With Christmas season upon us, book lovers the world over must think yet again of that familiar holiday story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
Whatever winter festival you celebrate, A Christmas Carol endorses its most lavish version. As the miserly Scrooge is instructed by his ghostly visitors, this winter celebration should be brimful of gifts, lights, decorations, and loving charities, and spent with a myriad of friends and family gathered closely around tables full of delicious food.
However, in the context of 2020, when “social distance,” sadly, has become a buzz-phrase, the Dickens Christmas scenes that spring to my mind are not those from A Christmas Carol, but rather from another great Dickens work that begins its tale on Christmas Eve: Great Expectations.
The opening of Great Expectations describes a very different kind of Christmas indeed. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Pip, a dismissed and denigrated little boy, who happens upon a starving, escaped convict out on the lonely moor near his home. This convict frightens Pip into stealing him a pork pie from his older sister’s replete Christmas pantry. We then watch Pip in misery at Christmas dinner, unable to enjoy much food in spite of the plentiful treats provided, as he is bullied and harassed by the Christmas guests and riddled with guilt over his theft.
Though this Christmas scene begins with fear, it ends in compassion. At first Pip sees the scary convict as a monster. But later, when the kind blacksmith Joe takes Pip along to follow the authorities who chase down and capture the convict, Pip comes to see him through Joe’s eyes, as a cornered, harried, and harassed wreck of humanity–not wholly unlike himself.
These two versions of Christmas are both described by Dickens but could hardly be more unlike. One celebrates the value of sharing companionship amidst material surfeit. The other shows that food and company alone are not enough to provide enjoyment or meaning when true fellow-feeling and love is lacking.
Around the world, many who celebrate Christmas or other Winter Festivals may be feeling a similar contrast, perhaps remembering last year’s cherished holiday rituals and merrymaking, celebrating with co-workers, friends, and family who came together from far-flung places, around tables of plenty in houses filled with laughter.
But now, people may may be facing a quieter holiday amid recommendations to keep a “social distance” during the epidemic. Many who honor a winter holiday may do so alongside just a spouse or a few family members, or perhaps alone, in a much quieter house than last year.
What does classic literature have to say about facing a quieter holiday–Christmas surfeit v. Christmas simplicity?
Looking to vintage literature from the American 19th century, we find that this is actually a favorite theme. On one of my favorite web repositories of classic American literature, Americanliterature.com, we find a whole section devoted to stories about Christmas. The Academy of American Poets’ website, Poets.org, provides links to many poems about Christmas from several eras. Let’s see what some of these works had to say about the virtues of a quiet Christmas.
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Too Much of a Good Thing?
As I skimmed through Americanliterature.com’s list of Christmas stories, most written from the mid to late 19th century, I found many stories about characters being overborn by materialism, a surfeit of chores, and too many good things. Characters complained about the difficulty of finding gifts for people who “already had everything.”
Famous realist William Dean Howells even wrote a little play about a man who complained about being given the exact same bathrobe by four different people, which did not improve his cynicism about modern Christmas customs in general. In a lighter vein, Howells’s story “Christmas Every Day” recounts a father’s tale to his daughter about how quickly people would become bored with all the turkeys, gifts, and candy that seem so special at Christmas if they had all those things every day.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Christmas; or, the Good Fairy” opens with a conversation between “young Eleanor” and her wise aunt Lester. The girl complains that she is worn out shopping for presents for people and can’t figure out what to get for anyone, because they “all have everything already.” Her aunt has two good bits of counsel: first, she reminds Eleanor to be grateful that she lives in a time of plenty, unlike herself when a girl: “Presents did not fly about in those days as they do now. I remember, when I was ten years old, my father gave me a most marvellously ugly sugar dog for a Christmas gift, and I was perfectly delighted with it, the very idea of a present was so new to us.”
Then Aunt Lester shows Eleanor some poor-looking shanty houses visible from their window, and tells her about the needs of the people who live there. Eleanor is captivated by the idea of becoming a “Good Fairy,” and decides to spend her money on woolen shawls and small cookstoves instead of fancy reticules and needle cases or expensive toys for her relatives. When these practical purchases are delivered to Eleanor’s house, her little brother and young cousin open the packages and make fun of the homely objects; but when her aunt defends Eleanor’s motives, the boys come around to the charitable idea, and one even throws in some money to contribute.
The story is lighthearted but also provides readers with a little meditation on what to do with too much of a good thing.
Christmas with Less
Alongside Christmas stories about characters who have too much are many about those who have very little. Most such stories show how people find joy and meaning at Christmas in spite of being poor, usually through their willingness to give away what little they have.
