Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dickens and Christmas

From “The Pilot”, 1994, comes this piece by Tony Keogh on Dickens and Christmas, as a suitable posting for today.

I love “A Christmas Carol” and have done ever since I read a small version, barely large enough to fit in a hand, but small enough to smuggle upstairs, and read in bed, under the covers by torchlight, when I was supposed to be fast asleep.

The version with Alastair Sim is of course one of my favourite versions, but the version with George C Scott is still a very faithful adaptation, very close to the script, wonderful performances throughout. The Patrick Stewart version, probably the longest, is the only one to have sequences like the lighthouse, out at sea, on Christmas day. And the Muppet’s Christmas Carol is again a wonderful rendering, with a superb performance by Michael Caine. Even the brief “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” captures something magical from the story.

As Tony Keogh explains, the Victorians resurrected Christmas as a festival, and most of what we regard as a “traditional Christmas” (though not all) does not go back much further than Victorian times. But the longevity of Christmas since shows they laid a sure foundation, and their recreation and renewal of the Christmas celebrations is, I think, something worthy of praise.

There are some elements of Christmas which remain and are Mediaeval in origin, but very few which could be considered overtly Pagan. The Saturnalia festival, for example, as well as feasting,  involved the conception of more children (or at least activities intended to lead to that). That doesn't feature greatly in modern Christmas celebrations!

The identification of feasting as something wholly pagan is a false attribution, for while the ancient Pagans had festivities, we must not forget that the Christians also did before the Puritans took over, abolished Christmas, and gave us a lingering legacy that it was two feasts, a religious Christian one and a pagan (and more secular) one. Miracle plays, as well, abolished by the Reformers, used to poke fun at the Church, and combine religious stories with ribald humour and irreverence.

Dickens and Christmas
By Tony Keogh

It was October 1843 that Charles Dickens began the writing of one of his most popular and best loved books, "A Christmas Carol." It was written in six weeks and finished by the end of November, being fitted in between the intervals of writing the monthly parts of "Martin Chuzzlewit," a work which was causing him some financial anxiety because the public did not seem to have taken to it as readily as to his earlier serials, "A Christmas Carol" would, he hoped, bring in a better financial return.

John Forster, biographer, noted how the story, once conceived, gripped Dickens. "He wept over it, and. laughed and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree: He walked thinking of it fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London," often at very late hours of the night. He kept Christmas that year with an extraordinary zest, "Such dinings, such dancing, such conjurings, such blindmans buffings, such theatre going, such kissing-out of-old years: and kissing-in o£ new ones, never took place in .those parts before."

Savouring the atmosphere of Christmas in London became part of Dickens' annual routine. Every Christmas Eve, he went to visit the Christmas markets in the East End between Aldgate and Bow, and he liked to wander in poor neighbourhoods on Christmas Day, "past the areas of shabby genteel houses in. Somers or Kentish Towns, watching the diners: preparing or coming in."

"A Christmas Carol" captures in many places what Dickens so acutely-observed, “The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows made pale faces ruddy as they .passed. Poulterers and grocers' trades became a splendid joke, a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do."

There is the doubt that. "A Christmas Carol" is first and foremost a story concerned with the Christian Gospel of liberation by the grace of .God. Dickens intended it as such and it was received as such. It is, about an incarnational religion which refuses to drive a wedge between the world of the spirit and the world of matter.

The cornucopia of Christmas food and feasting reflects both the goodness of creation and. the joy of heaven. It is a significant sign of a shift in theological emphasis in the nineteenth century from the Atonement to the stress on the Incarnation; away from Good Friday and Easter to Christmas, which, I think, pertains to this day. It was a stress which found outward and visible expression in the sacramentalism of the Oxford Movement, the development .of richer and more symbolic forms of worship, and above all, the-revival and increasing centrality of the keeping of Christmas itself as a Christian festival.

For centuries, Christmas as a festival was neglected and took a very poor second place to the Christian Passover of Good Friday/Easter. In fact, when the Westminster Directory was substituted for the Prayer Book under the Commonwealth of Cromwell, Christmas was abolished. The rubric stated, "There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept -holy under the gospel, but the Lord's Day, which is the Christian Sabbath," therefore, "festival days, vulgarly called holy days, having no. warrant in the work of God, are not to be continued." It has to be said that the abolition was not universally accepted.

However, there can belittle doubt that the popularity of Dickens' "A Christmas. Carol" played a significant part in changing the consciousness: of Christmas and the way in which it was. and still is celebrated;

The popularity of his public readings of the story is an indication of: how much it resonated with the contemporary mood and contributed to the increasing place of the. Christmas celebrations in both secular: and religious ways which was firmly established by the end of the nineteenth century.

1 comment:

James said...

Thank you. Listening to BBC Jersey this morning, where the Sunday morning presenter was inveighing against commercialism and that it wasn't the real meaning of Christmas was a profoundly depressing experience.

(It's deeply ironic that the presenter is a member of the Salvation Army, who - like Dickens - were keen to ensure that there was no separation of sacred and secular)