Christmas festivities in Britain are mainly a Victorian invention. The Christmas tree, trimmings, numerous gifts, a secret figure arriving in the night to deliver presents to children, carol singing etc. All these have their origins in the 19th century and though some have roots in more ancient traditions, the Victorians popularised and commercialised them as the masses flocked to the expanding industrialised cities of their age. Charles Dickens played a major role in romanticising Christmas through his books and articles, especially A Christmas Carol. A new film about Dickens’ life is shortly to be released called, The Man Who Invented Christmas.
There is a strong Birmingham connection with Charles Dickens. He came here on at least three occasions between the 1840s and 1870s. In 1853 he held an audience of nearly 2000 spellbound by his dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol. The Birmingham Journal of that time reported:
“No party this Christmas had such a treat in storytelling. And it was a long story too. For full three hours and a quarter [ Dickens] kept the party amused, melted with pathos; or tickled into laughter – not quite genteel combinations; but full of lusty roars, that came warm from the heart; or stimulated to ringing cheers by the homely kindly moral teachings of the tale. But Mr Dickens did not only read the story, he acted it too. Everybody was charmed by the way in which the story was told. How Mr Dickens twirled his moustache, or played with his paper knife, or laid down his book, or lent forward confidentially, or stuffed his hands in his pockets, or twinkled his eyes as if he enjoyed the whole affair immensely, and as if the story was told for his own especial pleasure, and delight.”
The story of the transformation and redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge from a miserly, reclusive killjoy to a warm-hearted, generous and joyful benefactor through the mysterious intervention of spirits, representing the past, present and future, is an enduring tale delighting young and old. It is in parts witty, homely and poignant and although Dickens’ was a sentimentalist his stories also carried a deeply felt message of moral indignation at the way working families and the poor were treated and exploited. He was a supporter of moral reform generally and better conditions for the poor specifically, raising funds and giving generously of his own means to many causes.
One of the reasons he came to Birmingham was to raise funds for a new educational establishment for working people. It became the Birmingham and Midland Institute (still going: https://bmi.org.uk/) and a fine bust of their literary benefactor can be seen in the foyer. Dickens believed education should be universal and non-sectarian. He was a champion of working people and one of his readings of A Christmas Carol in Birmingham was publicised as only for working people and free.
Embedded in the story are references to the true nature of Christmas; its ability to lift us out of the demands and distractions of everyday living/coping and point us to other realities, which in turn refresh our perceptions of the world. At best, Christmas is a time of shared celebrations, renewed hope and a time where charity abounds. Scrooge’s nephew captures the essence of the special power of Christmas in his explanation to miserly uncle why his faith in it is undiminished;
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,' returned the nephew. 'Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Whatever your plans for Christmas 2017, we at St Nicolas, Hawkesley and Immanuel churches wish you and your loved ones joy, peace and a renewed sense of hope for each other and our world.