There are three questions that have been on my mind this Christmas season: 1) Why are the holidays so difficult for so many of us? 2) In the aftermath of the Connecticut shooting, how is it that we still live in a world where even the most innocent are devalued and at risk? 3) Are there any stories that can save us…or at least give us a little hope without being reduced to cliché?
Christmas is a celebration of stories. It is one of the few times family members from multiple generations will gather together for the retelling of traditional tales—if not for an oral recitation around the Christmas tree, then perhaps in the form of favorite films. From It’s a Wonderful Life to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, most of these stories have a similar theme: Christmas is a time for generosity and joy; a season to spend with loved ones and a chance to count one’s blessings. This is a message we hear from almost every Christmas story, which is perhaps what makes the reality of Christmas such a disappointment…at least to those of us who are bothered by the loss of wonder we experienced so intensely during our childhoods.
Despite the feel-good stories, crowded malls, and endless chorus of nauseating Christmas carols sung by the latest pop stars, many of us experience a nagging feeling, deep down, that all is not right with the world. The cheap sentimentality, shameless gluttony, and out-of-control commercialism that run rampant at this time of the year only heighten the feelings of loss and despair. Add to that a spike in deaths/suicides and the family tensions that tend to bubble to the surface during the holidays and you have the ultimate store-bought façade—a room full of people pretending to be merry, when in reality Christmas highlights how broken our relationships and world really are.
How’s that for a Christmas story?
Maybe that’s why A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of my personal favorites. This year I’ve experienced it in several versions, having actually read the 1843 novella for the first time, in addition to watching the 1984 version starring George C. Scott and the recent animated adaptation by Disney. Set in his Victorian England, Dickens masterfully showcases the social issues of his day as he does in all his novels. Both on paper and on screen the story is dark, gritty, and morose…intentionally frightening and a far cry from the banal and brainless Christmas movies that dominate today. Ebenezer Scrooge may be a heartless old bastard, but at least he’s honest about the bitterness that consumes him. He sees the worst in people and society, yet his cynicism—while far from a virtue—is somewhat refreshing in an age that either sanitizes Christmas or varnishes it with a candy coating. A Christmas Carol forces us to admit that we each carry a little bit of Scrooge inside us; a self-centered ego we don’t want to expose, let alone submit to others. Part of us wants genuine relationships, and yet we repeatedly reject them, drowning our hurt and our real selves with alcohol and more ‘stuff’ so we can pretend we are connected to those around us…that we truly belong.
Scrooge is only redeemed after he recognizes the hard truth about himself, which requires a painful pilgrimage into the past, present, and future. The three ghosts of Christmas that pay Scrooge a visit show him how his free choices have alienated him from the people he is bound to in life, whether he likes it or not. They also reveal the future he is headed for—the ultimate prison of an ego frozen in death; a personal hell where the soul is cut off from opportunities to show love, generosity, and compassion on an intimate level…which also means it is cut off from all that is meaningful and good.
We all fight against this cold emptiness in a variety of ways. Some of us cling to narrow religious beliefs and identify ourselves as one of the few ‘chosen ones,’ becoming fatalists who live only for an afterlife and give up on bringing a little bit of heaven to earth. Many live for today and adopt the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” philosophy, but discover that tomorrow isn’t as close as we thought and a life concerned only with pleasure is actually pretty boring. Others rail against ‘the system’ or commit to a variety of causes so we can feel better about ourselves and look down on all the blind sheep around us, thankful that at least we are superior to them. This last example seems to be the remedy those who have a tendency to be ‘socially conscious’ try out for a time, especially during our impassioned youth. Yet like most human solutions, our efforts to change the world on a large scale often end in frustration and disillusionment because they fail to address the real root of the problem: all systems are made up of individual people who must be changed from the inside out, starting with ourselves. Even the well-intentioned heart of a passionate reformer can take a good cause and twist it so that it becomes more about us than anything else (a.k.a., a way of giving ourselves an identity and a nice little pat on the ego). The humiliating path Scrooge treads is a harder, more painful, and much slower revolution (usually taking the entire span of a human life), which is probably what makes it so distasteful. Funny how much easier it is to love a distant, anonymous humanity than it is to love the messy, real-life people in our families, workplaces, and communities. The first demands nothing of us, the others demand everything.
