Thursday, December 16, 2010

Charles Dickens and Christmastime

For those who know and love the works of Charles Dickens, it's hard to separate him from Christmastime.  Christmas--when looked at properly--has an other worldliness about it, and Dickens is not without this aura as well.  He is like a second Homer, breathing life into pagan gods. But the gods of Dickens--the Pickwicks and Wellers, the Traddles and Micawbers--are not without their Christianity.  If this blending of Paganism and Christianity seems odd to anyone, let us not forget that many of our most cherished traditions of Christmas are pagan traditions.
None of his works seems to exude this feature more so than his Christmas books.  Even The Battle of Life, which is the only one of his Christmas books that contains no elements of the supernatural, is ripe with this other-worldliness, this Pagan Christianity.  Reading the story, it is hard to not picture these characters worshiping their household gods.  One could transpose the entire story to Ancient Rome and find little need to change a thing.
I would say though that the Dickens' other-worldliness is best exposed in two scenes, two of his Christmas books, A Christmas Carol and The Chimes.  The scene wherein Scrooge holds conversation with his former partner Jacob Marley has always held a sort of awful presence in my mind.  It is one of the most real scenes in all of literature to me.  I can hear the bells, the rattle of chains, the woeful voice of Marley as he talks of Scrooge's "ponderous chain."  But no part of this is more set in my mind than when Scrooge is at the window.  Of course, Dickens' views on the afterlife seem more influenced by folklore than actual religion, which, though he would not have liked to admit it, was more Medieval than it was Victorian.
This scene at the window in very similar to a scene in The Chimes, when Trotty Veck is in the bell tower, viewing goblins, all over the country side, comforting lamenting souls and tormenting sinners, until the bells stop ringing and they all disappear.  They are the spirits of the bells working on the souls of men.  It is a perfect example of his Pagan Christianity.  Then the true spirits of the bells appear, "a bearded figure. . .a figure and the Bell itself."  They are described as "mysterious and awful."  Yet, even these Bells, he says were Baptised.  He links fairies with the Church, combining folklore with religion.  This is actually very common among the British.  Even today, many devout Christians of the Celtic countries hold to beliefs in the fairy folk.
Christmastime is as well a link between folklore and religion.  One the one hand, we have the Virgin Mary giving birth to God made flesh, born so that through His death he might rescrue His creation.  On the other hand, we have such folklore as Sinterklaas (the true name of Santa Claus), Father Christmas (a seperate entitity from Sinterklaas), yulelogs, mistletoe, and even elves, though for the life of me, I can't figure out how they fit in.  While I am the type of Christian who prefers to make Christmas about Christ, I'm also an enthusist of fairy tales.  I might not tell me children that Santa Claus is real (I might mention Sinterklaas because I'd like to tap into my Dutch herritage), but they'll certainly learn about Father Christmas (who is simply an embodiment of the Christmas spirit) and of course we'll have a Christmas tree and all those other ornaments that owe their origins to Pagan tradition. 
Christ did not come into the world to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.  We are to cast aside the parts we do not need, and keep only that which is pertinant to the Christian faith.  In the same regard, I think Christ did not come into the world to destroy Paganism, but to complete it.  We can throw aside the harmful beliefs, but there are many aspects that need not be eliminated simply because of their connection to false gods.  The early Church knew this, but many movements since have feared the harmful effect of Paganism, not realizing that Christianity has rendered Paganism impotent.  It was because of this that Puritains abolished Christmas.  Even America was founded without Christmas, and if not for such writers as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, Christmas might have gone out into obscurity.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post :D
    thought you might like my machinima version of A Christmas Carol