This is the second in a series of Advent reflections. Part I is available here—Ed.
Who invented Christmas? Our Blessed Lady is a fair answer. In about 3 B.C. she gave birth to Jesus, who became known as the Christ. Saint Joseph, while not Jesus’s natural father, is another good answer because he is the main character in Saint Matthew’s rendition of the Bethlehem story. And Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) is another good answer still, because he is popularly credited with devising the Christmas pageant.
But who created Christmas as we know it, with all the gifts and indoor trees and special food and charitable donations and days off from work? Although it is impossible to claim that Christmas is historically new, it is only in the last 160 years or so, and particularly since World War II, that Christmas (other than during Covid-19, of course) is turkey, candy, hams, greeting cards, shopping sprees, family reunions, office parties, seasonal songs and shows for children. For most of Christian history Easter was the big feast; Christmas, not so much.
By 1843, Charles Dickens had written five well-received novels and then three duds. He was, at age 31, in debt with family obligations. Walking the streets of Manchester that fall he thought about Christmas and its effects on children. Returning to his London home, he wrote A Christmas Carol in a fury. His publisher didn’t like it, so Dickens paid for the printing himself—adding to his debt. The story (followed by four more Christmas-themed novellas) took off and is now available in many editions and through many adaptations. For example, Acta sells a $14.95 edition tied in a red ribbon and with an introduction by theologian Jack Shea. (My personal favorite adaptation is the 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol.)
It was Dickens who revived and updated a celebration connected to the nativity of Christ. He promoted forgotten customs and introduced some new ones that now define the holiday. In particular, he lifted up practices consistent with Christ’s message: compassion, regard for family life, charity, and decent, humane working conditions.
Worth noting is that Dickens was a contemporary of Karl Marx. Both explored the contradictions within industrial capitalism: How is it that prosperity results in widespread poverty? Marx and Dickens saw child labor, overcrowded housing, illness, unemployment, and meanness in all the cities they visited. The remedy for Marx included violence, which he thought was inevitable. Dickens’s remedy is not as obvious as Marx’s. Dickens’s stories are about character, the tension between, on one hand, corrupt people, and on the other hand those of good character and noble institutions. The stories hinge on the possibility of redemption.
The complexity of the “good guys” is Dickens’s genius. They are usually not romanticized. Poverty itself does not make a person sympathetic or noble. A poor person can drink or carouse too much, can cheat at times and make bad decisions. But poverty is not a sin, as unfortunately it is considered, even today, by those today who draw false distinctions between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor.
Likewise, Dickens does not romanticize those who help the poor. Donating alms, used clothing, and the like at this time of year is not a special favor, nor is it particularly meritorious. Charity is simply rendered because a recipient is entitled to proper assistance and the donor is quite capable of helping out.
This holy season is designed to reinforce behavior that should occur all year long: People should look out for people; families should treasure one another; institutions that lose their purpose and degrade human dignity should be reformed; and joy and celebration are essential to the human prospect, every day of the year.
William Droel is the editor of Initiatives (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter on faith and work.