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The Woman in White Marble

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Sunday
Dec182011

On A Christmas Carol

Scourge had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total   Abstinence Prinicple, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man 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!

One of the saddest events in popular culture is the continual distortion of a great literary character through the romanticizing of Tiny Tim, transforming him into a sentimental, sweet character, whom we can first pity and then exploit, using him like a sponge to soak up our spilt Christian goodness. In fact, Tiny Tim is one key to "Keeping Christmas well," that is, living a life that honours and celebrates the birth of Christ. He is also a character of biblical proportions, a modern symbol for the ones Simeon referred to in his first blessing as narrated by the author of Luke. In the child Jesus, Simeon said he had seen God's salvation, a salvation prepared in the sight of all the people, a salvation which was a light for the Gentiles( Luke 2:25-35). In the child Tiny Tim, Dickens was representing all the people, which is to say, Tiny Tim was, symbolically speaking, a Gentile. We will return to Simeon in a moment. But let us first consider Dickens.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, the first of five "Christmas Books" written from 1843 to 1848. In each book a central character suffers from a loss of faith in human dignity, but is eventually brought to realize the value of human spirit. The transformation each character goes through, and we must call it a transformation and not simply a change of mind or even heart, is accomplished through spirit intervention, or in other words, by spiritual means. It may not be stretching it to say that each character is transformed by a salvation through God. In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote he hoped the story would "Awake some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." In fact, he wrote the story because, in his opinion, "Keeping Christmas well" was out of season all the time. Dickens' ultimate hope was, of course, that through the power of his narratives the reader would, like the main characters, be transformed as well.

A Christmas Carol is not about a sweet little crippled boy, but instead is about the social conditions of Dickens' Britain. The story had (and still has) a strong social message, and we can add, speaks that message with strong biblical overtones. In and through the story, Dickens was appealing in general to the people of Britain to lead less selfish lives, and in particular to the rich to take seriously their duty of care for those less fortunate. He had visited Cornish tin mines early in 1843 and saw children labourers at work. He visited the Field Lane Ragged School in London, one of several institutions trying to educate hungry and illiterate children. After these experiences, he wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. During the writing of the "hymn" he said in a letter that he "wept and laughed and wept again...and in thinking walked the black streets of London...when all sober folks had gone to bed," indicating how deeply disturbed and moved he was. In fact, the magic and mystery of his literary hymn exhibited a "strange mastery" over him, but a mastery of joy and love which he was impatient to return to each working day.

Dickens had a lot to weep and laugh about. For years the poor had not only been neglected by society, but also lived under the burden of a social philosophy and political policies that actually justified that neglect. In 1803 Thomas Malthus wrote the essay entitled Principle of Population. In it Malthus argued that any human being that could not be supported by his or her parents, and could not provide labour that was useful and required by society, had "no claim or right to the smallest portion of food." He went on to say that such people also had "no business" even being in society and that their death would "decrease the surplus population."

When society refuses people food, shelter, and work, there is only one place for them to go, or to be, and Scrooge, the character representing the Malthusian position, had no difficulty in saying precisely where or what that place was -- death. Scrooge, of course, had no time for the celebration of the child of salvation. For him, Jesus could be forgotten and Tiny Tim, whose parents could not support him and whose ill health made it impossible for him to become a good labourer for society, could simply die. When just before Christmas Scrooge was asked to make a contribution to help provide for the "Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present," people in the thousands lacking common necessities and in the hundreds of thousands wanting common comforts, he responded:

"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman laying down his pen again.
”And the Union Workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? said Scrooge.
"Both very busy. sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

The gentlemen not giving up explained to Scrooge that such provisions hardly "furnished Christmas cheer of mind or body to the multitudes" and that they were collecting funds to give the poor "meat and drink, and a means of warmth." But again Scrooge refused to give saying he wished to be left along. He than said, in full Malthusian passion:

"I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned--they coast enough; and those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Dickens wrote a Christmas carol, that is a literary hymn about the birth of Christ. He wrote about the hope found in one child, a child who came for all children and, of course, all people, through the character of another child, a child who represented all those people without place or food, swept away by society. The first child, Jesus, represented the salvation of all people. The second child, Tiny Tim, represented all those in need of such a salvation.

