16 December 2015

Charles Dickens: Christmas, As We Grow Older

"Dickens' Christmas message in the 1851 Christmas edition of his weekly magazine, Household Words, reminds readers to remember those who have passed and to cherish their memory as part of the celebration of the holiday.

Dickens himself had recently lost his father John Dickens, his infant daughter Dora, his sister Fanny, and her crippled son Henry Jr. He also remembers, as always, Catherine's sister Mary, a dear girl--almost a woman--never to be one, who had died in 1837."

David Perdue, On Charles Dickens

Christmas is more than a time of joy and gift-giving and receiving presents.   It is a time to recall our blessings and to gain strength in the grace and bosom of our families.

And above all it is a time to remember that greatest, almost incomprehensible gift in all history, how our Lord made himself as us, and as we are of him, and came to us in the flesh, the incarnation of selfless love.

And thereby those of us who are no longer present in body at the Christmas hearth may still be there in spirit with us, as we will some day be with them.   Not bound up in crippling self-pity, not immobilized by faceless fear, not fleeting as a merely morose remembrance, but to be there vitally in our lives as our good angels, reminding us that the Christmas spirit is to be found in 'active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance.'   This is how we may not only honor and cherish their memory, but actually live again in love with them.

What greater gift could we possibly desire to receive, than the ability to do good, to persevere in love, and to thereby live in the love of those for whom we care and who care for us, always?  That gift is there, if only we will not shut the door of our hearts, and be open to it.   It is not always easy, because love is too often clumsy, and turns back on us when we serve it out of selfish expectations.  But if we serve it in its true Christmas spirit, for the right reasons, then it will light a fire in our hearts.

In the end this is the only real tragedy, when out of fear mostly, or pride, or feelings of disappointment we harden our hearts, and destroy our selves while thinking to preserve them, pinned to boards like dead specimens in our own dark rooms of selfishness, unrecalled at the hearths of even friends and family.

Christmas is a time of life, remembrance, forgiveness, tolerance, and love.   And so may God bless us, everyone!

What Christmas Is As We Grow Older
By Charles Dickens
Household Words, 1851

Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and every one around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete...

And is our life here, at the best, so constituted that, pausing as we advance at such a noticeable mile-stone in the track as this great birthday, we look back on the things that never were, as naturally and full as gravely as on the things that have been and are gone, or have been and still are? If it be so, and so it seems to be, must we come to the conclusion that life is little better than a dream, and little worth the loves and strivings that we crowd into it?

No! Far be such miscalled philosophy from us, dear Reader, on Christmas Day! Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance! It is in the last virtues especially, that we are, or should be, strengthened by the unaccomplished visions of our youth; for, who shall say that they are not our teachers to deal gently even with the impalpable nothings of the earth!

Therefore, as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth...

Welcome, everything! Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to your places round the Christmas fire, where what is sits open- hearted! In yonder shadow, do we see obtruding furtively upon the blaze, an enemy's face? By Christmas Day we do forgive him! If the injury he has done us may admit of such companionship, let him come here and take his place. If otherwise, unhappily, let him go hence, assured that we will never injure nor accuse him.

On this day we shut out Nothing!

"Pause," says a low voice. "Nothing? Think!"

"On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing."

"Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying deep?" the voice replies. "Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe? Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?"

Not even that. Of all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us. City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, thy people who are dear to us!

Yes. We can look upon these children angels that alight, so solemnly, so beautifully among the living children by the fire, and can bear to think how they departed from us. Entertaining angels unawares, as the Patriarchs did, the playful children are unconscious of their guests; but we can see them--can see a radiant arm around one favourite neck, as if there were a tempting of that child away.

Among the celestial figures there is one, a poor misshapen boy on earth, of a glorious beauty now, of whom his dying mother said it grieved her much to leave him here, alone, for so many years as it was likely would elapse before he came to her-- being such a little child. But he went quickly, and was laid upon her breast, and in her hand she leads him.

There was a gallant boy, who fell, far away, upon a burning sand beneath a burning sun, and said, "Tell them at home, with my last love, how much I could have wished to kiss them once, but that I died contented and had done my duty!" Or there was another, over whom they read the words, "Therefore we commit his body to the deep," and so consigned him to the lonely ocean and sailed on. Or there was another, who lay down to his rest in the dark shadow of great forests, and, on earth, awoke no more. O shall they not, from sand and sea and forest, be brought home at such a time!

There was a dear girl--almost a woman--never to be one--who made a mourning Christmas in a house of joy, and went her trackless way to the silent City. Do we recollect her, worn out, faintly whispering what could not be heard, and falling into that last sleep for weariness? O look upon her now! O look upon her beauty, her serenity, her changeless youth, her happiness! The daughter of Jairus was recalled to life, to die; but she, more blest, has heard the same voice, saying unto her, "Arise for ever!"

We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us?

Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!

The winter sun goes down over town and village; on the sea it makes a rosy path, as if the Sacred tread were fresh upon the water. A few more moments, and it sinks, and night comes on, and lights begin to sparkle in the prospect. On the hill-side beyond the shapelessly-diffused town, and in the quiet keeping of the trees that gird the village-steeple, remembrances are cut in stone, planted in common flowers, growing in grass, entwined with lowly brambles around many a mound of earth. In town and village, there are doors and windows closed against the weather, there are flaming logs heaped high, there are joyful faces, there is healthy music of voices.

Be all ungentleness and harm excluded from the temples of the Household Gods, but be those remembrances admitted with tender encouragement! They are of the time and all its comforting and peaceful reassurances; and of the history that re-united even upon earth the living and the dead; and of the broad beneficence and goodness that too many men have tried to tear to narrow shreds.