Friday, December 3, 2010

Dickens's Christmas Encounters

It would be a gross understatement to say that Christmas is my favorite day.  "One man regards one day above the rest.  Another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind."  I am fully convinced that I am One Man and not Another.  Christmas celebrates the birth of God on Earth, his appearance in flesh, his encounter with all humanity.  And in that celebration -- with the church services, the greenery, the lights, the candles, the decorations, the four weeks of anticipation, the food, the beautiful music, the cheesy music, the presents, and the prayers -- I most sense God's encounter with me.

It seems Dickens thought the same way, and his pious giddiness for Christmas transformed our world.  He wrote a special book or story for Christmas almost every year; his most famous story is only the pudding in a copious feast of Christmas dishes (although the "Christmas Carol's" bright rum-drenched blaze rightly remains the focal point of the meal).  In any one of those years, many an English family eagerly paid two shillings for the Christmas number of Dickens's current periodical, closed the doors and shutters against Winter's icy onslaught, sat around a glowing fire, and read aloud the latest story, which often featured a family taking refuge from Winter's icy onslaught and sitting around the fire glowing with familial love and Christmas cheer.  As natural as it seems to us now, Dickens practically invented this association of warmth, family, and cheer with Christmas and through his beautiful tales spread it around the English-speaking world; his description of the Ghost of Christmas Present shedding Christmas joy from a cornucopia was autobiographical.  When Dickens started his career, the Christmas card was virtually unknown; by the end of his career, the exchange of Christmas cards was as standard as it is today.

I'm in the middle of two of the Christmas stories right now: "The Haunted House" and "Tom Tiddler's Ground."  Neither has anything obvious to do with Yuletide; the first recounts the adventures of a couple who can't keep servants in the house because they keep hearing noises in the night, and the second tells of a man who has dropped out of society and everything that comes with it, including windows and bathing.  Why on earth did Dickens publish these stories in December, and how on earth did they contribute to the cultural pervasiveness of Christmas and the popularity of Christmas cards?  I believe at least part of the answer lies in the sounds of nighttime and solitude.

I haven't finished the first one, so I don't know if any actual ghosts show up; so far all the noises arise from interactions of wind and gutter.  The wind can blow in any of the twenty-four hours, of course, but the servants only hear the sounds at night.  These sounds, in conjunction with rumors about the house, raise in the servants' minds thoughts and even visions of spirits.  The second tale (a novella) contains a chapter about a girl left completely alone at her boarding school one day.  Kitty finds that she hears every tick of the clock, every click of her sewing needle.  Her loneliness leads briefly to false doubts about the affection of her friends and of her father, but Kitty then makes inspection of her soul and discovers different thoughts both happy and true.  Each story reminds us that certain hushed circumstances heighten both our sense of hearing and our awareness of the spiritual: ghosts in the one and love in the other.

Darkness, winter air, and a blanket of snow provide another such set of circumstances.  The silence amplifies every rustling bird wing, every snap of a frozen twig, every drip from a pendulous icicle.  But the experience, especially to a lone observer, is spiritually awakening as well.  Every crunching step through the crystal crust seems a violation of the sacred.  Of course, December 25 is a cultural convention, and of course cold air and abundant darkness on that date come from an accident of geography and cosmic mechanics.  Christmas is warm and sunny in Sydney.  But we work with what we have, and Dickens confronts his readers again and again with these scenes of solitude, silence, and snow to remind us that numinous encounters can and should happen at Christmas.

To address a spiritual crisis I experienced one winter a few years ago, I listened for months to the same piece over and over in the car: Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium." The CD offered this translation of the text:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia! Lord, I heard your call and was afraid.
I considered your works, and I trembled between two animals.
When I think about that last line, I imagine myself a blessed goat in the cave on that blessed night.  When I look at a creche, a gaily lit tree, or a Dickens Christmas story, the noises disappear, a sacred hush settles on the world around me, the Word of God suddenly becomes audible and clear, and I tremble.

No comments:

Post a Comment