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G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, and the Joy of Christmas

Why a radio broadcast from Christmas Day in 1931 still rings with the wonder of “this season of enjoyment.”

(Images: 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, over 90 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 forever.”

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.”

(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on December 23, 2016.)


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About Dale Ahlquist 49 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Ahlquist.

    In my undergraduate years, studying literature, I read Dickens. Although I dreaded the style of his writing (oft’imes its length) his characters, his depictions of time and place and history, are first rate.

    Interesting, isn’t it, that my complaint against and laud for Chesterton and Dickens is the same? Good and great and men, both. God bless both for knowing and then describing what makes each person uniquely special and yet universal at the same time.

  2. “The joy of Christmas…” In the mid-1950s, the Sunday evening radio reader for the Dickensian Society in the San Francisco Bay area was none other than a Dominican seminarian…And, years later, it was a great treat for small gatherings in the Seattle area who, during the Christmas season, could benefit from one of his in-person readings…

    Fr. Joseph (Jack) Fulton, O.P., lost his father at the age of two, raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, in his teens moved across the country from his beloved brownstones and Brooklyn Bridge to Seattle—where, in the majestic, Gothic Revival, and nearly completed Blessed Sacrament Church, he discovered the sacramentally and concretely Real Presence.

    After being named the President’s Medalist at the University of Washington (Classics, 1934), Fulton converted from the devout Methodism of his family. Testifying that he left nothing behind, but that he found in the Catholic Church what before he only thought he had—Jesus Christ.

    In addition to Dickens, Fulton valued every volume of Sir Walter Scott. In 1974 he made pilgrimage to Presbyterian Scotland—not Catholic territory!. But within two weeks was invited on national television (!) to give his “testimony.” And, at St. Giles Cathedral he gave the first sermon by a Catholic priest since the Reformation. Also, his report of the parish food kitchen begun in 1969 during the national recession, often serving some 200 “guests” (the same number that St. Louis IX is said to have served weekly with his own hands) and which continues without interruption these fifty-three years later and counting. Also, his weekly Bible study classes, sometimes five a week, delivered to both Catholic and Protestant gatherings. And, too, the time that a motorcycle gang descended upon the Priory. To the apprehensive greeter, only this: “we ask to speak with Fr. Fulton, our friend.”

    The core thing about Fr. Fulton, lover of Dickens and Scott, was his devotion to the concretely Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. (He always “got it” about an awaited Eucharistic revival.) During the persecution, and without interruption or disturbance, he continued with the weekly Latin Mass (!) alongside his Novus Ordo, up into the late 1990s, when at the age of 86 he simply joined Our Lady of Guadalupe in heaven on her day, December 12, 1998. In the pews were told stories of novenas and a few miraculous healings.
    Where genuine holiness transparently radiates, words are not necessary—so said Saint Francis himself…

    All of today’s stale disruptions in the Church claimed a toxic dry-run in Seattle throughout the last half-century. But there was also the graced anomaly of Fr. Fulton: “our Blessed Mother warned us of such things.” The fully “orthodox,” innocently and profoundly sacramental Fulton was known even then as “Fr. Joy.” A partly Dickensian witness to the fact of the Incarnation and the year-around joy of Christmas.

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