‘Tis the season to be jolly? For many, the answer is “What? Are you kidding?” Christmas conjures up images of desperation shopping, crowds, hurriedness, nerves (did I get everyone something? Was it appropriate?). Not to mention the thought of receiving presents for which a polite response requires an effort of superhuman self-control. This obsessive-compulsive gift-giving… what is it good for? Shouldn’t Christmas be more about rest and relaxation? About spending time with family and friends? And… about remembering the “reason for the season?”
But what begins as a desire for less stress and more rest can end up losing the plot altogether. We may seek the reason for the season in an aversion to commercialization… and end up with an aversion precisely to that reason.
“Keep Christmas in your own way,” one might end up saying, “and let me keep it in mine.”
After all, one must keep commercialization at bay, and that may mean taking a step back from the Christmas grind.
But the step isn’t that far from this place to another, the place where giving and receiving stops, and one, in insulating himself or herself from this round of imperation, takes a decisive step back from the holiday spirit itself. And in our day of rampant, solipsistic subjectivism, where (as Kant might say) autonomy has triumphed over heteronomy, this is anything but an imagined move. It might even be seen as an expression of individuality and authenticity. Yes – a statement.
And in the end we might hear someone saying to us, “Keep it! But you don’t keep it.”
To which might come our reasoned retort, “Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”
But guess what? We might glory in our smugness… but all the while only be exposing ourselves to one of the great sallies of literary history.
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.”
Would we be able to hear this? Would we be able to bear a reproach in favor of something we didn’t choose – a shared, collective tradition? (How much of the current “war on Christmas” has less to do with atheism and more to do with self-determination? But be that as it may….)
Our interlocutor continues.
“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—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 creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, … though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
We have, of course, here been witness to the exchange between Uncle and Nephew… Scrooge.
Look at what, in Nephew Scrooge’s eyes, Christmas accomplishes! Men and women open their hearts to each other collectively, freely, like they do at no other time of the year. They view each other in the light of ultimacy rather than expediency, “as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave,” which in Dickens’ time, everyone professed but few acted on. And furthermore, not as “another race of creatures bound on other journeys,” i.e., separate races on separate journeys… a line which, in our age of balkanized domestic politics, in itself speaks volumes.
Surely an institution that accomplishes all of this is worthy of our veneration and participation. “And I say, God bless it!”
May our exasperation, if not our desire for our own autonomously constructed, smartphone-oriented spheres, not take away from that participation in one of the great institutions of Christian civilization.
And lest we overlook: the above citation contains a line which is universally excised from every cinematic presentation of A Christmas Carol that this author has had the pleasure of examining. It shouldn’t be too difficult to discern of which line I speak.
Here is the objectionable clause in italics: “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time.”
“If anything belonging to it can be apart from that,” indeed. It would seem that the problem with Christmas has more to do with keeping things that belong to Christmas, apart from Christmas. If we would remind ourselves that all the gift-giving and -receiving makes little sense apart from the cosmic birthday party with which it is connected, perhaps we would find more of a capacity to approach Christmas and keep Christmas in the spirit with which it ought to be pervaded.
And the carols that ought to be sung together with it, indeed provide the right understanding.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.
Let’s do this right. Which is something different from, let’s make the best of it.