With the creation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, Charles Dickens left an indelible mark on Christmas, indeed on the English language itself. We call people “scrooges.” “A Christmas Carol” has become a classic, but the great Victorian novelist wrote many other tales especially for the Christmas season—four other novels and 21 short stories. Why so many? Having worked as a child in a shoe-blacking shop, Dickens always feared poverty. He felt he needed the income these stories generated each year.
But the holiday meant more than money to Charles Dickens. Christmas was the Gospel as he understood it. The novelist was neither churchgoing nor much concerned with doctrine, but he was deeply moved by the message of Jesus. Everything Dickens wrote and his many acts of charity proclaimed his belief that we love God by loving the poor and the outcast. Bob Cratchit expresses his creator’s view when he tells his uncle Scrooge that he has always thought of Christmas time
as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creature bound on other journeys.
Dickens’ first proper novel, The Pickwick Papers, is not about Christmas, though it includes a wonderful Christmas party, rife with roaring fire, candlelight, dancing and mistletoe. The scene opens with a lovely paragraph about how our longing links one Christmas to another.
Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we have grasped have grown cold; the eyes we sought have hid their luster in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday! Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!
Dickens chose charity over chapel, Christmas over Easter. Did he realize that the melancholy adults experience at Christmas hints at our longing for immortality, of the need for Easter to redeem Christmas?
We cannot recapture “the delusions of our childish days.” The old man cannot find “the pleasures of his youth.” Nor need we, because in Christ’s Mass, every Christmas we have ever known—“the hearts that throbbed so gaily” and “the looks that shone so brightly”—has been summoned into the savior, gathered into the resurrection meal he gave us.
When we come to Eucharist at Christmas, we believe that time warps in upon itself. Christ is born today, is baptized today, dies today, rises today.
Each year we return to Christmas, just as we return to all the other feasts of the Christian year. We do not, however, say that the Lord returns because Christ never leaves Christmas, just as he never leaves Good Friday or Easter. In his resurrection and glorification, Christ lifted our time into his own eternity.
When we come to Eucharist at Christmas, we believe that time warps in upon itself. Christ is born today, is baptized today, dies today, rises today. We move through time; Christ does not. We return each year, but Christ and those who belong to him remain forever in Christmas. At this altar, grandparents, parents, friends and lovers are still warmed in the candle glow of Christ. They forever feast. We are the ones still sentenced to wander back into the cold, dark night of time.
Christmas without Christ’s Mass is condemned to melancholy, but at Eucharist, the saints of all ages are summoned to Bethlehem. Here, there is no true past or proper future. There is only Christmas.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord (Lk 2:11).