I have heard it said that Charles Dickens, by his famous novella about the miserly buyer of bad debts who is visited by a series of ghosts and who consequently learns to open his heart and his purse, “invented” Christmas for us speakers of English. That is how we have ended up with a holiday spree of buying and giving, all under the wink of that confidence man in the red suit. The film “Scrooge” put the two motifs together, so that we see Albert Finney as Santa, tossing out monetary largesse to all and some.
Ho, ho, ho, Murry Krismuss.
Of course, it is all nonsense. Englishmen had been celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, building up to the feast of the Epiphany, for many centuries. Many of our best-loved carols come from the Middle Ages. Dickens for his part was centrally concerned, in A Christmas Carol, with the gospels, as he was throughout his novels. “And he took a little child and set him in their midst”—that is the verse Peter Cratchit is reading to his smaller siblings when Scrooge sees them in the prospective future, while Tiny Tim’s crutches and brace are preserved lovingly in one corner of the poor room. “Unless ye become as little children,” said Jesus, “ye shall not enter the kingdom of God.” That is what happens to Scrooge, who awakes from his adventures and does not know what day it is. “I don’t know anything at all,” says he. “I am quite a baby!”
Still, there is something to that notion of a reinvented or dismantled Christmas. We say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” having forgotten that a holiday is or used to be a holy day. Americans have no American “holy days” anymore, only long weekends, and that is both a symptom and a continuing cause of their loss of identity as a people. Christians have sometimes responded, as far as Krismuss is concerned, by saying that we should put Christ back in it, and remember that he is the “reason for the season.” The jingle is jarring. We might as well remember that he is the reason for the treason, in that we sin against him all the time: we are Herod the murderer of infants, Caiaphas the Machiavellian politician, Judas the false friend, Pilate the hand-washer, and Peter the denier. The swaddling bands will be the shroud, the stable or cave will be the tomb.
Or we might think of the tail end of Krismuss, and say that we should put the Mass back in it. I am a Roman Catholic, and I will be attending Mass on Christmas day with my family. But I mean Mass here in a broader sense: the coming-together of Christian believers to give thanks and praise to God, and to beg from him the grace to clear the darkness from our eyes, and to soften the hardness of our hearts.
I mean that if we say, “We remember that Christmas is about Christ, unlike these late-stage pagans, hunters and hunted, harried from shop to shop,” we too have missed the holiness of the night. Christ did not come among us because we were good. He did not search for the automobile with the most sincere bumper stickers.
He came among us because we were bad: benighted, lost, ever wandering yet not advancing one step toward the light. Says the poet Herbert, in “Christmas”:
O thou, whose glorious yet contracted light,
Wrapped in night’s mantle, stole into a manger,
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To man of all beasts be thou not a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack, or grave.
C. S. Lewis gives us a brilliant way to consider a world without the holy day: it is always winter, and never Christmas. So we have songs about the wonders of snow and ice, to be heard on the radio in Honolulu as well as in Anchorage; and we worry about the retreating of the glaciers, but neglect the weather of our circumpolar hearts. For a while we smile along, flashing teeth made bright with titanium dioxide, and crooning “Santa Baby,” or something. A time for family, we tell ourselves, putting out of our minds the truth, that for many, the family business makes the un-holiday a site of intense pain, but producing no remorse, since we have banished the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
As there is nothing more lonely than to be at a loud party where nobody is genuinely interested in anybody else, so there may be nothing more dispiriting than Krismuss. Put it out, dear reader. Retreat to your chamber and pray. Come forth and join your even-Christians in prayer and song. Let your eyes shine with the vision of a wonder that the world does not know. Remember the holy day, to keep it holy. Let Christmas be like a door thrown open into solemnity and joy.
Enter it, and beckon others to enter, too.