“We must not ask Dickens what Christmas is, for he does not know.”
Thus wrote G. K. Chesterton, the great controversialist, in an essay about the great novelist.
Indeed, although Dickens remained a nominal Christian all of his life, he never seems to have thought very much about the mysteries of his religion.
The Christmas antiphon, for example, seems no part of his celebration of Christmas, though he would have understand the Latin:
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio!
It’s still sung today.
O great mystery!—But this isn’t the Christmas that Dickens celebrated, or even thought very much about.He tended to reject anything traditional merely because it was traditional.
Dickens didn’t reject the idea of God’s incarnate message revealed in a human life, but this wasn’t the meaning he gave to Christmas.
He wrote many Christmas stories, such as The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man. But his A Christmas Carol is known throughout the world.
It’s famous because Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, has done something rare among novelists. He has shown us a convincing picture of happiness.
“There are twenty minor poets who can describe an eternity of agony; there are few even of the eternal poets who can describe ten minutes of satisfaction.” —G. K. Chesterton.
For Dickens, Christmas itself, placed as it is in the middle of winter, is like a defiant Yes! to being happy.
It’s the joyful greeting of a new baby in the muck of a barn.
A Christmas Carol contains scenes of a poor family rejoicing together despite loss, and of the unrestrained, spontaneous charity of a grotesque man named Scrooge.
Scrooge’s happiness is brief and unexpected—and we believe it because it’s expressed in his spontaneous gift of a grotesque turkey “so fat that it could never have stood upright.”
It’s a paradox, but the best expressions of happiness in literature aren’t in the pale utopias filled with beautiful people lying on beds of clouds, but in grotesques such as Scrooge who one day throw off their old selves and begin to live.
* Orlando Bartro is the author of Toward Two Words, a comical novel about a man who finds yet another woman he never knew, available at Amazon. He is currently writing two new novels and a play.