Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not aroused in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened by the recurrence of Christmas." Thus wrote the young newspaper reporter Charles Dickens, in an article collected in his first book, "Sketches by Boz" (1836).
We now and forever associate Christmas with Dickens, thanks to his marvelous (if tediously over-emphasized) "A Christmas Carol" (1842). But it is not only jovial feeling that draws us to Dickens's idea of Christmas; it is the way he incessantly reminds us that our love and joys are inextricably joined to our limitations as mortal beings. Loss, grief, and death visit us at Christmas time, and those who once sat around our table are remembered with a special keenness and tenderness on this day.
Even in this early sketch he dwelt on it. "Look on the merry faces of your children (if you have any) as they sit round the fire. One little seat may be empty; one slight form that gladdened the father's heart, and roused the mother's pride to look upon, may not be there. Dwell not upon the past; think not that one short year ago, the fair child now resolving into dust, sat before you, with the bloom of health upon its cheek and the gaiety of infancy in its joyous eye. Reflect upon your present blessings of which every man has many not your misfortunes, of which all men have some."
But, of course, Dickens does dwell upon the past, in spite of his lectures to all of us to get beyond it. Carol is haunted by ghosts. It opens with the words "Marley was dead." It tells us Scrooge's beloved sister died, and prepares us for the death of a wonderful little child. It takes us to a death bed and a graveyard, and shows us those who feel no emotion but scorn at the passing of another. The book is an admonition to all of us to search our pasts, consider the choices we have made, test whether the things that obsess us really matter in the presence of death. It asks if we can truly be happy and live richly if we ignore the prompting to love one another. Behind it all, of course, is the Christian theme of redemption, of victory over death through the birth of a child.
For many of us, this fall has seemed like an awful season of death. Terrorists murdered thousands of people in an unprovoked attack on Sept. 11. War rained on Afghanistan. A loved figure to many in my generation, George Harrison, passed on, too young. In my own life, a most dear lady to me, Ann Dunn, the grandmother of my children, died this month, six weeks after she was diagnosed with cancer.
As we gathered at her graveside with scores of mourners, my 3-year-old could not stop acting his age. He hugged a tree, squirmed out of my arms, tumbled halfway down a little hill, and asked his brother, in a piping loud voice, at the most solemn moment of prayer, "Matthew, did you get a haircut?" I did not flinch too much because I knew Ann would have laughed, and even found it the perfect touch to a ceremony in her honor. She bore nine children, and loved each one fiercely. Little children delighted her the most, and they had to be smothered with kisses every time she saw them.
Such blows befall all of us, but we soldier on. The heart never mends completely my own mother died 21 years ago but somehow we find a way to laugh and drink, maybe even sing, and treasure the smiles of those we love. I expect to see many of them at my own house today.
The TV ads incessantly bray about perfect, shining Christmases, and it is the American Way to pretend death and dismal failure do not exist. But life is not like that, and Dickens knew the best holidays are steeped in imperfection. This journey we are on is too short, too prone to heartbreak, separation and loss. Those who we think should love us sometimes hurt us terribly. But we lift the ale, praise the feast, savor the shouting, make fools of ourselves, hug each other and enjoy the glittering eyes around our fire while we can. And we find, as Dickens wrote, that such simple acts do more to perpetuate good will "than half the homilies that have ever been written, by half the Divines that have ever lived."
Edward Achorn is the
Providence Journal's deputy
editorial pages editor. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.