Charles Dickens's War on Christmas

Charles Dickens's War on Christmas
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If Christmas is under siege, it is not from the use of the vague greetings "Happy Holidays" but from the transformation of Christmas from a religious feast to a secular holiday. The secularization of Christmas may be accelerating, but it is not new. The tendency in that direction is evident in a careful examination of Charles Dickens's iconic story A Christmas Carol.

In all fairness, Dickens does acknowledge the sacred basis of Christmas. Exactly four times. The first comes from the mouth of Scrooge's nephew Fred:

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,'' returned the nephew: "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!'' [Emphasis added]

The second is what Marley's ghost says in his effort to convert Scrooge: "At this time of the rolling year...I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!''

Third, in his description of the party at Fred's, Dickens penned: "But they didn't devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself."

Finally, returning from Christmas Day services with Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit confides in his wife that Tim "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."

Dickens also makes two references to worship being part of Christmas, one being the passage above, the other coming early in the narrative of Scrooge's sojourn into the world with the Spirit of Christmas Present: "But soon the steeples called good people all, to church and chapel, and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and with their gayest faces."

Dickens also invokes God in a couple of other places, though not drawing an explicit link between Christmas and the birth of the Christ. Overall, the book has plenty to make an atheist apoplectic.

The cited passages, however, to which Dickens devoted 355 words, are dwarfed by the many, long, detailed sections in which Dickens describes Christmases past, present, and future without any reference or even suggestion of a religious basis. The description of the party at Fezziwig's warehouse uses 963 words. The Spirit of Christmas past shows Scrooge the ecstatic pandemonium of the Christmas of the family of his former fiancé Belle. Dickens devotes 542 words to that scene. The description of the appearance of the Spirit of Christmas Present takes 198 words; the description of the Spirit himself receives another 128 words. That Spirit takes Scrooge on a tour of Christmas in London and around the world. Scrooge sees material abundance and abundant human fellowship. Dickens wrote that section using only 1027 words.

The overwhelming emphasis of Dickens book falls into the category of secular Christmas; sacred Christmas gets relatively short shrift. The pattern is even more pronounced in the film versions of the story, and especially in the more recent renditions of it.

Here I must consider the rebuttal embedded in Fred's praise of Christmas "apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that..." In other words, the sacred source of Christmas makes all that is associated with Christmas sacred. I would be a much happier man if I believed that to be so.

I see other holidays that have become effectively divorced from their origin. Halloween is the most egregious case, but it also seems that Independence Day and Memorial Day have become largely severed from their patriotic roots, unless patriotism consists solely in detonating fireworks. How long can the good things of secular Christmas persist if the holiday is severed from its sacred source? Is it not clearly the case that commerce and consumerist greed are transforming Christmas into hedonist consumption?

How long can Christmas seem to serve both God and Mammon? 

So, for Christians, there is a "war on Christmas." But the battle lines are not drawn at the use of the name "Christmas" as opposed to "holidays" and the appropriate course of action is not to insist on that name but rather to find ways to preserve its sacred nature, even if it is just in our private practices.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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