A Dickens of A Christmas

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I’ve come to a point in my life where the simpler the holiday can be, the better I like it. In our family, we’ve gradually been paring down over the past few years the number of gifts we buy and how much we spend. The trips to the mall have gotten fewer and gift cards seem to satisfy most of the people we give to. Imagine if they had had gift cards in Jesus day? The magi wouldn’t have had to schlep those heavy urns of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They could have simply given Mary a couple of gift cards to the local spice or gold dealer! “Here, Mary. We have no idea how much myrrh a baby needs so we figured a gift card to GFM’s would be the best thing.)
Like alot of other people, I don’t like the commercialism, the attempts to convince me that I need to have a new car with a big red bow in my driveway on Christmas morning (although I that would actually be nice), or the constant playing of the same versions of the same Christmas carols in all of the stores. If you want to know how I feel about “The Little Drummer Boy,” talk to me sometime!
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that I observe Christmas as a holy day, at least not any holier than other days. If you think about it, every day of our week was originally considered holy by the Norse tribes who gave them their respective names. Now, if you take the traditional theological ideas that have accompanied this day for two thousand years – a virgin giving birth, three astrologers following an auspicious star, shepherds being visited by angels, and a baby who is supposed to be the incarnation of God – well, I don’t buy into those, at least not in the literal sense.
But although I don’t believe that, I need to say that I don’t simply dismiss it away as simple Bible story. Recently, the American Atheist Society erected a billboard near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel showing the nativity scene with the words, “You know its a myth. This season, celebrate reason.” They spent $20,000 for this sign. My suspicion is that it angered some who found it offensive, made some atheist commuters happy, and was generally ignored by most people driving past it. I somehow doubt that even one person went home that night and said, “Honey, kids. Gather round. We’re taking down the tree and returning all of the presents because I learned today that the whole thing isn’t true.”
Christmas Day is a day to which people have given meaning, in many different ways, over the long years and have observed in many different ways. Even some atheists. But I have more of a problem with the American Atheist Society version of the story because, while I agree that it is a myth, they continue to use the word myth in its most narrow sense and, like many of the people they are criticizing, miss the whole point of what a myth really is and of the Christmas story. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines myth, in it’s primary sense as:
a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.
b : parable, allegory
2 a : a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.

It isn’t until part b of that second definition and definition number 3 that we find this:
b : an unfounded or false notion.
3: a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.

And it’s this one that is mostly used today by people and, apparently, by the American Atheist Society. It implies that something is a lie.
I don’t believe that the story of the nativity ever happened as described in the Christian scriptures. But neither do I believe the story to be a lie. I believe it to be a myth in the greatest sense of the word, one that describes the worldview of a people, originally a small group of Jews who believed that the promised Messiah had been come, and then a larger group of people from a multitude of cultures around the world who heard and later read that myth and made it their own. If you’ve ever made sourdough bread, you know that it begins with a “starter” dough or a “mother” dough. And each time you bake sourdough, you keep a little of that dough for the next use. That way, you get the same flavor and texture every time. In San Francisco, the Boudin family of bakers have kept their “mother” dough going since 1849! If you take a piece of “mother” dough and take it to a different region or country, the dough will begin to change a little, taking on some subtle flavor differences because of the water quality, the salt, etc. But the essentials of the sourdough bread will be the same.
Now those early followers of Jesus in and around Palestine believed the story to be literally true. And they believed that on that night the ineffable, mysterious, transcendent God was literally incarnated as the baby Jesus in order to bring peace to the world. But it wasn’t long after that baby had grown and died ( giving rise to another great myth!) that someone took some of the “mother” dough of the nativity story and added a different ingredient. The story stayed pretty close to the original, but this time, the baby Jesus was just a baby who later in life would become the Son of God at his baptism. And someone else took some of that mother dough and kneaded it with a different type of salt and grain and Jesus suddenly became a spirit-man who only looked like he had a real body. Within pretty short order, there were hundreds of Jesuses and hundreds of twists on the Christmas story. Eventually, most of those stories either faded away or were banned from being spread about by church authorities who said theirs was the only correct version. But some people still kept a piece of that mother dough going and down through the ages, there have always been different ways of understanding and of handing down the Christmas myth.
