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© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
One of literature’s most famous fictional characters, Charles Dickens’ Ebeneezer Scrooge, says near the beginning of the novel “A Christmas Carol”, “Out with merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer… If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ upon his lips should be boiled in his own pudding, and then buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
While many credit Dickens with inspiring modern December holiday celebrations from his “Christmas Carol” work, that of decorations, parties and abundant gifts, this was hardly his goal. Indeed, while Scrooge is an exaggerated character in his cynical, bitter and greedy attitudes, Dickens used him to reflect the prevailing cultural norms in nineteenth century England. The worship of wealth, relentless work, disdain for the poor and insensitivity toward the weakest members of society were all hallmarks. Today, perhaps instead of heeding the lessons of “A Christmas Carol”, our culture’s holiday season is marked in a similar manner – more by what we do (buying, cooking, partying, drinking) than by what we think; more about the ups and downs of business sales and frenetic activity than by silence, peaceful reflection and relationship building.
Dickens railed against many English cultural attitudes in most of his novels. His concern for the poor and the ill treatment of working class people was a constant theme. Much of it sprang from experiences of his own youth when Dickens was sent to an English work house to help pay off his father’s debts.
Two thousand years earlier, the few remaining Jews in Jerusalem fought a similar battle against a dominant culture of profligacy, greed and insensitivity. Successors to Alexander the Great’s empire controlled Israel and much of the known world. People were dominated with the sword as entire nations were swallowed up and ruthlessly eliminated. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was turned into a place to honor a human Emperor – and not a Divine presence. Pigs were slaughtered within it – all as a calculated affront to the Jewish people. Trade and commercialization were the focus – what could this Greek empire take from conquered nations?
From that dark time came the Jewish Macabbean revolt and an eventual retaking of the Temple. And the so-called miracle of Hanukkah happened. It was a minor miracle in the large scheme of miracles but one that still resonates today. In the darkness of the Temple, facing a hopeless task of relighting the religious lamps until enough consecrated oil could be made, the lamps were lit anyway. Hope and promise won out over despair. And the lamps miraculously remained burning for eight long days – thus the modern eight day celebration of Hanukkah.
But just as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was a cry in the darkness of England’s soul – a plea to recapture the essence of the holiday, that of peace, celebration, goodwill and charity, so too was the original lighting of Jewish Temple lamps. Into the bleak night of a culture deadened by oppression and cruelty, a light of defiance was lit. Those ancient Jews would echo an old Chinese proverb that says, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Dickens did the same by employing symbols of light and darkness to illustrate his central theme in “A Christmas Carol.” That theme is best stated by Scrooge’s dead partner Marley – life is not about the business of making money and reducing humanity to a mere economic commodity. Instead, life is about making the the well-being of humanity our chief business.
From that theme, Dickens used images of darkness to symbolize an insensitive culture – the cold and dark offices of Scrooge, the use of ghosts, the grey and foreboding boarding school to which young Scrooge is confined, the run down cemetery to which a frightened Scrooge is led at night to be shown his own forgotten and moldy grave, the cover of darkness as thieves scavenge for pieces of the dead Scrooge’s estate.
To contrast the dark Dickens saw in English society, he used images of light to promote a world that might be created. Much like Dickens himself, the character Scrooge spent an unhappy childhood, unloved and away from home. But light still fought against that darkness. We see in his past how Scrooge was brought home by his sister Fan to attend a light and merry holiday celebration – moments of joy in neglected boy’s life. We see light in Scrooge’s life when, as a dashing young man, he meets the beautiful Belle who brought him happiness and cheer. We see it in the holiday party thrown by the young Scrooge’s boss and in the imagery of the lighted glory of the Ghost of Christmas Present who carries a fiery torch that drips kindness and gentleness on others. Light and love suffuse the Cratchit home where, despite their poverty and the infirmity of Tiny Tim, the family celebrates Christmas by a warm fire. Holiday light emanates from a bleak and small hut visited by Scrooge and one of the ghosts. The coal mining family still celebrates Christmas in the midst of their drudgery. And we see light on the dawning morning of Scrooge’s epiphany when he throws open the shutters to his dark apartment and welcomes Christmas sunshine. All of these and more were symbolic lamps of hope and spiritual encouragement lit by Dickens in a dark, Victorian world of debtors prisons, work houses, and overcrowded orphanages.
Dickens crafted his characters in a such a way as to hopefully inspire the better angels in his culture. Belle, Scrooges former love, hears her present husband tell her he had just seen an insensitive Scrooge working late at night in his offices while his partner Marley lay near death. Even Scrooge cannot help but realize Belle chose family and happiness over him and his decision to focus on making money. She, though, is clearly rich in the blessings of life – a caring partner, a beautiful child, a home of contentment and love.
We find Dickens promotion of positive thinking, cheerfulness and kindness in Fezziwig – young Scrooge’s employer who celebrates Christmas with his workers and who generously gives them holiday bonuses. In Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, Dickens shows us a man filled with the spirit of his mother, Scrooge’s sister Fan, who loved people, and enjoyed their companionship. Scrooge is wealthy, Fred remarks, but his money does him no good. Charitably, Fred says Scrooge is a man to be pitied but not despised – his greed, ill humor and cynicism have their own punishments of loneliness and isolation. In spite of all that, it is Fred who cheerfully wishes Scrooge a merry Christmas and invites him to his party.
