Main image: First edition frontispiece and title page of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens: (1843), with Illustrations by John Leech (London: Chapman & Hall); left: G.K. Chesterton at work; right: Portrait of Charles Dickens in 1842, the year before the publication of "A Christmas Carol", by Francis Alexander (1800-1880) [All images from Wikipedia]
“I have been asked to speak to you
for a quarter of an hour on Dickens and Christmas.” Thus began a
live radio broadcast from England to America on Christmas Day, 1931.
The man speaking into the microphone was G.K. Chesterton.
“Why, on this day of holiday, am I
made to work?” he asked. “Why, on this day of rejoicing, are you
made to suffer?”
I can answer that question, 85 years
after Chesterton asked it. Chesterton was asked to speak to America
about Dickens and Christmas because both of those things were popular
in America, and there was an association between the two of them. As
Chesterton was well aware, Dickens had been responsible for the
revival and appreciation of Christmas traditions that were being lost
in 19th century England.
They were being lost not through
neglect but through open attack by two rather diverse sectors:
puritans and atheists. The Puritans did not like the symbols and
festivals and obvious connections something that was “half-Catholic
and half-Pagan”: dining, drinking, decorating, singing and making
merry. Even worshipping in a dramatic fashion. And atheists were
rather put off by the somewhat religious elements underlying all the
fuss about Christmas. Though Dickens wrote extensively about
Christmas celebrations, his most famous (still) piece is the story of
the conversion of Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”
Scrooge is best
known for his dismissal of the feast with the expression, “Bah!
Humbug!”: a mantra shared by both puritans and atheists. Dickens,
with his compelling, vibrant, delightful and truly sympathetic
characters made all the critics of Christmas look rather silly and
But why was Chesterton asked to speak
about these two? Because Chesterton was not only responsible for a
world wide revival of interest in Dickens' writings, but he also had
established himself as admired literary figure who managed to talk
openly about God in the secular press. He spoke well of beloved
things because he was a beloved figure himself. People were drawn to
him for the same reason they were drawn to Dickens and Christmas. He
made them happy.
And so, on the happiest day of the
year, people all across America turned on their radios to hear a
message of joy from the other side of the Atlantic.
In his brief remarks, Chesterton
pointed out that there is no substitute for Christmas. No new religion has made a new festival
anything like it. No new philosophy has been popular enough to make a
popular holiday. The pleasure-seekers with their nightclub life are
not happy people. Chesterton says it is unfair to call them Pagans.
It is unfair to the Pagans.
“The Pagan gods and poets of the past
were never so cheap or tenth-rate as the fast sets and smart people
of the present. Venus was never so vulgar as what they now call Sex
Appeal. Cupid was never so coarse and common as a modern realistic
novel. The old Pagans were imaginative and creative; they made things
and built things. Somehow that habit went out of the world... The
modern Pagans are merely atheists; who worship nothing and therefore
create nothing. They could not, for instance, even make a substitute
for Thanksgiving Day. For half of them are pessimists who say they
have nothing to be thankful for; and the other half are atheists who
have nobody to thank.”
Dickens is in a world apart from other
writers because he writes about happiness, which is the hardest thing
in the world to describe. “Dickens is still the only man who
exaggerates happiness.” It makes sense to talk about Dickens at
Christmas because he is the only writer “who talked about Christmas
as if it was Christmas.” In modern literature there are no other
writers who exaggerate enjoyment. “If they exaggerate anything, it is
despair; it is the spirit of death.”
In most other books, our
sympathy with the characters takes the form of sorrow. In Dickens, it
takes the form of joy. Even his horrible characters make us happy.
Chesterton added, speaking from personal experience, that Dickens
understood that even fat men can be funny.
What Dickens did as a writer may not be
suitable for all occasions, but it is certainly suitable for
Christmas, “this season of enjoyment.” It is not the Dickens was
superior to his rivals, but that in this regard, he had no rivals.
Same with Christmas. It stands alone.
Here is Chesterton, rather in awe of the fact this his voice is being
transmitted across an ocean, but much more in awe that he is talking
about a feast founded two thousand years ago, and the world has not
come up with anything even close to it. “If a man wants to worship
the Life Force merely because it is a Force, he may very naturally
worship it in the electric battery. I am tempted to say it will serve
him right if he eventually worships the life force in the electric
chair. But if he wants to worship life because it is living, he will
find nothing in history so living as that little life that began in
the cave at Bethlehem and now visibly lives for ever.”
Even though “centuries of
misunderstanding” grew between the birth of Christ and the modern
world, Charles Dickens captured the “that mysterious revelation
that brought joy upon the earth,” and he handed on this tradition
“in an uncongenial time, by an instinct that was almost
inspiration. He knew enough about it to enjoy it; and to enjoy
himself; and now, in the name of all such things, let us all go and
do the same.”