This is something old Scrooge alludes to when he is asked for a monetary donation that would provide the poor and destitute with a warm holiday meal. “Are the no prisons?” he asks. “And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” When Scrooge is told that yes, these public programs for the poor are all up and running, he replies that he will make no donation. “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned through taxes—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.” If they refuse because of the horrible conditions and dangers that exist in these environments, Scrooge says the destitute might as well die and “decrease the surplus operation.” Ever the savvy businessman, Scrooge’s view of society is utilitarian and functional. If public institutions exist to care for the “least of these”—institutions his tax dollars pay for, by the way—why should he be bothered to give anything else of himself? Keep the poor out of sight and out of mind. Let us rail against the injustice of the system, but let someone else—preferably a large governmental organization headquartered on the other side of the country—redistribute wealth on behalf of the needy, that way we don’t have to associate the poor with real human beings who live in our neighborhoods and have faces and names. And of course, let us do all this good without acknowledging our own prideful, conceited hearts that benefit in so many ways—at least materially—from the consumerism we swear we loathe.
It is worth noting that the one person who can rescue Scrooge from his prison is a child. An innocent. Tiny Tim—a blameless boy who suffers from poverty and disease and yet remains grateful for all he has, wishing blessings on everyone. This is the little person who is capable of melting Scrooge’s hardened heart. On December 28, some faith communities will commemorate the Massacre of Innocents in Bethlehem under King Herod. Whether one observes this holy day or not, it’s hard not to associate it with the recent slaughter of innocents in Connecticut—an appalling reminder that for all our ‘advancements’ in comfort and so-called knowledge, humans have not progressed very far in 2,000 years. The continual suffering of the most vulnerable among us reminds us that Christmas is not supposed to be a season of gooey sentiment—joy and tragedy always exist side by side in tension, as do the good and evil that struggle for dominion over every human heart.
As a writer, I am someone who believes that stories like the ones mentioned above contain Truth with a capital “T”. That is why they endure throughout the ages and survive the fads of the moment; the meaning we discover in them is ultimately True for all of us, no matter our minor differences. They last because they reveal Reality—how life really is and how human beings really are. Scientific knowledge and rationality are wonderful tools that have their place, but there are other “ways of knowing” the transcendent truths revealed by allegory and symbol rather than a microscope. Our increasingly technological and de-humanized generation is starving for this kind of truth: the truth of imagination and mystery; weapons against the darkness that belong to sages and storytellers. When we elevate empirical truth over imaginative truth, we risk forgetting the limitations that come with being human. In our arrogance, we fail to remember that the Nazis used science and instruments of ‘progress’ for evil while they burned books…not to mention the people who dared to believe in the ‘irrational’ claims some of those books made: that man is more than material.
These are the kinds of truths the original Christmas Story points to—the real, non-Hallmark Story that begins with a King born in squalor and ends with the slaughter of innocents. That is why it is so saddening to see how the jaded and unimaginative can only find in it offense (a baby born in a manger…seriously?) or an excuse to make overused, conspiratorial comments like, “You know, Christmas was really a pagan holiday in honor of the sun god that was later hijacked by the church” (Yeah, we know. And it was an intentional, brilliant, and creative move: let us symbolically associate “sun god” with “son of God.” Come on, imagination people! Are we moderns so starving for it that we cannot get past this silly critique…one the ancients had no problem with because their minds were shaped by paradox and could perceive deeper meanings beyond ‘the facts.’ And we think we are so much smarter. Sigh).
The truth of Christmas is that humans do have a tremendous capacity for love and there are plenty of generous deeds done during this season to remind us of this capacity, yet often times even our efforts to “do good” are crooked at best. We constantly need to be rescued from our egotistical little selves —not just once, but every year…perhaps every single day. Just like old Scrooge, in all the best stories the hero must experience a spiritual awakening and inner renewal before he can truly benefit anyone else. And even after that initial experience, he must be continually reminded of his failures and his redemption through other examples that serve as signposts along the difficult journey of life. These are the tales that keep us from hypocrisy by pointing out our fallen condition…wounds that can be healed by love and grace, but are still part of being human. Such true stories remind us that what our broken world needs most is an intervention…what are broken hearts long for is an Incarnation.