The most famous story along those lines is O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” I won’t say anything about that one here, because the whole story boils down to the final ironic plot twist that I don’t want to spoil for new readers. If you haven’t read this famous little story, take a minute to do so: it’s a Christmas classic.
Lucy Maude Montgomery’s “Christmas at Red Butte” is another story in which a character lets go of something most precious to her in order to bring Christmas joy to others.
In this story, 16-year-old Theodora lives in Saskatchewan with her aunt and young cousins, who took her in when her own parents passed away. She has an older brother Donald, but he has been gone and inaccessible for years, having left to prospect for gold in the Klondike. As the story opens, Theodora’s poor aunt is unable to raise enough money to buy Christmas presents for the children. In gratitude for their love and care of her, Theodora decides to sell a precious locket that Donald gave her when he went away. I will leave the rest of the story for you to read, but the ending is happy and heart-warming; Theodora is not the loser for her generosity.
I particularly liked Mary Wilkins Freeman’s 1888 story “Christmas Jenny,” about a strange woman who lives outside of town back in the woods. Every year at Christmas, she makes wreaths and garlands, and appears in the town to sell them for a little Christmas money. Even though her appearance in town each year with her wares has become a Christmas tradition, the townsfolk are suspicious of her. Oddly, she is known to keep a number of woodland birds and other creatures in cages, and harbors a little deaf orphan boy. Overall she seems a witch-like figure to the townspeople.
One old woman, however, is Jenny’s distant neighbor and friend. Betsey Carey appreciates how well Jenny can handle Betsey’s old husband, who is often sulky and temperamental. When Jenny drops by, she knows just how to bring him around and cheer him up. In turn, Mrs. Carey understands Jenny and her ways.
One day Mrs. Carey hears that the town mayor and the pastor of the leading church in town have decided they need to come out to Jenny’s remote home to investigate her. One day soon, she sees them walking toward her cottage when Jenny is away; Mrs. Carey hobbles painfully after them to make a stand for Jenny.
She finally arrives to find the two men already inside the cottage, observing the little deaf boy who is clean and cheerful and making wreaths. The two men are looking with puzzlement at all the woodland creatures in their cages. Mrs. Carey explains to them that nothing at all sinister is going on in the lonely cabin in the woods:
[The minister asks,] “Do you know what she does with these birds and things?”
“Does with ’em? Well, I’ll tell you what she does with ’em. She picks ’em up in the woods when they’re starvin’ an’ freezin’ an’ half dead, an’ she brings ’em in here, an’ takes care of ’em an’ feeds ’em till they git well, an’ then she lets ’em go again. That’s what she does. You see that rabbit there? Well, he’s been in a trap. Somebody wanted to kill the poor little cretur. You see that robin? Somebody fired a gun at him an’ broke his wing.
“That’s what she does. I dunno but it ‘mounts to jest about as much as sendin’ money to missionaries. I dunno but what bein’ a missionary to robins an’ starvin’ chippies an’ little deaf an’ dumb children is jest as good as some other kinds, an’ that’s what she is.
–from “Christmas Jenny” by Mary Wilkins Freeman
Mrs. Carey convinces the two town leaders that not only is old Jenny a good soul, but that it might be a good idea to extend her a little charity. The result is that Jenny receives a fine turkey to cook for Christmas dinner, to which she invites her friends Mr. and Mrs. Carey. Mr. Carey almost won’t come in because his shoe won’t stay tied during the walk, and he is sulking because he can’t tie it himself. But Jenny manages to bring him around and get him to the table to enjoy the dinner.
This story is one of a myriad that cautions people against judging others until they have walked a mile in their shoes. It also shows how little is needed to create a warm and homey Christmas celebration.
Giving as Christ Commanded
Another sweet story appears on this list even though it is not written by an American author, but it has been translated into English and is certainly a classic: “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas” by Leo Tolstoy.
Papa Panov is the shoemaker in a Russian village, old and rather poor, but a cheerful good soul. He has a dream that Jesus is speaking to him: “You have been wishing that you could see me, Papa Panov.” he said kindly, “then look for me tomorrow. It will be Christmas Day and I will visit you. But look carefully, for I shall not tell you who I am.”
To Papa Panov, this is very exciting. He re-reads the nativity tale in the Bible and wishes that he could have been at Christ’s birth to give one of his blankets to the poor baby in the manger. Then he thinks of a special thing he has been keeping for a long time: a perfect little pair of child’s shoes that he made long ago, treasured as one of the best things he ever made. He makes a plan to give the perfect shoes to Jesus, and he goes to bed happy.
The next day, Jesus has not yet appeared, but when Papa Panov looks out to the street, he sees the tired dirty street sweeper. He invites him in to share his soup. Later, looking out the door again to see if Jesus is coming, he sees a poor bedraggled woman walking along carrying a little child, who has only rags on her feet. He invites them in and feeds them as well. The woman is recently widowed and now is walking to another town to get work.