172 years ago, Charles Dickens found a different way to express the myth of the Christmas story as he understood it. Although he had been born into the Anglican tradition, Dickens became a Unitarian in his early 30’s. Unitarianism in the 19th century had evolved into a liberal Christian denomination and many Unitarians were involved in social justice activities. They were at the forefront of establishing better conditions in hospitals, mental institutions, and factories. They worked to end child labor, to end the abusive and cruel debtors’ prisons, to improve conditions in the penal system so that the focus was on rehabilitation and not punishment. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the celebration of Christmas had become simply a time to drink and eat to excess, hardly even being mentioned in churches as a holy day. But along with others, Dickens wanted to restore Christmas in the minds and hearts of people as a time, not only for merriment, not even simply a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but as a time when the needs of others, especially the poor and sick, should be especially attended to. And so in 1843, he wrote and published “A Christmas Carol.” And although it only hints at Jesus in the text, never mentioning him by name, its themes of love, compassion, service, and redemption are what Dickens intended to convey as the pure, simple, and most powerful meaning behind the Christmas story. It was Dickens way of taking a piece of that mother dough of the nativity and kneading it into a new but still familiar myth.
I happen to love the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim. It is simply the best version ever produced. If you ask my family how much I like it, they will probably use the word “obsessed.” I also happen to like “The Muppets Christmas Carol,” with Michael Caine as Scrooge, Gonzo as Charles Dickens, and Fozzi Bear as Mr. Fozziwig. And there’s also those two old guys as Jacob and Robert Marley.
Anyway, I’m sure you all know Dickens story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a businessman and money-lender in Victorian London. Scrooge is described in the text as “a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone…a squeezing, wrenching, grasping. scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” He is miserly, unloving and unloved. Scrooge is especially disdainful of Christmas. In one memorable scene, he tells his good-hearted, and Christmas loving nephew, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with a Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”
Scrooge, though, is given an opportunity to mend his ways, a chance, if you will, to receive a gift of grace, when he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. While living, Marley was as usurious and cold-hearted towards his fellow human beings as Scrooge, and when he visits Scrooge, he is bound in chains and locks and money-boxes, doomed to wander forever without rest and watch helplessly the poverty of those he failed to help in life. He has managed to procure a way for Scrooge to avoid the same fate through the visitation of three spirits: the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
These are the three ghosts that haunt all of us at one time or another. The past often holds regret and resentment. We fear the future because we really don’t know what it holds except for aging and eventual death. And, since many of us become trapped in one of those two, past or future, we fail to notice, or we ignore the present.
Dickens writes more about Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present than either of the other two. And I think he does this because his real purpose in writing the book was to address the terrible conditions that existed in Victorian England at the time of his writing. In that chapter, the spirit of Christmas Present makes Scrooge painfully aware of the great poverty that exists all around him but also of the great love that even those in poverty have for each other, celebrating the Christmas season with joy and love even in direst conditions. To be sure, even I think that Dickens romanticized their experience a bit, but his point is not lost on Scrooge or on us as we read: Christmas is not so much about angels as it is about the better angels of our nature. It isn’t so much about shepherds tending their flock, it’s about each of us tending to the cares and needs and injuries of each other. It’s not so much about wise men coming from the east bearing gifts for a baby, it’s about each of us learning to tap into our own inner wisdom and bring to the world the gifts with which the Divine has endowed us. It’s not so much about the Divine incarnating in one child, it’s about recgonizing and honring the Divinity in each and every person. And, it isn’t just about a special baby born in a stable two thousand years ago. It’s about every child that’s born every day in hospitals, and homes, and huts, and yes, even in stables around the world and the way we treat and honor them.
And for the readers of Dickens’ era, this meant coming to terms with some harsh realities about Victorian society: the vast gulf between the upper classes with wealth, land, education and access to power and the poor with none of these things and no hope of ever being anything but poor. In a visit to Newgate Prison, Charles Dickens met with a young girl and wrote the following sketch of her, believing her to be a victim of environmental factors:
“Barely past her childhood, it required but a glance to discover that she was one of those children born and bred in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood is; who have never been taught of love and (to) court a parent’s smile; or to dread a parent’s frown…Talk to THEM of parental solicitude, the happy days of childhood and merry games of infancy! Tell them rather of hunger and the streets, of beggary and stripes, of the gin-shop, the stationhouse, and the pawnbroker’s and then they will understand you!”
At the end of his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge notices two pair of little feet sticking out from under the spirit’s robe and asks about them. The spirit opens his robe and Scrooge sees two children a girl and a boy, described by Dickens as “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.”
“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And abide the end!’
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
And then throwing back at Scrooge his own words,
“Are there no prisons? Are there no work-houses?”
That was 172 years ago. It sounds like Washington, D.C. today.
