“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 insubstantial.
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.”
(This essay was originally posted on December 23, 2016.)
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