Editorial: Once, Christmas was in decline

Dec. 24, 2013 @ 09:50 AM

Some of the early Americans we celebrate at Thanksgiving would have been appalled at our celebration a month later of Christmas.

The highly religious Pilgrims and Puritans who left England in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t much celebrate Christmas, in part because many of the traditions had been adopted from the pagan festivals of Saturnalia (which included banquets, gift-giving and parties) and Yule (which included spiced cider, evergreen branches, holly, ivy and mistletoe).

Indeed, the holiday was banned in England until 1660, and even after that it was a holiday of dwindling importance. The main point of the story of Christ, after all, is his resurrection. He would not exist if he were not born, but there would not be Christianity as we know it without stories of his rising from the dead.

Also, the growing age of industrialization left workers less and less free time. Holidays and liesure took a back seat to productivity and work.

According to an article on The Victorian Web website, “as late as the 1820s, the writer Leigh Hunt labeled it an event ‘scarcely worth mention,’ and it was widely believed that the holiday, both in England and throughout Europe and North America, was destined to die out.”

So what happened?

Charles Dickens happened.

Dickens was one of the greatest writers of his age, and his 1843 publication of “A Christmas Carol” coincided with both the early Victorian era’s nostalgia for old traditions and the introduction of the German tradition of a Christmas tree by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. In 1988, the Sunday Telegraph of London called Dickens “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” A popular story says that when Dickens died in 1870, upon hearing the news a girl asked, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

What might this day be like if not for Dickens? Maybe all of the traditions would have come storming back on their own. They have their own aesthetic and symbolic appeal.

But Dickens’ story of one old man's redemption truly distills and personalizes the spirit of the holiday – of selflessness, joy, caring for others before yourself – in a way even a child can understand. None of us are beyond hope. The worst of us have a chance. It is a kind of resurrection story of its own. At the end, Scrooge is a new man and embodies the spirit of Christmas.

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

“… And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”