On the 19th of December, 1843 when much of our frontier was still unsettled and where Christmas was not even a recognized holiday in much of the United states, Charles Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall released a novella about the power of the human spirit to embrace new and revive old ways of celebrating the nativity of Our Lord. A Christmas Carol told the story of bitter and hardened Ebenezer Scrooge, a type of many joyless lives of the period, and his nocturnal encounters with the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Three spirits representing Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come then visit Scrooge. From these three encounters, Scrooge has a revelation about himself and the world in which he lives.
But to understand why this story had so much power, we must look at why it was written. In Great Britain, festivals such as Christmas had been banned during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (commonly called the Interregnum by Anglo-Catholics), an 11-year change of constitutional government that eliminated the monarchy in favor of parliamentary control. During this time, the Puritans in control banned the Book of Common Prayer, replacing it with the Westminster Directory, assumed a Presbyterian form of government, and stripped the calendar of most of its celebrations – including Christmas. So the original Grinch, or Scrooge, that stole Christmas was Cromwell’s protectorate.
That brief point in time, and the Puritan influence that remained thereafter, was a joyless time liturgically. Many of the customs that our families observe were eliminated. There were no Christmas trees (a Germanic custom), no Christmas cards, and no carolers. These three things began to make a renaissance at the same time that Great Britain was dealing with some of its social ills.
Slavery in England and her colonies was abolished in , But they were only beginning to deal with the social ills of their day. Tiny Tim in the story becomes the archetype of struggling families, borne out of Dickens’ own struggles with poverty. Now on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, English families had a decision to make, and so do we.
While we have trapping abounding in nearly every store since August, the spirit of Christmas that Dickens sought the standard Englishman to embrace was not a thing of externals. Sure, the tree and cards are nice – they point to a joyful cause to celebrate. But I think Dickens was inviting us into something deeper – a turning around of the coldness of heart to see the image of God in others amidst a holy season.
Consider the Tiny Tims of your life. Perhaps the forgotten person fed at Messiah’s Saturday suppers. Or consider the hungry man who has exactly $17 left from his disability check to feed him for the month – a man who is a regular visitor at our church office. Maybe it is an aunt or uncle that is lonely, but the whole family has written off as odd or eccentric. We all know that one person.
So as we prepare for the 12 days of Christmastide, as we have our office parties and our Christmas get togethers, let us not forget those to whom Dickens’ addressed the Christmas Carol. Soften your hearts toward those who would know no real Christmas. And hopefully, it will not take three Christmas phantoms to remind us of the true purpose of the Incarnation. God so loves us that he took human form and in his life, ministry, atoning death and resurrection, he shows us what real life is all about.
A most blessed Nativity to all,