Papa Panov pities the child, who can’t walk along with her mother because she has no shoes. He decides to give the shoes intended for Jesus to the child. They fit perfectly. The mother goes on her way, very grateful for the unlooked-for kindness; but now Papa Panov has no gift for Jesus.
By evening, to his disappointment, Jesus has not appeared. But all of a sudden, Papa Panov begins to have a vision:
[*Note: This line is a reference to Matthew 25: 31-40 in the Bible.]
This was not dream for he was wide awake. At first he seemed to see before his eyes the long stream of people who had come to him that day. He saw again the old road sweeper, the young mother and her baby and the beggars he had fed. As they passed, each whispered, “Didn’t you see me, Papa Panov?”
“Who are you?” he called out, bewildered.
Then another voice answered him. It was the voice from his dream — the voice of Jesus.
“I was hungry and you fed me,” he said. “I was naked and you clothed me. I was cold and you warmed me. I came to you today in every one of those you helped and welcomed.”*
Then all was quiet and still. Only the sound of the big clock ticking. A great peace and happiness seemed to fill the room, overflowing Papa Panov’s heart until he wanted to burst out singing and laughing and dancing with joy.
“So he did come after all!” was all that he said.
–from “Papa Panov” by Leo Tolstoy
Christmas Poems that also Praise Simplicity of Spirit
All of these vintage stories are plain and simple-hearted, gentle reminders to us to think about what is truly meaningful about celebrating Christmas, or any spiritual holiday. Looking through the list of Christmas poems gathered on Poets.org, we can find poetry that turns on similar themes.
American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an interesting work called “The Mystic’s Christmas.” The Mystic in the poem is a Catholic monk; Whittier himself was not Catholic but a Quaker, born in 1807, an active abolitionist and later a very popular poet who came to be known as one of the “Fireside Poets.”
In “The Mystic’s Christmas,” all the “merry monks” begin a loud and joyous celebration when they hear the bells ring, hailing the advent of Christmas Day. But one sober monk among them remains still and silent:
“All hail!” the bells of Christmas rang,
“All hail!” the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.
But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God’s sweet peace upon his face.
–from “The Mystic’s Christmas” by John G. Whittier
The brother monks ask why he does not join in the celebration. He explains that the Yule fires, the feasts, the “mystery-play and masque and mime” are fine observances for those who need them, since even these partially heathen pastimes can lead to true faith and spiritual sight.
He himself, however, has reached the point of total awareness of Christ’s existence every day and hour, no longer having any need to mark Christ’s birth with special observances:
“The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!
–“The Mystic’s Christmas”
Like the gentle stories above, Whittier’s poem is a meditation on where true meaning in the Christmas holiday is found. There is nothing wrong with festive celebrations, but taking them away removes nothing from the deepest aim of a holiday, which is to foster a spiritual, not a material, experience.
Holidays of the Silent Heart
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow offers a companion sentiment to that of “The Mystic’s Christmas” in his poem “Holidays,” which asserts:
The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart,
When the full river of feeling overflows;—
–From “Holidays” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The mystic monk in Whittier’s poem needs no Christmas celebration to obtain a spiritual connection within his own heart. Similarly, Longfellow asserts that we don’t need an official holiday at all; we experience a holy holiday every time we hold a private, inward anniversary, cherishing memories of a lost loved one or a lost time gone by, bringing them to spiritual life once more.
Holiday Dreams and Wishes
If this, or any, year we are not to have the grand Christmas as described so well in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, not to celebrate the full and populated version of whatever winter holiday you keep, most of us will feel a little sad and wistful. Perhaps a trip through the words of these 19th century writers will give us fresh eyes to view our situation.
All these 19th century vintage works gently remind us that the state of the spirit is always more important than material circumstance.
Therefore, as Paul Laurence Dunbar writes in his “Christmas Carol,” celebrating the birth of the Christ child, let us nonetheless throw our power into singing, even if we do it quietly:
The darkness breaks
And Dawn awakes,
Her cheeks suffused with youthful blushes.
The rocks and stones
In holy tones
Are singing sweeter than the thrushes.
Then why should we
In silence be,
When Nature lends her voice to praises;
When heaven and earth
Proclaim the truth
Of Him for whom that lone star blazes?
No, be not still,
But with a will
Strike all your harps and set them ringing;
On hill and heath
Let every breath
Throw all its power into singing!
–from “Christmas Carol” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Hoping your heart will be full of singing this holiday season. But if it can’t be, at least may your mind be full of classic literature.
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Christmas Party. The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Vintage Christmas Card. Shirley Wynne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Saskatchewan cabin. BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.