I love listening to the audiobook of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. I enjoy getting drowsy while hearing all the descriptions of the street people and shops and merriment. But there are some who might make a pretty strong case that Dickens was about a business most of us think of as fairly modern: taking Christ out of Christmas.
Two hundred years before “A Christmas Carol,” Christmas day was already a public holiday. During the twelve days of Christmas, shops and businesses were only open during shortened hours, pretty much just when the proprietors felt like it.
“Special food and drink were available and consumed in larger quantities than normal, including turkey and beef, mince pies, plum porridge and specially-brewed Christmas ale; taverns and taphouses did a roaring trade,” The Cromwell Association reports.
And — there was also this character of Father Christmas. He wasn’t delivering presents to children just yet, but he was sort of like the master of ceremonies. All over England, people settled in for 12 days of mid-winter leisure: eating and drinking to excess, dancing and singing, gambling, playing games, and yes, not shunning a certain amount of drunkenness and sexual immorality. It was 12 days when normal rules and self-control did not apply — “a period of deliberate inversion and `misrule.’ ”
So, surprise, surprise, The Godly Party — yes they called themselves that — came to frown upon this celebration of Christmas. They disliked all the waste, extravagance, disorder, sin and immorality of the Christmas celebrations. They clamped down.
In Defense of Scrooge
In January of 1642, Parliament ordered the last Wednesday in each month should be kept as a fast day. December 25 was strictly to be kept as a time of fasting and humiliation, “for remembering the sins of those who in the past had turned the day into a feast, sinfully and wrongfully giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.”
By the time of Dickens, the official bans on Christmas had expired, but the political views that brought them about were still holding sway.
Even such things as charity and kindness and mercy were looked down upon. When Scrooge talks about letting the poor and the sick die quickly and reduce the surplus population, that’s not the ravings of a bitter old hermit. He was quoting the wisdom of the day heard from lecterns and halls of Parliament and, yes, pulpits all over the nation.
Imagine working at the huge machines of the Industrial Revolution six days a week, then going to church, only to hear the preacher say, “You are having too much fun!” Can you see how and why so many people began to believe that God is just too big to deal with them? Maybe God was not even on their side?
But family, a roasted goose, a plum pudding — these were things that people could relate to easily. Of the 12 direct mentions of God in “A Christmas Carol,” two of them come as the Cratchit family basks in the afterglow of their Christmas feast, and Tiny Tim says the ever-famous “God bless us, everyone!”
Tim knew what every kid knows and what most grown-ups have forgotten. Christmas comes from outside of us. We can choose how to celebrate it and how to decorate it, but Christmas has never really been ours to grant or to ban.
You wrap a package for the homeroom gift swap, but the real gift is seeing the expression of the kid who opens it. You give your mom a box of Russell Stover candy, but the real gift is watching them disappear, one by one, knowing she thought of you every time she opened the box.
This is the reality of Christmas.
God With Us
The Godly Party wasn’t all wrong to be upset with all the world’s intrusions into the hallowed and sacred day that was Christmas. Today we bemoan the pollution of the season that is commercialism and greed and commercials urging you to buy a Jaguar for Christmas. But we need to be careful.
It wasn’t the merchants and the TV producers and the pop-music performers who first separated Christ from Christmas. As the story of Cromwell and The Godly Party shows us, when mercy, charity and generosity disappear from our hearts, and when faith and forgiveness disappear from our spirits, the peace and assurance of God With Us will rapidly disappear from our lives as well.
The Cromwellian corners of our hearts might observe that prophets foretold nothing of third-grade gift swaps, that the New Testament says nothing of candy in general or Russell Stover in particular, and that Santa Claus is entirely absent from the Gospel. But that doesn’t mean that the Gospel is absent from any of these things.
In a weird way, Christ without Christmas may be more damaging and more dangerous than a Christmas without Christ.
Our Savior has the power to come to us in holly boughs, mistletoe, garland and tinsel, boxes and tags, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a Red Ryder Carbine-action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, and in ways we don’t have intelligence or imagination to dream of. And that is not a sign of God’s weakness or our power over God, but a sign of God’s great power to save us in spite of ourselves.
The lights, the noise, the bustle, the very imperfection of our celebrations of Christmas remind us God has come down to our size. Christmas is Immanuel — God is with us. And the proof is in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts in human hearts the blessings of His Heaven. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him, still, the dear Christ enters in.
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