Charles Dickens was a great literary genius. He had a gift for complicated plots, for colorful characters, and for emotionally evocative storytelling. As a social critic, he also penetrated into the unseemlier side of industrial capitalism, that Protestant beast that grew up in post-Reformation England and turned the merry cities and towns of that nation once known as Mary’s Dowry into appropriate backdrops for Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and Little Dorrit.
But Dickens’ social criticism could only go so far, and that is because his religion only went so far. Chesterton, a fan of Dickens (see here and here) could go much farther. Many Dickens novels were published with introductions by G.K. Chesterton (see them on IndieBound or Alibris), and with his robust understanding of Catholic social teaching, Chesterton had the best solutions to the problems Mr. Dickens could so eloquently portray.
Dickens’ faith was that of an Anglican, but an Anglican with an apparent Unitarian Christology. And this is perhaps why, as warm and delightful a tale as is A Christmas Carol, the book is not really about Christmas. Christmas is Christ’s Mass, that glorious Christian festival celebrating the birth of God in time. It is the annual renewal of the event that witnessed a poor yet strong scion of David’s royal line labor to make the ruins of his ancestral palace a fit dwelling for his little Jewish Maiden, humble but immaculate, to bear a Child who is none other than the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom. Dickens, on the other hand, gives us a Christmas that is a matter of merely human good cheer, human mercy, and human philanthropy. Good and commendable as far it goes, but it does not go far enough.
Not being a Scrooge is good. But I am inclined to believe that there are plenty of nice, non-Scroogeish folk in Hell. The Gospel, after all, does not limit Heaven’s requisites to “thou shalt not be a Scrooge.”
In the same vein of general Christmas feel-goodism that has nothing to do with Christ, we have the classic American film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Years before I came to Saint Benedict Center, when I was in seminary, another seminarian and I were in the rec room when Frank Capra’s classic was just beginning (lax seminary). It was shortly before the Christmas break, and my friend and I were nostalgic to see the opening credits of a beloved movie we cherished in childhood. Just then, while the opening credits were still rolling, a somewhat contrary Dominican Friar walked in the room and mocked the film’s title, exclaiming, “It’s a secular Christmas”! As much as I hated it, I knew he was right. I just couldn’t enjoy the film after that.
Today, in our popular culture, we have “progressed” far beyond the annual celebration of eggnog and mistletoe that at least tolerated references to the Man-God and the Mass (if only by allowing the repetition of that little understood name for the festival that curiously joins the two words “Christ” and “Mass”). Now that word is far less tolerated, as are the public Nativity scenes that good people like to erect in a noble attempt to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Too, “Christmas trees” have been rechristened (sorry, unchristened) as “holiday trees.”
Not everyone goes along with this nonsense, thank God, but there is certainly the pushing of an agenda going on here, and it is making progress.
Now we have store clerks and such telling us, “Happy Holidays”! Well, “Bah! Humbug!” says I. Do not — do not dare to — compare other winter festivals honoring a god or gods of one’s choice to the grand Christian feast that honors the Birth of One of the Holy Trinity, the blessed Savior of the World — and honors Him with a Mass, at that! Venite, adoremus! And to Hades with your false gods and your secular nonsense.
This year’s pre-yuletide absurdity is brought to us by the #MeToo movement: a big brouhaha over the “Christmas classic” from 1944, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” One radio station dropped the song because it is apparently too Weinsteinian in this era of increased social consciousnesses about consent in matters pertaining to carnal intimacy. The song, written by Frank Loesser in 1944, has nothing at all to do with Christmas, which is not surprising since Mr. Loesser was not Christian, and it was not uncommon for his more musical coreligionists to write popular “Christmas songs” that had nothing to do with Christ — fat men, snow, and reindeer tending to dominate their thematic field.
The song in question is, in fact, about a man seducing a woman: giving her alcohol, a cigarette, and crooning persuasive remonstrances about the contrasting coziness of his warm domicile, while constantly reminding her of the Arctic meteorological horrors that await her just beyond the portal. Hence, the eponymous refrain, “baby, it’s cold outside.” The skeptical reader can check my interpretation against the original lyrics here.
Ah, the 1940’s. The good old days! I doubt that he had heard Mr. Loesser’s song, and I’m virtually certain he never saw “Neptune’s Daughter,” but Father Leonard Feeney, in his Bread of Life lamented the degeneration of Christmas at that very time. Here is an excerpt too good not to reproduce:
I do not know what Christmas in the United States is going to be like from now on. I frankly do not! I have seen how it has deteriorated in the past twenty-five years. I know the deceivers and haters of Jesus and Mary, across the street at Harvard College, will go through this Christmas religiously as fraudulently as they went through the last one. There will be red lights blinking on Christmas trees, this year the same as last year. Light, revealing nothing! Light, meant to be the means of making things visible, with nothing to show!
