I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas... It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous, and demoralizing subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press; on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.
From: Dramatic Opinions and Essays: With an Apology, by Bernard Shaw
Really, who can blame them? Those of us who celebrate a secular Christmas have so much to contend with. I used to grumble about the holiday season beginning right after Halloween, but this year the blitz started in September. A quarter of the year devoted to the message: buy! buy! BUY! Then, on the day after Thanksgiving, our masters tossed us a few coins and laughed as we scrambled for them, trampling each other to be the first into Wal-Mart when it opened at midnight. How empty and worthless would our lives be if we didn’t get the latest gadget made in China? What would the kids say if they didn't find the latest videogame under the tree? Where will the money come from to pay for those presents our family and friends expect or demand? Stress hangs like sludge in the winter air — so thick you can almost chew on it.
Worst of all, if I hear “The Little Drummer Boy” one more time, I may snap.
There was a Christmas several years ago that my wife and I spent with relatives in the suburbs. After a day of standard family celebrating, night came early, and we decided to step out of the overheated house to get some fresh air. We bundled in the requisite layers, added hats, gloves, scarves, and boots, and bravely went outdoors. It was bone-numbingly cold out there, one of the coldest nights I’ve ever known, yet there was something pure and cleansing about it, too. Snow blanketed the ground and the boughs of the black trees; the only light came from the moon reflecting off that snow and dimly from the living room window. The sky was a velvety black, through which stars — layer upon layer of stars to an inconceivable depth — burned in pinpricks of searing light. I had a sudden wave of exhilaration and fear, which made me think that for once I understood what Christmas was all about; although it only lasted the briefest moment, I have never forgotten it.
Somehow or other I always manage to slip into my own quiet version of the Christmas spirit. I enjoy reflecting on how all the Christmases of my life link up into a sort of chain of tradition, taking me as far back as I want or dare to go. I listen to all sorts of Christmas music, and it surprises me how the old carols, when stripped of syrupy popular arrangements, can invoke a real sense of mystery and awe. (For the last few years I’ve been enchanted by the group Anonymous 4 and their various CDs of early Christmas music, such as On Yoolis Night.) Thanks to DVDs I can watch my favorite Christmas movies year after year; a new favorite of the last few years is the French film La Buche, a tart, funny, cynical, and very humane view of Christmas with a Gallic twist. Since so much of my emotional makeup revolves around reading books, thinking about books, and the memory of books read, of course there are Christmas books and stories I return to again and again, such as A Literary Christmas, Christmas at the New Yorker, and Christmas Stories.
Which brings us back, as Christmas invariably does, to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.
Back in December 2008 I wrote another blog post about Dickens and quoted Scrooge’s nephew extolling the virtues of Christmas. I’ll quote it again, if only to counterbalance the Shavian viewpoint I started out with:
“…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!"
The truth is, I never tire of A Christmas Carol. It is far from the sentimental story some people seem to think because it is carved out of the grim realities of the Victorian era — a period of prosperity which, in its great disparity between the rich and poor, unfortunately reflects our own. Dickens knew he had achieved something special with this story, and even though he tried to repeat its success in his other Christmas books, such as The Cricket on the Hearth and The Chimes, he never even came close.
Did Dickens celebrate the sort of Christmas he wrote about? Certainly not in his miserable childhood. When he was an adult, the spirit of Christmas jollity was more of an idealization than an actuality. He longed for the benevolence that his Christmas books imply, but it was not a quality that figured largely in his own nature.
To discuss the life and work of Charles Dickens, please join me for “Out of the Blacking Factory: Charles Dickens at the New York Public Library,” a free presentation in the South Court classrooms on Friday, December 16th, at 2:15.