Christmas Daybook, 7: Dickens' Christmas Tales

My Christmas daybook for these 12 days of celebrating Christmastide with the good, old Christmas elf, G.K. Chesterton. Join us, won't you?  (see all Christmas daybook 2016-17 posts here)

Illustrations for  A Christmas Carol  by Yelena Bryksenkova ( source )

Illustrations for A Christmas Carol by Yelena Bryksenkova (source)

Literature has almost always failed in endeavoring to describe happiness as a state. Human tradition, human custom and folklore (though far more true and reliable than literature as a rule) have not often succeeded in giving quite the correct symbols for a note that has been struck with the sudden vibration of the ‘vox humana’. In human tradition it has been struck chiefly in the old celebrations of Christmas. In literature it has been struck chiefly in Dickens’ Christmas tales.

In the historic celebration of Christmas as it remains from Catholic times in certain northern countries (and it is to be remembered that in Catholic times the northern countries were, if possible, more Catholic than anybody else) there are three qualities which explain, I think, its hold upon the human sense of happiness, especially in such men as Dickens. There are three notes of Christmas, so to speak, which are also notes of happiness, and which the pagans and the Utopians forget. If we state what they are in the case of Christmas, it will be quite sufficiently obvious how important they are in the case of Dickens.

The first quality is, I think, what may be called the dramatic quality. The happiness is not a state; it is a crisis. All the other customs surrounding the celebration of the birth of Christ are made by human instinct so as to insist and re-insist upon this crucial quality. Everything is so arranged that the whole household may feel, if possible, as a household does when a child is actually being born in it. The thing is a vigil and a vigil with a definite limit. People sit up at night until they hear the bells ring. Or they try to sleep at night in order to see their presents the next morning. Everywhere there is a limitation, a restraint; at one moment the door is shut, at the moment after it is opened. The hour has come or it has not come; the parcels are undone or they are not undone; there is no evolution of Christmas presents. The sharp and theatrical quality in pleasure, which human instinct and the mother wit of the world has wisely put into the popular celebrations of Christmas, is also a quality which is essential in such romantic literature as Dickens wrote. In romantic literature (that is, in permanent literature) the hero and the heroine must indeed be happy, but they must also be unexpectedly happy. This is the first connecting link between literature and the old religious feast; this is the first connecting link between Dickens and Christmas.

The second element which is represented as well as it could be represented by the mere fact that Christmas occurs in the winter. It is the element not merely of contrast, but actually of antagonism. It preserves everything that was best in the merely primitive or pagan view of such ceremonies or such banquets. If we are carousing, at least we are warriors carousing. We hang above us, as it were, the shields and battle-axes with which we must do battle with the giants of the snow and hail. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad. It is this contradiction and mystical defiance which gives a quality of manliness and reality to the old winter feasts which is not characteristic of the sunny felicities of the Earthly Paradise. And this curious element has been carried out even in all the trivial jokes and tasks that have always surrounded such occasions as these. The objects of the jovial customs was not to wake everything artificially easy; on the contrary, it was rather to make everything artificially difficult. The fundamental principle of idealism is not only expressed by shooting an arrow at the stars; the fundamental principle of idealism is also expressed by putting a leg of mutton at the top of a greasy pole. There is in all such observances a quality which can only be called the quality of divine obstruction. For instance, in the game of snapdragon )that admirable occupation) the conception is that raisins taste much better if they are brands saved from the burning. About all Christmas things there is something a little nobler, if only nobler in form and theory, than mere comfort; even holly is prickly.

