Years ago when one of my close friends was going through a very difficult time trying to start a family he coached me not to mention aspects of my every day life around his wife. The mere retelling of having to drive my kids to school or buying birthday gifts would send his wife into a maelstrom of depression centered around her inability to conceive, and he'd spend days trying to get her to rebalance herself. Eventually he realized he couldn't risk nominal human contact lest his wife become suicidal being reminded of what they lacked, and they locked themselves away from society in general, and all their friends in particular. The contrast between their mood and those of what they perceived to be the bliss of others deepened their sulk.
And there was no help for them. They could not see themselves other than as a couple who were lacking, and everything they experienced solidified that position in their minds.
Thus we are confronted by the true pain of Christmas. Every year we're deluged by humanity's attempts to codify the holiday. We wallow in remakes and rewrites of Dickens's famous novella. We put ourselves through tradition, and try to develop new ones. Or we sequester ourselves knowing that eventually it will go away.
The pain of the holidays is the standard operational pain of dissatisfaction with our own condition, and the truth that we are reminded of our dissatisfaction when we see others who have what we believe would satisfy us.
It occurs to me as I watch Scrooge's transformation for the hundredth time in my pitiful life that nothing has changed. Each of us carries within himself the propensity to become Scrooge. Aspects of that vile character manifest at times in each of us and we each yearn for that Christmas morning transformation. It never happens.
Those of us who were raised in the Christmas tradition want the holiday to have meaning. More than that, we want Christmas salvation. We want to wake up on Christmas morning with our pockets full of money. We want to run out into the snow in our night clothes slathering the town with hundred-dollar bills having learned once and for all that the concerns of this life are not the concerns of the eternal soul. Thus in Dickens's ultimate irony, we unshackle ourselves from our physical gain by giving it away to others for whom having gone without, gaining it does not condemn them to hell the way it does for us.
But are we to believe, as the marketers have suggested, that the true "spirit" of Christmas is the redistribution of material wealth?
In Capra's movie Jimmy Stewart isn't saved from his Wonderful Life until he commits himself to lose it. The suicidal George Bailey is a marginally mercurial character who does not hesitate to lose his temper when confronted with exploitation. And having dedicated himself to following his inner judgment he is rewarded with near poverty, the death of his dreams, and the possibility of harsh judgment by the law.
The redemption of George Bailey bears resemblance to that of Scrooge in the involvement of a heavenly agency. In both cases it was a good man who was saved from himself. Bailey and Scrooge both, at the core of their being, are fundamentally good people who have been driven to misery by the track of life's course. Material wealth undoes each of them. In Scrooge's case it becomes the inadequate surrogate to love. To George, money is the necessary evil which has robbed him of his aspirations and nearly costs him his life.
Money kills everything.
Isn't the message completely clear, then? Hasn't it been for hundreds of years? Why do we refuse to believe how ever many times we listen to Boris Karloff read us the story of the Grinch, that Christmas cannot be stolen, bought, or sold?
Here's the irony - The spirit of Christmas in the form of our literary tradition dictates that Christmas has to be something other than what we make it every year when we talk about the spirit of Christmas.
Recently a man purchased the house in Cleveland, Ohio that was used in the making of the movie, "A Christmas Story". He has had it renovated and redecorated in exactly the form it took in the movie. He offers tours. You can go there.
I don't even have to ask, rhetorically, "Why would anyone go there?" because we all know. A person would go there to try to live a piece of that movie. Realistically speaking, as thinking adults we know the movie is a story on film that was recorded in bite-sized segments by filming people who memorized a script and as such contains not even a modicum of actual living. It's not even a true Jean Shepherd story, but rather, a conglomeration of Jean Shepherd shorts pasted together to make a consistent thread. And it's not even in Indiana, which was the location of all the Jean Shepherd short stories. Yet, people will go to that house to try to claim a bit of the "A Christmas Story" life for themselves.
"A Christmas Story" is a humorous, completely secular recounting of a child's Christmas. It is Americana. Though it takes place in the early 50's, it is timeless in it's portrayal of the mood and emotion of the holiday. As the author, Jean Shepherd says, Christmas is the hub of the entire kid year around which everything else revolves.
It brings to our consciousness that we believe Christmas is a time for miracles. As Children our dreams become actualized in the form of "things" which are first seen in advertisements that later materialize miraculously on Christmas morning.
As adults we children of the Christmas ceremony want to carry that microcosm of magic into our later years. Would that we could actualize our dreams in the same way -- then wouldn't our lives be full? We want to believe that things we imagine can materialize in one heavenly moment, whether it be homes or automobiles or other material items, or cures for diseases, the return of wealth, the appearance of loved ones.
Many of us have taken the want of Christmas and simply transferred it to less tangible items. As much as we love "A Miracle on 34th Street," Santa cannot bring us lost loves or make our children call us more often. But because we have experienced Christmas there is always a particle of us that believes the Christmas "miracle" can occur that will bring us our desires. Because we have been good, and thus are deserving as George Bailey was.