You see, Dickens understood the power of story and myth. But he also understood that the telling of those stories must be done in the context of the current psychological capacity of society. He knew that there was something greater underlying the story of the nativity. And so, he wrote about that mythos in a different way to convey and make relevant the real meaning of Christmas.
Jungian Depth Psychologist Jean Houston writes:
“Whenever a society is in a state of breakdown and breakthrough – what I see as whole system transition – it often requires a new social alignment that only the complex and comprehensive understandings of myth can bring. It is only the mythologically wise community that finds ways to mediate and so re-focus the shadow sides of self and society.”
Almost 200 years difference between Dickensian London and today in the world, but the similarities are apparent. Improvements have been made, of course, but not enough when our children and the children around the world are still at risk. Or as the gulf between the rich and the poor continues to grow wider each day and the middle class begins to disappear. Or as we continue to use fear of the other as a weapon or a political tool.
This is where the need for a new understanding of the Christmas myth becomes most apparent. The child that was born in that stable grew up to become a prophet. And in his very first sermon, given impromptu in a synagogue in the town in which he grew up, he stood up and read from the prophet Isaiah where it says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised…”
One of Dickens’ contemporaries wrote:
“It is to no purpose to send out the schoolmaster, it is to no purpose to employ the missionary, it is to no purpose to preach from the pulpit, it is to little or no purpose to visit from house to house and carry with you the precepts and the lessons of the Gospel, so long as you leave the people in this squalid, obscene, filthy, disgusting, and overcrowded state.”
Indeed, here was the so-called “Social Gospel” being preached – where one was expected to do something – not just talk about doing something!
Joseph Campbell once wrote: “The last incarnation of Oedipus, the continuing romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light to change.” I believe that the latest incarnation of the Divine is being born right now in every hospital around the globe, right down the road at Englewood Hospital, is waiting in a cell in every jail for a visit from a loved one, doing last minute wrapping of presents before getting ready for the grandkids visit, is sitting alone and drunk in every bar, sitting right here in this room. And if that is true, and we are all connected to each other in a way that can only be described as Divine, it would do us well to remember the words of the carol:
“Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is Love and his gospel is Peace.”
What happened in Victorian England – and to a great extent Dickens is to be appreciated for this change – was that those who kneaded compassion, love, and mercy into that mother dough of the Christmas story won over the evangelicals – meaning that England began to realize that there were real factors for the terrible conditions people experienced. They and the nation were not suffering because God was punishing them for their sins!
That is our UU theology in action: believing that all human beings have a right to a worthwhile life, we attempt to discover real reasons for the injustices in the world, and then we work to improve the situation!
Indeed, Dickens held a utilitarian point of view and wrote about specific causes and remedies. His genius was that he could intertwine art with cause; he was literary stylist and political activist, word painter and social prophet. He was a man who viewed life in all its complexity but he did so with the hope that the common good would prevail. Despite all those evil characters who crossed his pages, he never lost his basic belief in human goodness. He counted upon the common humanity of women and men to alleviate its many ills.
So how will we respond this Christmas and during the coming year to our own Ghost of Christmas Present? There are countless ways to make a difference in the world and in the lives of those around us. Maybe its something as simple as letting the elderly woman behind you on line at the grocery store go ahead of you. Maybe its helping out at a shelter or bringing food to a family in need. Giving someone a ride to church or the doctor. We all know what our gifts and abilities are. Jean Houston wrote:
“I do not mean to imply that myth’s major reason for existence is our education – nothing so narrow. But suggestions, warnings, and genuine guidance are found there that we would be foolish to ignore. Sometimes modern sensibilities demand that we change that story, or add to it, or make substitutions as we enact our own versions of the world’s many myths. But we deny much of Life’s juiciness when we fail to embrace as fully as possible the inexhaustible richness of the classic myth.”
I think the American Atheist Society was wrong. The Christmas story isn’t a myth…at least not in the sense of being a lie. But it is a powerful story that has been kneaded and baked and kneaded and baked over and over down through the centuries. And we can continue to knead it today, adding our own flavors and seasonings to that original mother dough. Now more than ever, the world needs your Christmas gift. I invite you to embrace anew the myth of the nativity and make it your own.

Consider what happened to that despicable, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge! Dickens writes:
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. He had no further dealing with Spirits, but lived upon the total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards…”
And so, my friends, as Dickens said of Scrooge at the conclusion of “A CHRISTMAS CAROL,”
“…he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any person alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, every one!”