It is not hard to see the connection of this kind of historic instinct with a romantic writer like Dickens. The healthy novelist must always play snapdragon with his principal characters; he must always be snatching the hero and heroine like raisins out of the fire. And though the third quality in Christmas is less obviously easy to explain its connection with Dickens, if it were explained it would be equally unimpeachable. The third great Christmas element is the element of the grotesque. The grotesque is the natural expression of joy; and all the Utopias and new Edens of the poets fail to give a real impression of enjoyment, very largely because they leave out the grotesque. A man in most modern Utopias cannot really be happy; he is too dignified. A man in Morris’ Earthly Paradise cannot really be enjoying himself; he is too decorative. When real human beings have real delights they tend to express them entirely in grotesques - I might almost say entirely in goblins. On Christmas Eve one may talk about ghosts so long as they are turnip ghosts. One would not be allowed (I hope, in any decent family) to talk on Christmas Eve about astral bodies. The boar’s head of old Yule-time was grotesque as the donkey’s head of Bottom the Weaver. But there are only one sent of goblins quite wild enough to express the goodwill of Christmas. Those goblins are the characters of Dickens.

Arcadian poets and Arcadian painters have striven to express happiness by means of beautiful figures. Dickens understands happiness is best expressed by ugly figures. In beauty, perhaps there is something allied to sadness; certainly there is something akin to joy in the grotesque, nay, in the uncouth. There is something mysteriously associated with happiness not only in the corpulence of Falstaff and the corpulence of Tony Weller, but even in the red nose of Bardolph or the red nose of Mr. Stiggins. A thing of beauty is an inspiration for ever - a matter of meditation for ever. It is rather a thing of ugliness that is strictly a joy for ever.

All these traits are generally characteristic of Dickens’ works, but that is only because this Christmas atmosphere is generally characteristic of his all his works. All his books are Christmas books. But these traits are still especially typical of the ‘Christmas Books’ properly so-called; his two or three famous Yuletide tales - “A Christmas Carol’ and ‘The Chimes’ and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’. Of these ‘The Christmas Carol’ is beyond comparison, the best as well as the most popular. Indeed, Dickens is in so profound and spiritual a sense a popular author that in his case, unlike most others, it can generally be said that the best work is the most popular. It is for ‘Pickwick’ that he is best known; and upon the whole it is for Pickwick that he is best worth knowing. In any case this superiority of ‘The Christmas Carol’ we shall find that all the three marks I have mentioned are unmistakably visible. ‘The Christmas Carol’ is a happy story first, because it describes an abrupt and dramatic change; it is not only the story of a conversion, but of a sudden conversion; as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting. Popular religion is quite right in insisting on the fact of a crisis in most things. It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and more historic Christianity. But in both cases happiness is rightly valued because it follows dramatically upon unhappiness; happiness is valued because it is ‘salvation’ - something saved from the wreck.

Again, ‘The Christmas Carol’ owes much of its hilarity to our second source - the fact of its being a tale of winter and of a very wintry winter. There is much about comfort in the story; yet the comfort is never enervating: it is saved from that by a tingle of something bitter and bracing in the weather.

Lastly, the story exemplifies throughout the power of the third principle - the kinship between gaiety and the grotesque. Everybody is happy because nobody is dignified. We have a feeling somehow that Scrooge looked even uglier when he was kind than he had looked when he was cruel. The turkey that Scrooge bough was so fat, says Dickens, that it could never stood upright. That top-heavy and monstrous bird is a good symbol of the top-heavy happiness of the stories.
— 'Dickens' Christmas Tales' by G. K. Chesterton from the Introduction to "Christmas Books" by Charles Dickens (Everyman, 1907)

Listen: The Boar's Head by The Chieftains

Today's Readings: Psalm 20, 1 Kings 3:5-14, John 8:12-19

Prayer for the Day:  

Lord our God, grant that our spirit may recognize your Spirit and your love, so that our lives cannot be swallowed up by passing concerns but are lifted to something higher. Help us hold fast to all the blessings you have allowed us to experience, the blessings you will certainly continue to give, even though new battles and new troubles are all around us. Send a great light to shine among the many people whose task is to lead the way so that your kingdom may come. Send light so that your name may be honored through our human deeds and you may be known as life for all. Amen.
— Evening Prayers