Is the spirit of Christmas the transference of our desire from the toy shelves of Higbee's department store to the Century 21 real estate offices, the Zales diamond counter, the Porsche dealership floor, or the wedding altar?
Really. We're adults. How is wanting to hear from Uncle Ned for Christmas any different than wanting a Red Ryder B-B gun?
How is being a fan of a movie different when it's a Christmas movie from when it's Star Warz or Star Trek? Isn't the desire to believe in Santa Claus, or the more adult anthropormorphization of "the spirit of Christmas" the same as the desire to crawl into the fantasy world of a really great novel?
The Christmas in our minds is the Dickensian Christmas of the Cratchett family reborn in Scrooge's money, or the town of Bedford Falls filing into our living room to drop their savings into our laundry basket, or our father waiting to the last minute to give us the gun our mother would have never bought. These things could be real, might have been real. But they're stories in the same way Luke Skywalker is a story and Camelot is a story and Quiddich is not a sport covered by ESPN.
I posit that the spirit of Christmas has absolutely zero to do with the acquisition or the giving of anything at all from this world - from fruitcake to a new spouse. I suggest in terms blasphemous to American Christmas that the Christmases we seem to be celebrating with our lights and Johnny Mathis CDs and trimmed trees and gaily wrapped XBOX games are our feeble attempts to reproduce a story book life we desire.
And we will always be disappointed in the results. There is no other possibility.
Because we can never reproduce in material space the glory of the Christmas in our imagination. Because if we lived George Bailey's life, it would be normal to us. If we were Scrooge, we would say to ourselves despite the visitations, "This is the way life is, it is not a story, it is typical." And Christmas, we think, it not about typical life, but rather, Christmas is a story about miracles. We don't think about December 26th in Scrooge's London or March 1st in Bedford Falls. Who knows what hardships befell Scrooge and George Bailey months after their Christmas miracles?
We know if it was us, we'd have had a good Christmas and then had to go back to work right after at the department store, accepting all the unwanted gifts and doling out refunds. Because that's real life.
Strip away the ads and the rosy fireplace glow, the pine needles and the sparkling lights and you're left with something very simple.
I think the spirit of Christmas is unalterable, universal, and as old as mankind. We have distorted it in the telling through the ages, both inadvertently and purposefully. But it is present in some form in all cultures and religions.
In the west, and particularly in America, Christmas manifests itself as a bacchanalian feast. Where we have gone wrong through the ages is to focus on the feast rather than the celebration. Where we're missing the point, as was indicated by Dickens, is in concentrating on the quality and quantity of the wine rather than the dancing and laughing about not being able to.
By all accounting and sheer logic we can deduce that Tiny Tim is dead. As many times as I've seen productions of "A Christmas Carol" I can't help but think that the efficacy of medicine in the 1850's was hardly beyond that of black magic. Whatever ailed Tiny Tim, that caused him to walk with a crutch, most certainly killed him irrespective of Scrooge's financial support.
Scrooge himself couldn't have lived far beyond the 1870's, and so the prophetic message of the Ghost of Christmas Future while emotional, is patently pathetic. The Ghost could bring each of us to our grave sites on Christmas Eve two hundred years from now. Would we shriek in horror and experience a life-transforming epiphany, or would it seem part and parcel of life on Earth?
What if the ghost brought us to our grave site this Christmas two weeks from now? What would knowledge of imminent death bring to us?
My copy of "It's a Wonderful Life" is the 60th anniversary edition. Dare I say that nearly everyone is dead who is visible in that film. Would visits from the Ghost of Christmas future change things for us, one iota, if done in the context of the film?
If I take all of these messages with equal value, from my church, from literature, from our cultural heritage I come to the following conclusion:
It's about life.
Christmas is recognition of our undeniable, non-religious, totally visible salvation. Now that you are saved, the birth you celebrate is yours. The meaning of life is that you have it and you share it with others. If you are alive, you are saved. If you are saved, you must be happy. What other reaction could there be? Rejoice!
Drop the Visa cards and checkbooks. It's insane to try to buy what you already have.
You are together, say the voices of the ghosts. The commodity is happiness and you are equipped with the raw materials to make an infinite supply.
Scrooge tells the ghost of Christmas Past of his old boss Fezziwig, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."
The power lies in each of us, and of this you are to be reminded, once per year, on December 25th, that in words and looks and things quite insignificant you withhold or bestow happiness. Rejoice.
The commodity is happiness and Scrooge is the same person after the ghosts as before, only happier. George Bailey is the same man before he contemplates suicide as after, only happier. All men and women have the capability to celebrate life. Those who do make it easier for everyone else to enjoy life. Those who don't make it harder. Use it. Spend it. Spread happiness. That's the message.
The spirit of Christmas is the knowledge that each of us is a member of a very elite club. Whatever our trials or torment despite enormous odds we are among the living. And happiness is free for the living.
Yet somehow, in the greatest irony known to mankind, we have programmed ourselves to go shopping as soon as we think of that.