 If it feels like the weight of import will crush sweet and crippled Tiny Tim, let us return to the Christmas narrative, as told by Luke, a piece of literature also romanticized for sweet deliverance. Luke wrote of the prophet Simeon who delivered two blessings, the second qualifying the first. In the first, he declared God's promise of salvation had been fulfilled. In powerful language he said he had seen God's salvation, that this salvation had been prepared in the sight of all people, that it was the light for the Gentiles. In the second blessing, also told in strong language, Simeon said the child was chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many, that many would speak against him as their secret thoughts were revealed. And so in the two blessings we have parallel and contrasting images: Keeping a promise and being chosen; bringing salvation and destruction; revealing divine will and human secrets; experiencing glory and sorrow.

Both of Simeon's blessing return us to the prophet Isaiah. We are reminded of the need, precisely because of neglect, of all the poor, ill, brokenhearted. It becomes clear, even through our sweet Jesus story and our sweet Tiny Tim carol, that if the salvation of all people is to actually include the poor, the suffering, the diseased, the weak, the dispossessed, the neglected, that that very salvation will have to cause the downfall of a way of life that both justifies and actualizes exclusion and neglect, a way of life which finds life in both the intellectual philosophies and the political policies of the day. We can be quite certain that such a salvation will be "spoken against", or more properly translated, "contradicted," and, no doubt, with force. With the vision of the people of grass in our minds and a crippled, ill, dying child in our hearts, we can hear the echoes of at least one contradictory voice: But are there no prisons, and Union Workhouses, and the Treadmill, and Poor Laws, and if that is not enough, then let them die, decreasing the surplus population.

The Spirit of Simeon gave both hope and warning. The same hope and warning are powerfully told when Scrooge met the Spirit of Christmas Present. As the evening passed the Spirit took Scrooge to homes where they stood besides the bedsides of the sick who, nonetheless, were cheerful. They visited those who struggled and were still patient living in great hope. They visited those who lived in poverty and were rich in spirit. And they visited the almshouses, hospitals, prisons where people experienced misery but had not "made fast the door and barred the Spirit out" thus allowing him to enter their misery and give the gift of blessing.

As the long night unfolded before him, time and space seemed to lose meaning for Scrooge, except that he noticed the Spirit was growing visibly older. He asked if life was so short for all spirits and the Spirit replied that his life would end that very night at midnight. As the chimes rang three quarters past eleven, with death approaching, hope turned to warning. Scrooge saw something in the folds of the Spirits clothing...

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"
"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here!" exclaimed the Ghost. "They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostate, 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 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 toward the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit if for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end!""Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge."Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no work-houses?"
The bell struck twelve.

Dickens speaks with passion and power about the Spirit of Salvation. We sing the Spirit's blessings, for where he visits there is health, joy, home, and hope. Where the Spirit smiles, needs are met and comforts are offered. Dickens does not, however, sentimentalize the vision, for wrapped within the very clothing of the Spirit of Salvation is the misery caused by human thought and deed. We shutter when we realize that the grotesque monsters revealed are the results of human exploits. We reel at the devils before us are in fact human beings and, once again, children. We desperately reach for a self-defense, any self-defense, when we are reminded that such human suffering belongs not to God but to us. We ache when we see how the suffering cling to the Spirit and look upon us with fear.

Perhaps it is once again time we read Isaiah, Luke, and Dickens with the secrets of our hearts exposed to revealing light. And perhaps it is once again time for us to realize that the salvation offered in Christ's birth is a liberating power that necessitates change in our philosophies and policies. If we were to "keep Christmas well" we would experience the wholeness of salvation's blessings. We would be filled with joy and pierced through the heart. In this world, both must be ours. The sword that pierced Mary's heart is the very same sword that pierced Scrooge's soul. The sword does not represent the romantic sorrow of Mary standing at the foot of the cross; Luke never had Mary there. The sword was the knowledge that she too would have to accept the word of God as all disciples were required to do.

In Luke Mary became a disciple. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge became a disciple. They both learned to keep Christmas well. Is it possible that this Christmas we could do the same and Dickens' closing words could be written for us:

Scourge had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man 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!

 Copyright © 2011 Dale Rominger