Inventing Christmas

One of my cherished yuletide traditions is reading Charles Dicken’s wonderful book, A Christmas Carol. Each Christmas season, Susan and I also watch several movies offering their interpretations of this classic novella. The films starring George C Scott and Patrick Stewart as Scrooge are my favorite adaptations of this Christmas story. 

In 2017, a movie by the catching title “The Man Who Invented Christmas” joined our cherished Christmas films. The movie, based loosely on a book with the same title, depicts Dickens as he conceives and laboriously writes his tale. (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame stars as Dickens with costars Christopher Plummer and Jonathan Pryce.) At this point in his life, Dickens is deeply in debt, suffers from writer’s block, must cope with his profligate father, and struggles to support his growing family. 

He overhears a young Irish housemaid named Tara tell his children a story about the spirits of the dead coming back to earth on Christmas Eve. This inspires Dickens to write his own Christmas story. As he conjures up his characters, they become so real to him that they appear and converse with their author. Most of the dialogue is between Dickens and Scrooge. 

As Dickens tries to bring his story to an acceptable end, he decides that Tiny Tim, who is very ill, must die. Tara and Dickens’ friend and business adviser beg him to let Tim live, but Dickens feels strongly that such a recovery would not be appropriate for his story. Later, in a fit of rage, he fires Tara for disturbing his work even though she had been instructed by the housekeeper to tell Dickens he was needed. 

As Dickens’ deadline for publication of his Christmas story approaches, he goes to the abandoned factory where he was mercilessly forced to work as a child after his father was carted away to debtor’s prison. All the horrors of that oppressive time of his life are relived. Scrooge appears to him and tells him that he is a nobody and that his life does not matter. “People don’t change, Charlie. Look around you. You’re still the same scabby boy–useless, just like your father.” Dickens, first wounded by this accusation, counters, “No one’s life is useless in this world who lessens the burden of another. My father taught me that.” 

Dickens then reminds Scrooge how greedy, cruel, lonely, and shallow his life has been. Using the miser’s own words, Dickens tells him that it is impossible for him to change. And now Scrooge must face a death which brings to an end his useless and uncaring decades spent on this earth. As the walls of Scrooge’s grave begin to close on him, he realizes the truth of Dickens’s indictment but begs for another chance and now claims (or at least, hopes) that change is possible even for him. “Let me do some good before I die.” He promises to keep the generous and compassionate spirit of Christmas every day of the year. Dickens then says, “So we come to the final chapter. I told you we would do great things, Mr. Scrooge.” Dickens finds hope for Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and himself.  

The author returns to his home and quickly finishes his book. As he starts to leave his house to rush his final chapter to the publisher, he discovers Tara, the housemaid, has come back to return a book Dickens had loaned her. He apologizes to her and asks her to resume her former position in the household. He tells her, “Tara, you were right. Tiny Tim doesn’t die. Scrooge helps him to get better.” And then comes the wisest and most inspired statement in the entire movie. Tara asks, “And does he help Scrooge get better too?” 

Tara, the Irish housemaid whose mother taught her to read, understood better than anyone else in the movie this most profound lesson of life and the Christian faith. We are all connected and need each other to heal. We will all either sink or swim together in the ocean of life. Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and Dickens all needed healing. We all need each other to “get better.” In this quantum world, everything is connected from the subatomic particles to the destines of every creature. The most important lesson of Christmas and of life itself is, “Do we help each other get better?”

The Apostle Paul does not tell a nativity story. (Neither do the Gospels of Mark and John.) But he does refer to a birth of Jesus in a way which affirms Tara’s insight that we are all connected, need each other, and are destined for each other. In Colossians 1:15-20, we read: “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” 

Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. By Christmas Eve, every copy had been sold. The book has never gone out of print. Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, but through his novels, he did unveil the injustice and oppression of the poor, the abuse of children, and the hardheartedness of the wealthy and powerful. His Christmas tale resulted in a rise in generosity and a conviction that Christmas should bring out the best of humanity as we find ourselves in the eyes of all our sisters and brothers. 

So, perhaps in a way, Dickens did invent Christmas—at least in his time, a Christmas worthy of celebration. And perhaps we, like the transformed and healed Scrooge, have an opportunity to invent Christmas not just on December 25th but on every day of the year. (As Meister Eckhart reminds us, “Christ is always needing to be born in our world.”) Such a spirit would reflect the full significance of another well-known saying from A Christmas Carol spoken by a disabled boy in a poor family: “And God bless us, EVERYONE!” As the late Fred Craddock used to say, “What part of ‘everyone’ do we still not understand?”

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