Undoubtedly, somebody like Theodore Spencer, of Harvard — who called Jesus a “myth,” before he died — will get up and read Dickens’ Christmas Carol. That is supposed to be very Christmasy! Some noted actor, if he is able, will do a little Christmas barking on the radio. Some notorious comedian will roar like Santa Claus!
That is the culture that goes with Christmas now. And because I, once a son in the Society of Jesus, see it as sad and tragic, and say it is sad and tragic, I am resented. People do not want to see! They would much prefer to hear about an invisible Christmas, and an invisible Church, that we could have in common with those who deny or despise Christ’s Divinity and His birth at Christmas from the womb of a little Jewish girl, Mary of Nazareth. . . .
If, while you are looking, you are not being a child, but are being very adult, grand, organizational, theoretical, proud, ideological, superacademic and non-committal (there is nothing less non-committal than a child), you will not find Him. . . .
Depart from me, you cursed academic frauds! You Harvard hypocrites! You would not go over to Bethlehem if it were standing right in front of you! You would not want to know the truth of the Catholic Faith. That is why you do not find it!
A Child is given to you! A Child is born to you Who is Christ, the Lord! Sometimes He takes the meanest instruments to tell you His message. I do not know any priest in the United States of America who could be called this Christmas (thanks to newspaper publicity) a meaner instrument than I am.
But I can still tell you the way of a Child.
So, in the battle over “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” on which side does the faithful Catholic find himself? With the “traditional” folk, or with the #MeToo feminists? The former are on the side of good old-fashioned lechery, while the latter only want to limit licentiousness by the dictates of their unnatural ideology. We have no dog in that race. Are you “pre-trib” or “post-trib”? Do you prefer Scylla or Charybdis? I’ll have none of the above, thank you.
And why am I even writing about Christmas now, anyway? I shouldn’t be. I should be writing about Advent. But there is no Advent anymore — not in the world outside our little Catholic enclaves. In the popular culture, there is only the post-Thanksgiving shopping season, sprinkled with family and office Christmas parties (during a penitential season!) that climaxes on December 25 and has its shameful dénouement with a hangover on the Feast of Stephen, when we’ll gladly leave good Saint Wenceslas to go on his merry way without us.
Real Christians celebrate Advent, the four-week penitential season in anticipation of Christ’s “three comings.” We learn exactly what it is we are expecting especially from holy Isaias the Prophet and from Saint John the Baptist, who accompany us in the Church’s liturgy. The season crescendos — with its ever intensifying cry of Veni! — and rises to an excited pitch of holy expectation with the sublime O Antiphons, the liturgical inspiration behind that magnificent Advent hymn, Veni, veni, Emmanuel. These O antiphons overlap the feast of December 18, Our Lady of the ‘O,’ which is programmatic of Advent inasmuch as the entire season has a Marian character to it, for it is not only Isaias and the Baptist that accompany us, but also that greatest “Expecting One” of all, the Virgin-Mother. Its last day, December 24, is — besides the feast of Saints Adam and Eve — a traditional day of fast and abstinence. It is, recall, a penitential season. So give things up; go a little hungry.
If some of what is written here in condemnation of the popular observances of Advent and Christmas in America have troubled my readers, take heart! There are overflowing fonts of traditional wisdom from which we may drink, so that we can learn to make a genuine Catholic observance of the Church’s year. The best is Dom Guéranger’s Liturgical Year. Moreover, as Charles Coulombe explained at our conference this year, whatever you are nostalgic for in your childhood Christmas memories (riddled as they may be with the kitsch, the maudlin, or the worldly) is a pining away for something good, a heart-hunger for your family, friends, etc., and a simpler, perhaps happier time in your life. Such nostalgia is rooted in man’s insatiable desire for good that can only be fulfilled in God. This desire can be purged of its worldly dross and directed to its proper object by prayer, penance, and the sacramental life. Nostalgia, after all, means severe homesickness, and if you are baptized, your homeland is Heaven!
Advent can be a good time to stir up such a Christian nostalgia. I encourage my readers to live an authentic Advent this year. Come into the House of God and warm yourself near the altar, where burns the fire of Divine Love. Come home from the cold, Christless world and stay because, not only is it cold outside, but outside there is also no salvation.