It’s often said that the Christmas we celebrate is the Christmas brought to us by Charles Dickens, and most particularly, the ever-popular story of A Christmas Carol.
True to tradition, there’s a new television adaptation this year of the story of mean old Scrooge and his sweet-natured, poor young clerk, Bob Cratchit. We shall of course follow the story all over again.
At the beginning of each Christmas season, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Ebenezer Scrooge. As the messages to “Buy! Buy! Buy!” come at me from every angle, I find myself muttering his famous aphorism: “Bah! Humbug!”
He expostulates: “What’s Christmas time … but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer…”
What would Mr Scrooge say today to the credit card millions spent at the absurd “Black Friday” late-November shopping-spree? “Bah! Humbug!”
Yet re-reading the Dickens story, we come to see that it is about a lot more than a mean-spirited employer who resents his young clerk taking time off with his family for Christmas Day. A Christmas Carol has many layers within the narrative, and one of them is about repentance and remorse in old age.
The terrifying appearance of Marley’s Ghost introduces Scrooge to the notion of repenting his sins and finding redemption before it is too late. The spirit of the past also gives us a glimpse of Scrooge’s lonely boyhood and the losses he has sustained in life, which introduces a deeper understanding of his wintry character.
GK Chesterton – who loved Dickens – suggested that in writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens, the Victorian progressive, a man “full of the almost cocksure common sense of the utilitarian and liberal epoch”, rediscovered an older tradition embedded in our collective memory which was both feudal and Catholic. A Christmas Carol springs to Dickens’s imagination from “a great ancestral instinct” of spirituality and conversion.
“It is not only the story of a conversion,” writes Chesterton, “but of a sudden conversion.” And that’s believable within a Christian context.
So, each year at Christmas I take something like the same journey as Scrooge. I begin by thinking “Bah! Humbug!” and then, little by little, I see, not the shopping and the stress and the credit cards, but as Charles Dickens wrote, “the veneration due to [Christmas’s] sacred name and origin”. And because of that sacred name, that it should be “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time”, and like old Ebenezer, I become fully converted to the spirit of Christmastime.
Not for nothing did Dickens make the true voice of his Christmas Carol a disabled child, Tiny Tim. And by the way, in this year’s BBC production, Tim will be played by a 10-year-old actor, Lenny Rush, who really does have a disability. The spirit of Christmas 2019.
Yet isn’t it sad to reflect that 2,000 years after Mary and Joseph found “no room at the inn”, one of the biggest shared problems in our affluent democracies is – homelessness. Be it Dublin, London, Paris or New York, there are people sleeping on the streets with no roof over their heads. Pitiful.
Possibly my favourite seasonal verse is John Betjeman’s lovely, atmospheric poem, just called “Christmas”. It evokes quite an ordinary, even banal and suburban scene of paper decorations, “London shops … strung with bells and flowers”, and the holly in the hedge soon to be stripped so villagers can say “The church looks nice” on Christmas Day.
He imagines how “girls in slacks remember Dad / And oafish louts remember Mum”, and all the very simple objects around a family Christmas – “the tissued fripperies” and “sweet and silly Christmas things”. And then comes the great reveal, the sense of awe that not “all the steeple-shaking bells / Can with this single Truth compare / That God was Man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine.”
Copyright law does not permit a full reprinting of this sweet and moving Christmas poem, but if you look up “John Betjeman – Christmas” on Google, not only is the full poem available on screen, but the man himself can be summoned to recite it. It’s lovely.