Did Dickens Really Rescue Christmas?

Paul Edwards | “The Paul Edwards Program,” WLQV Detroit | Thursday, December 18, 2008

Did Dickens Really Rescue Christmas?

Les Standiford is the director of the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. He has written an intriguing back story to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol in his book "The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits."

If the title makes you question the attribution of inventor of Christmas to Dickens (given that the holiday was certainly celebrated pre-19th Century) Professor Standiford clarifies things for us a bit when he says, "Dickens did not singlehandedly dream up the concept of a yuletide season with its various accoutrements." Standiford asserts rather that Dickens "came to the rescue of a downtrodden holiday that a repressed Western world was fairly bursting to revive." The result, as Standiford readily admits, was that Dickens "gave his contemporaries … a secular counterpart to the story of the Nativity…"

Standiford traces briefly the biographical history of Charles Dickens, whose life came to a critical turning point in October of 1843, leading ultimately to the writing of "A Christmas Carol" that same December when he was just 31 years old. 

In addition to his helpful biographical background on Dickens, Professor Standiford recounts how the birth of Christ came to be celebrated on December 25 via the edict of a fourth century Pope (Julius I), effectively merging the pagan orgies of the Roman Saturnalia with the Church's celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ:

The decision to create Christmas … officially celebrating the birth of Jesus for the first time, brought mixed blessings to the Church. Indeed, many pagans found the new religion that embraced their old customs inviting, and the membership rolls grew.

For the next 1200 years this merging of paganism with Christianity became the quasi-standard for true and "proper" celebrations of Christmas. But, in Standiford's recounting and much to his dismay, along came Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in the 18th Century whose "views of the practice of Christianity" led them to conclude that such celebrations of Christmas "had simply gotten out of hand."

One gets the impression that the professor views the efforts of godly Puritans to maintain the sanctity of celebration around the birth of Christ as the embodiment of Dickens's Scrooge. In fact, the professor holds the Puritans and other conservative Anglicans responsible for the "downtrodden" nature of the holiday. The Puritans had made things bad for Christmas, both in England and the United States, writes Standiford. Thanks to the preaching of the Puritans and the legislative efforts of Oliver Cromwell and other Puritans in Parliament, "by the late 1700s the holiday had become a pale shadow of its former self, cloaked in piousness." Standiford seems to lament that the merry-making and the orgies had all but stopped, replaced by solemn and sanctified celebrations.

Enter Charles Dickens and his "little Carol" to rescue Christmas from its "religiosity" and return it to its pre-Puritan status of revelry and merriment. Thanks to the influence of "A Christmas Carol," many of "the decorative elements and amusements" of the holiday were "given a fresh gloss," making their return to Christmas celebrations:

[B]lazing fireplaces, mince pies and wassail bowls, carol-singing, plum puddings, holly sprigs, mistletoe, fiddling and dancing, blind-man bluffings, and the parlor game of forfeits had been seen in holiday festivities previously, but the effect of Dickens's tale was to make the incorporation of such elements seem obligatory for anyone's proper Christmas.

"Charles Dickens," writes Professor Standiford, "played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday," and thus "singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas."

In reading Standiford's history of "A Christmas Carol," if not Dickens's book itself, one sees more clearly the humanistic understanding of salvation that is presented there. "A Christmas Carol" succeeds as a pagan alternative to the Nativity, and as such presents an alternative to the gospel itself: the story of Jesus Christ, his birth, sinless life, atoning death and bodily resurrection. Standiford aptly summarizes Dickens's gospel:

[He] complemented the glorification of the nativity of Christ with a specific set of practices derived from Christ's example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions, and a decent life for all. Just as vital as the celebration of the birth of a holy savior into a human family was the glorification and defense of the family unit itself.

In fact, Standiford notes that, "Scrooge's only hope of salvation is to learn the concept of charity." This alternative gospel is one enamored with Christ's example, but not enamored with Christ himself.  It is a gospel that declares (falsely) that man has the capacity to change himself through education, government assistance, the redistribution of wealth and acts of benevolence. At its root "A Christmas Carol" is fundamentally about spiritual re-birth. The means Dickens presents for that spiritual re-birth, however, could not be more at odds with God's plan for man's salvation.

The story of Christ's birth needs no complement, and nothing is more vital to the spiritual change in our natures than a celebration of our Holy Savior's birth for its own sake. Saint Paul warned us of being deceived by these alternative gospels when he wrote in Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

Interesting, isn't it, that the hearts of the non- or nominally religious are warmed by the genuinely fanciful and unbelievable story of a miserly old man having his heart fundamentally changed by the appearance of three apparitions one Christmas Eve, yet these same hearts assign to the category of myth the assertion of the Christian Gospel that God himself has visited us in the person of His only Son.

What irony! Enlightened minds believing in the power of ghosts to fundamentally alter a man's nature, but refusing to believe the story of an invisible God who condescended to us to take our sinful nature on himself, not to reform our natures but to replace them with his own new nature.

The nativity of Jesus Christ is the ghostly visitation that holds the power to fundamentally change your nature—not just for the Christmas Season—but for eternity: "But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost'" Matthew 1:20).

As compelling as "A Christmas Carol" has become, it just doesn't trump the original. Why settle for a cheap knock-off version of the gospel when you can believe the real thing?

 


Paul Edwards is a regular columnist and the host of "The Paul Edwards Program" heard daily on WLQV in Detroit. Contact Paul at paul@godandculture.com. This article originally appeared on December 18, 2008.

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