And, using his most obvious symbols against English society, Dickens writes of two wretched and starving children who emerge from under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. On their foreheads are written “Ignorance” and “Want”. When Scrooge reacts with alarm at the pain of these children, the Ghost repeats one of Scrooge’s favorite phrases – one that often echoes across unequal and insensitive cultures – “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Even a ghost points an accusatory finger at English society and, perhaps, our own.
The redemption offered Scrooge comes with his realization that only in the present can he change the errors of the past and influence a brighter future. Scrooge’s hurt from an indifferent and unloving father obviously turns him into a bitter man. Masking the anger and despair of his childhood, Scrooge pursues money and selfishness as ways to protect himself from future hurt. Like some people even today, Scrooge made a conscious choice to reject the universal keys to human fulfillment – that of personal connection to family and friends, kindness, and positive thinking. The holiday we each celebrate is often one that reflects our own attitudes and ethics in life. Is there joy, love of others, charity and a focus on people and not things in our holiday celebrations? Do we embrace the happiness of the here and now, or are we caught in the chains of our past – ones that hold us prisoner leading us to a cold and forgotten grave?
Scrooge comes to understand he must live in the moment – in the moment of the season, this time of cheer, of family, friends, charity and joy. The present is all we truly possess. It might be wasted and spent on work, self-indulgence, depression and anger or it might be spent on relationship, compassion and outreach to others.
Just after this most recent Thanksgiving, I was given a rare gift by a good friend. Stopping at my computer late on Thanksgiving night, after hours spent cleaning my kitchen from the celebrations, I opened an e-mail sent to me by this friend. As a custom, that friend sends a letter to one or two people every Thanksgiving. In it, this friend expressed thankfulness for me and what I had added to this person’s life. Using many details and sentiments about me to which I can hardly live up, words that nevertheless brought tears to my eyes, this friend gave me a gift far beyond any holiday present I might receive. I was given the gift of time, of heart, of appreciation and of generosity. It is a gift I will cherish and that I will save – not as an ego booster but as a meaningful and powerful expression of love. It is a reminder of the goodness in this person and in so many other people in my life. How blessed I am to have the friends and family that I do. How blessed I am to have received such a light on that Thanksgiving night.
What I hope this message might convey is our need to defy the prevailing holiday winds in our contemporary culture. It is a need to light a symbolic Hanukkah lamp or sing a Dickens Christmas carol in the midst of an indifferent, often money focused, busy, workaholic, self-centered, and greedy world. While millions starve, while homeless citizens spend nights on our cold streets, while many blessed children go to sleep each night hungry and unloved, while many homes are sad places of anger and strife, people seemingly act in ignorance of such things – they give each other chia pets, gaudy ties and sweaters that will never be worn. We attend holiday parties where small talk is exchanged masking the human disconnection we often feel. The banality of our holidays is often quite sad.
Might our actions this holiday season be ones we aspire to practice – to eliminate holiday chores that create stress but which do not give purpose or joy: the rushed gift buying, cheerless parties, and indifference to what people all around us really desire? Our families, our friends, and strangers all long to be loved, recognized and cherished. Furthermore, in an age of plenty, when do we have too much? When might the holidays be celebrations of all that we already have? When might families reconcile past hurts, deeply bond and forge the ties and create memories that will last forever? When might we practice the long lost art of conversation and genuinely listen to one another? Might the gift of ourselves, our attentive ears, our time and our love be enough this season?
If we are too simple in our celebrations, we risk becoming like Scrooge – bleak and dreary. But I know we each know when enough is enough – a simple tree, simple but lovingly prepared food, basic gifts that show thought more than cost, the quality of time and love more than quantity of mere things – these, I hope are more than enough.
Just after Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount, when he taught the lesson that it is the meek, the merciful, the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted that are those closest to the Divine heart, he implored his listeners to light their symbolic lamps and place them high on pedestals. “You are the light of the world”, he said, “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on a stand, and it gives light to everyone…In the same way, let your light shine before others…”
Such figurative lamps are the attitudes and ideals we practice in our world. It is the humble one, the peacemaker, the giver, the cheerful one who brings light into the darkness of a pain filled world. The holidays should be times of simplicity, reflection, and sharing. So too, they are potentially joyous times filled with meaning and purpose if we so choose. Might a gift we offer to another person be a heartfelt “I love you – and here are the reasons why…” Might a gift we give be time spent with one who could use the pleasure of our company? Might a gift we give be our renewed dedication to give and to serve those organizations working to improve humanity? Might our parties, decorations and meals be simple affairs that elevate human relationship? May I encourage for us all a simple but meaning filled holiday?
Those first Hanukkah celebrations two thousand years ago were humble nights punctuated by people of faith joining together to bring light into a dim world of oppression. And Charles Dickens encouraged the same in his culture. Even in the crudest and most meagre of homes he described – that of the Cratchit family – words of holiday truth ring out, words that resonate for all humanity and not just a privileged few. If, as I so relentlessly repeat in here, that we are each gods and goddesses called to help transform our world into heaven on earth, then I pray Dickens’ famous words repeat with resounding joy in the upcoming holiday season – “god bless us everyone!”
I wish you all much peace and even more joy…