment of creature comforts and family togetherness — the warm hearth, the stocked larder, family and loved ones gathered around the well-laden table behind doors and windows closed against ice and snow.
"Give us the luxuries of life," Chesterton quotes, summing up this spirit of Christmas extravagance, "and we will dispense with the necessities." Of course even extravagance can be overdone, and too often is. But there is a proper extravagance to the Christmas festival that can be celebrated in such luxuries as feasting, gift-giving, seasonal music and concerts, and even traditional Christmas movies. In "A Christmas Carol," this spirit of extravagance, merry-making, and togetherness is celebrated in the festivities at Scrooge’s poor but happy nephew’s house and above all in the monstrous turkey that Scrooge sends anonymously to the Cratchits.
Because of the emphasis in Christmas merry-making on creature comforts and togetherness, Christmas is also uniquely the festival of Christian charity, charity being the virtue appropriate to a season in which hostile weather shuts us up together and the needs of the less fortunate are more pressing than ever.
"A Christmas Carol" emphasizes this theme of charity, not only in the emphasis on family togetherness, reconciliation, and social concern for the poor, but also in its broadside of the anti-population social planners who speak of "surplus population." It is Scrooge himself who uses this phrase in "A Christmas Carol," and it literally comes back to haunt him, as though Dickens is asking, with Chesterton, once we say there is a surplus, who can say where it is, or who is or is not a part of it ("Dickens and Christmas")?
Chesterton also observes a note of crisis or drama in the coming of Christmas. The anticipation of Christmas exceeds even that of Easter; the unopened presents, the Advent candles lit one by one, the vigil of Christmas Eve, the recalling of Joseph and Mary shuffling about Bethlehem searching for a place to stay — "[e]verything is so arranged that the whole household may feel, if possible, as a household does when a child is actually being born in it" ("Christmas Books").
Scrooge’s conversion, like many conversions, is just such a dramatic revelation out of crisis, "as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting," says Chesterton, adding slyly, "It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and more historic Christianity" ("Christmas Books").
"A Christmas Carol" is not a work of Christian imagination, but it is a work profoundly affected by Christian imagination, and the significance of the story’s Christian roots becomes more marked the further contemporary culture drifts from those roots. Not only is it essentially a morality tale, and a conversion story at that, but it takes seriously the idea of consequences in the next life for our actions in this life. The sufferings endured by Marley (and the other spirits of the departed that Scrooge witnesses) are due to the spiritual chains they forged, link by link, through their selfish acts in life. Marley’s state in some respects resembles that of a lost soul — although there are also hints of purgatorial suffering, particularly in his intervention on Scrooge’s behalf (it is through Marley’s graces that Scrooge is visited by the three spirits for his salvation).
Dickens’s Christmas spirits may be, as Lewis observed, "of his own invention," yet they are still agents of grace; Chesterton considers them suggestive of "that truly exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits" ("Dickens and Christmas"). The Christmas spirit with which many Christians will feel most at home is probably the Spirit of Christmas Present, with his passing resemblance to Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas; yet the most deeply Christian of the three spirits may be the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, who is quite simply Death by another name, and like the figure of Death in a medieval Christian danse macabre embodies the fearful admonition of the Latin proverb Memento mori, "Remember that you must die" — and, implicitly, consider how to amend your life as a result.
It’s worth noting, too, that the story’s essential Christian themes and Christmas motifs are in various cinematic versions enhanced which pay tribute in various ways to the true meaning of Christmas. The classic 1951 version starring Alistair Sim, for example, allows the Spirit of Christmas Present to refer to "the Child born in Bethlehem" who "does not live in men’s hearts only one day of the year, but in all the days of the year." The Spirit even goes so far as to declare that Scrooge’s fault was "not to seek" the Child in his own heart. The Patrick Stewart version adds a scene in which the rehabilitated Scrooge goes to church on Christmas, and tries to join in the singing of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," though he doesn’t know the words and needs to share a hymnbook.
Most film versions also include religious carols sung by characters and on the soundtrack. These include "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night" in the Sim version, "Good Christian Men, Rejoice!" and "I Saw Three Ships" in the Scott version, and "While Shepherds Watched Their Flock by Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" in the Stewart version.
At a time when politicians are talking about "holiday trees" and even candy canes are a target, Dickens’s jolly tale — in all its incarnations — is as welcome a tradition as a hearty "Merry Christmas" and a mince pie. If we reflect how startling that line about the Child of Bethlehem living in men’s hearts would have seemed in, say, The Polar Express, or how different the end of Christmas With the Kranks would have been had the singing at the Kranks’ party included some actual carols, we may have a new appreciation for the enduring value of this holiday staple’s genuine Christmas spirit.