Monday, December 12, 2016

In Defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge

Oh, joy. The War on the War on Christmas is back. People are hollering that now that Trump has been elected, everyone is going to have to say "Merry Christmas" all the time and have "Merry Christmas" said to them all the time, whether they like it or not, and they don't like it, screw them anyway. What better way to express the meaning of Christmas? It's so very far from the spirit of Christian humility and love that I find myself, against all odds, ready to mount a defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

As we all know, Scrooge's response when wished a "Merry Christmas" is to say "Bah! Humbug!" We all know that, from early in childhood, as Scrooge's tag line. And we don't worry about what it means, exactly. It's an old-timey phrase that Scrooge says, and we get that it's negative. We learn the phrase much too early for the word "humbug" to be in our vocabulary for other reasons. So we don't think about it. But Scrooge is saying something very specific. The word "humbug" means fraud. Scrooge is saying that the holiday of Christmas is a fraud and an imposture. And, as Dickens's original readers all knew, Scrooge is saying that for well-established religious reasons.

Scrooge is expressing a religious objection to Christmas. A Christian religious objection to Christmas. Although Scrooge isn't shown as especially pious (because the whole story is set up to make him lose his argument), he is speaking for a long English Protestant tradition that viewed Christmas as a bunch of non-Biblical paganish nonsense. Those Puritanical Protestants had a strong  theological point here, in that the December 25th date is sooooo totally not Biblical.

(I'm not going to walk you through the details, but think about the Gospels' reference to the shepherds tending their flocks by night. What kind of shepherds tend their flocks outdoors at night near the end of December? Terrible, terrible shepherds who are letting all of their sheep die of painful exposure to the cold. What is wrong with these shepherds? Why don't they bring the flocks in for the winter like everyone else does? Do they hate sheep? But I digress. The answer is, it's not actually winter in the Gospel story.)

Anyway that have-you-heard-this-before rap your atheist office-mate annual lays on you across the cubicle divider about how Christmas is really this pagan holiday that Christians took over blah blah etc. etc., turns out to be basically accurate. But your atheist explainer friend has unwittingly borrowed that argument from a group of hard-core Christian fanatics from earlier centuries, who were absolutely determined, on the grounds of their faith, not to celebrate any Papist idolatrous nonsense like Christmas.

Ebeneezer Scrooge is recognizably descended from those Christian hard-liners, which is why his first name is Ebeneezer. Giving your children names from the Old Testament, rather than the name of a later Christian saint, is a Puritan practice, and into the 19th century that combination of Jewish first name and English last name is a sign of Puritan family history, the same way having a first name like "Rainwater" suggests that your parents were hippies. (If you see an early American named Ezekiel, Abraham, or Nathaniel, you can be 95% certain they have New England Puritans in their family tree.) Ebeneezer Scrooge is actually named after a rock (no, really) from the first book of Samuel. He's got a stony heart, right? But notice that his hard-firsted partner, Jacob Marley, also has an Old Testament/Puritan name. The nice guys in A Christmas Carol don't get those Old Testament names. They're named Bob and Fred.

Also notice that, partly because of stubborn religious objections, Christmas was not actually a legal holiday in Dickens's England. As in, no one had to close their store. That little exchange near the beginning where Bob Cratchit asks for Christmas off (or, and this is worth noticing, Scrooge prompts Cratchit to ask for Christmas off: "You'll be wanting the whole day off tomorrow?") makes no sense to us today. Why does Bob have to ask for the holiday off? Everybody gets the holiday off. Actually, they don't, because it's not actually a holiday. So give Ebeneezer Scrooge his propers: even at the beginning of the story, he gives Cratchit Christmas Day off when he doesn't have to. He closes shop on a day he could have done business and he pays Cratchit a full day's pay for a bogus fake holiday, a fraudulent humbug that Scrooge probably thinks of as un-Christian. He even goes out of his way to make sure to that Cratchit asks, which means that however much Scrooge huffs and grumbles he has actually decided to give Cratchit the paid day off before Cratchit asks. So don't be so hard on the guy.

Now, my boy Charles Dickens is very intent on promoting Christmas, for lots of reasons. Part of it is about a larger High-Church Anglican movement bent on reviving traditional holidays. And part of it, famously, is commercial, because Dickens wanted to promote Christmas gift-giving. (He published a lot of work in once-a-year annuals designed to be given as Christmas presents; A Christmas Carol was first published in one of these Christmas-gift-ready compilations.) He wants to make the strongest case for Christmas he can. And therefore, by and large, he leaves Jesus out of it.

A Christmas Carol always works from the premise that Christmas itself is not religiously defensible. The Ghosts make every conceivable argument for the Christmas holiday EXCEPT the argument about Jesus's birth. They never go to the Bethlehem story, never even get close. Because there's no way to con Scrooge, or frankly to con the readers, into accepting that this is actually Jesus's birthday. Dickens knows better than to make an argument he can't win.

So Dickens makes a case for a non-sectarian, ultimately secularized Christmas, based on recognizably but not exclusively Christian values, such as generosity, and a generally small-c conservative emphasis on the pleasures of tradition. (Dickens is working the tradition angle from the first few sentences of the story, in ways that work all the better because they don't call full attention to themselves.) And in there Dickens slyly folds in his message that the best way to celebrate Christmas is to buy things.

Now, I love A Christmas Carol. It tells its story very well. But then, I'm a superstitious Papist. What do I know? But I want to point out that one of the things A Christmas Carol is doing is taking Christ out of Christmas. And it does that in 1843. So don't tell me it's some modern liberal conspiracy. Charles Dickens did it, long before any of our grandparents were born. And he invented the holiday we all know today: a commercial and secular holiday that's about vague, feel-good sentiments and about tradition for tradition's sake, rather than about any actual religious content per se. Dickens made Christmas for everyone, because if it were actually about Jesus most Christians would not have accepted it.

Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't accept Christmas because of Jesus. Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't accept that Christmas has anything to do with Jesus. And no one in the story who comes from the Afterlife tries to tell him any different. What turns Ebeneezer Scrooge around is a general set of positive values, loosely tied to Christianity but by no means tied to any specific sectarian identity: kindness and generosity, warmth and affection, values that you'll tend to find among believers of nearly every religion. Scrooge likes to hear the Christmas bells, but you'll notice he doesn't actually attend any church. He's not observing a religious holiday. He's just in it for the peace on earth and goodwill to men.

So, however you celebrate these winter holidays, let's keep Dickens and Scrooge (reformed version) in our hearts this winter: a warmth and generosity that extends itself to all without exclusion, without getting hung up on the details of doctrine or on membership in any specific sect or tribe. Wish people well this holiday season with no strings attached, without being stingy of your good will. And God bless us, every one.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog