How Dickens and pop culture gave us the Christmas we know today
In his wonderful 2008 book The Man Who Invented Christmas, Les Standiford reveals how the triumphant success of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843 placed December 25 at the center of Anglo-American bourgeois life. Before A Christmas Carol, according to Standiford, “the holiday was a relatively minor affair that ranked far below Easter,” which is understandable, once you think about it, since Easter commemorates the unsurpassed miracle of the resurrection. Indeed, he says, the Anglican church felt that the enterprise “smacked vaguely of paganism.” The Puritans believed this, too. The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law in 1659 that “forbade the practice and levied a fine of five shillings upon anyone caught in the act.”
And so “there were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees at royal residences or White Houses, no Christmas turkeys,” Standiford writes, “no outpouring of ‘Yuletide greetings,’ no weeklong cessation of business affairs through the New Year, no overblown gift-giving, no ubiquitous public display of nativity scenes (or court fights regarding them), and no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior.” But there was a tradition of decorating for the holiday, and the playing of games and the staging of amateur theatricals on Christmas Day. And these were things Dickens loved as a child and summoned into his art as an adult.
Christmas he may have loved, but evidently the Christ part of it was entirely secondary to Dickens. The words “Jesus” and “Christ” and “savior” appear nowhere in A Christmas Carol. Certainly, following a night in which he is visited not by figures out of Christian eschatology but by three ghosts, the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge shows every possible wonderful quality besides piety. Dickens does say in an aside that Scrooge “went to church,” but does so in a sentence that goes on to portray his time in the pew as just one element of a morning in which he walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars… and found that “everything could yield him pleasure.” When he tells the Ghost of Christmas Future, the one who shows him his lonely grave, that “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” he does not mean that he will preach the Gospel. In fact, the word “God” appears only a few times as an exclamation, except in Tiny Tim’s invocation: “God bless us, everyone.”
Keeping Christmas means being open-hearted, and thoughtful, and generous, and loving, not only to one’s own but to all of humanity.
By 1900, the readership of A Christmas Carol was said “to be second only to the Bible’s.” And Christmas had already become the most important holiday in the Anglo-American world – a position it retains, as we move inexorably toward the middle decades of the 21st century. It appears what Dickens did, without knowing it, was create the world’s first ecumenical religious holiday. Just as the old ad line insisted, “you don’t need to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye,” you don’t need to be a full-throated believer in the divinity of Christ the Savior to love Christmas and to “keep it.” As Dickens describes, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that truly be said of us, and all of us!”
Keeping Christmas means being open-hearted, and thoughtful, and generous, and loving, not only to one’s own but to all of humanity. It means putting up wreaths and trees, garlanding them with lights and ornaments, buying gifts for loved ones and providing charity for the less fortunate, and gathering as family. Who could object to such a message? What logic-mad atheist could find fault with it? What Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Zoroastrian could feel all that alienated from it? We may not participate in Christmas if we are believers in another faith, but the way it has been celebrated since Dickens established its message has little or nothing exclusionary about it. That’s why I’ve always loved the Christmas season without irony or a sense of discomfort.
I may love it even more than those who keep the day precisely because I don’t. The difficulties of Christmas are unknown to me as a Jew. I haven’t had a horrible family argument under the tree or at the Christmas table, and I have never felt compelled to eat a piece of fruitcake to satisfy a deranged relative who made or brought one. I bear no Christmas burdens. I’ve never had to buy a tree, or carry a tree home, or place it in the living room, or spend a frustrating evening unravelling the tangled lights. I’ve never had to get rid of the tree afterward. My Hanukkah candles melt down and disappear. There’s no disposal problem.
For this very reason, it does not surprise me that the greatest Christmas songs are by Jews. Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”) and Mel Tormé (“The Christmas Song”) likely had the same romantic feeling about Christmas because our connection to it was and is aesthetic, not familial, and certainly not religious.
There is one aspect of the holiday season that grows ever more fascinating, and that is the explosion over the past decade of cheap TV movies centering on the holiday. Since 2010, Hallmark has made – get this – 170 Christmas movies, which it puts into heavy rotation on the Hallmark channel beginning in mid-October. And now Netflix is following suit. It has released eight this season alone. Not since the days of the Western have there been so many films made with exactly the same plots and exactly the same setting with exactly the same effect.
In these tellings, a well-kept Christmas is an antidote to the poisons of modern life.
What’s even more interesting is that they all suggest Christmas is a time of magical salvation from the forces of modern isolation and loneliness. The plots almost always involve a young woman from a big city who finds herself, for some reason, in a picturesque small town. She is either unmarried, or engaged to someone unexciting, or sadly widowed. In the small town she finds a manly man, usually someone who works with his hands, who was either her high school boyfriend and has remained a bachelor because he pines for her or is sadly widowered.
The town is wonderful. The man is wonderful. And yet the woman has a life back in the city. But a few poinsettias, a crackling fire with some stockings hanging nearby and somehow kept from catching fire, a spinet playing carols, and a bearded man who just may be the actual Santa Claus, and you know she’s not going back to her soulless lonely modern existence. She will stay in the small town, protected from the Christmas-lessness of the everyday world, and find peace.
The insatiable public appetite for this story is such that we have to assume it means something more than people liking a good Christmas movie, in part because they’re almost all very bad. In these tellings, a well-kept Christmas is an antidote to the poisons of modern life. These poisons do not spring from active evil, but from a kind of disconnectedness from community and fellowship. Apparently community and fellowship cannot be had in The City in 2018, even though Dickens’ Scrooge managed to find them smack-dab in the center of Victorian London. The same nightmarish place where his Fagin ruled over a roost of lost boy thieves and where, in Our Mutual Friend, people earned their living dragging the bottom of the Thames looking for corpses with cash-filled pockets.
Thus has Dickens’ de-Christianized Christmas come down to us today, with a peculiar message of glorious retreat from the world rather than a new commitment of moral and spiritual engagement with it. God bless us everyone, indeed.