Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Dickens Christmas

(Only a week until Christmas Eve. Alas, so much yet to do, just to realize what most of us consider the "basics" of the holiday: put up the tree, buy some more presents so Santa will visit the kids, make a gingerbread house with the boys, and perhaps walk around to check out some of the city's decorations.)

On Saturday night our family attended a Dickens-themed Christmas party, appropriate given our efforts to read through A Christmas Carol for the first time this year. (As I've already noted here, it's a bit of heavy lifting for the kids in terms of vocabulary, but I think their exposure to Dickens' narrative and richly portrayed characters will prove an invaluable experience. At least they will be able to say they've been exposed to Dickens!) The party featured authentic foods from Victorian England, with parallel passages from Dickens' novels accompanying each item. Obviously the menu was heavy on little meat pies and pastries, shortbreads and ham. But the hit of the night was the flaming Christmas pudding - ceremoniously paraded into the room as everyone sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

The whole affair prompted me to reflect on the simplicity of the Christmas experience as described in Dickens. Sure, there was feasting and celebration, and even dancing in Mr. Fezziwig's warehouse. But it was still a decidedly simple occasion, in which familial ties and the bonds of friendship constituted the glue holding the celebrations together. And while there's an emphasis on the characters maintaining a "Christmas spirit" in their lives, Dickens' tale isn't overtly religious. Indeed, even the non-religious among us can buy into those Christmas ideas of "giving" and "fellowship" without troubling oneself over the more miraculous episodes associated with the occasion. Moreover, it's nice to know that early Christian leaders failed to eradicate entirely the more pagan, pre-Christian rituals now associated with the Christmas holiday. As in so many other areas, they realized that co-opting existing practices proved a more successful route to conversion than more heavy-handed tactics. Frankly, I think the pagan enhances the Christian, and both belief systems - at least in the context of Christmastide - enunciate some similar concepts. This is certainly clear for Dickens, in which a world incorporating the supernatural exists comfortably in an avowedly Christian society. One should realize, too, that by the middle of the 19th century, much of English society was only nominally Christian in belief and practice, despite the existing state-controlled church infrastructure. Enclosure, concomitant destruction of traditional village life, the Industrial Revolution, and construction of England's "dark, satanic mills" only hastened the decline of popular faith - ironic in a society that had once spent so much energy and spilled so much blood over matters of Christian dogma.

Standing there on Saturday night, listening to the traditional carols of the season, I realized that Christmas should instill in us a lightness of heart - in the way Ebenezer Scrooge's epiphany transformed his spirit. On the surface, it might seem an easy charge: Go forth and spread Christmas cheer throughout the whole year, not just in Advent or in the days immediately following December 25th. Nevertheless, we get bogged down in the extraneous details of the season. We lose sight of the simple joy in giving, because we're too often engaged in games of "oneupsmanship" in the gifting process. We become too concerned about the price tag or the tax write-off. And I have been guilty of these failings too many times to recall. This year, however, as I've struggled to find the spirit of Christmas within the barrage of commercials and appeals to buy, spend, and save, I think I've recognized more of that simplicity in the season, and thus haven't been driven to "shop 'til I drop." (For a guy who loves to shop - yes, something of a rarity - this can be a difficult urge to suppress.)

No doubt I'll join the family on Christmas Eve for a service at the little Lutheran church around the corner from our apartment. The church will be decorated beautifully, as always, and the familiar carols will remind me of Christmastides past. But will I be able to muster my usual Christmas spirit?


jblack designs said...

I would say you already have, my cyber friend. And you've been spreading good cheer to others all week.

And we thank you for it ...


Isabel said...

It seems to me you are having great quality time with your loved ones! Isn't that what the spirit of Christmas is all about? You are THERE. Enjoy it!