Tiny Houses and Charles Dickens at Christmas

Tradition provides solid ground at Christmas, but it's the life of faith that provides the meaning.

(photo: Register Files)

In my living room, I have a Charles Dickens-themed Christmas village made up of little ceramic houses that my parents collected for years. My father would bring them down from the attic each winter and set them up, and now my daughter and I continue the tradition.

Although I love all things Dickens, my interest in little ceramic houses was minimal. But we've come to look forward to arranging the village into some semblance of a Victorian Christmas, albeit without the open sewage trenches, pockmarked doxies, and choking miasma of industrial smog.

That's the interesting thing about the old time Christmas: it is an illusion. It's all surface, and although there's nothing wrong with a pleasing surface, filled with color and festive spirit and nostalgia, we do well to remember the reality underneath the tinsel and paint.

And that's what Dickens brings to us. He was a strange collision of hard-bitten crusading social revolutionary and overt, unapologetic sentimentalist. Taken alone, either of these qualities is poison, but held in tension together, each tempering the other, they provide a very Christian sense of the world.

Beyond Sentimentality

Revolution may destroy, but sentiment smothers. It conceals. It distorts. This is not what Dickens does. He uses the forms of sentimental literature to uncover and reveal. He moves us to an emotional place, opens our hearts, and there delivers his deeper message. In his Christmas novellas, an encounter with the supernatural opens a closed heart. Moral failings are laid bare through the power of memory, but something more happens. Dickens trains our eyes downward, to those we trample upon. In grasping the reality of the lost ideal of ourselves, we are moved to greater compassion for others. It's a kind of gospel of life.

My tiny Dickens village is the image of Christmas rather than the substance. There's nothing wrong with that. All the lights and tinsel and colors of Christmas are a wonderful reminder of the joy of spring in the depths of winter. They are the images of celebration. We need reminders of the good and beautiful. We yearn for something that suggests home and warmth and fellowship and family and joy. And Dickens has become part of that picture: the artist who has entered his own painting to become a tradition on par with the tree and the candy canes and the carols.

But A Christmas Carol turns on a single, fleeting moment, and therein lies its true depth, and its real Christian message. The ghost of Christmas present is a kind of jolly pagan figure who ages throughout the night, to die (it is suggested) with the dawn. He lives only for the Christmas season. Near the end of his scene, this figure of happiness pulls back his robe to reveal the feral children Want and Ignorance.

If we care to look at Ignorance and Want through the lens of Catholic moral theology, we can see them as the debased forms of the Intellect and the Will. These twin powerhouses of the rational soul must be nurtured and developed for a being to be moral. The well-formed will wants what is good and the intellect wants what is true. They function in tandem, allowing us to think and act morally. These feral children, however, are humans reduced to their basest form, corrupt, lost, afraid.

A mere sentimentalist wouldn't have gone anywhere near such a moment, but Dickens leads us into deep waters to confront us with a simple question: what is Christmas to us?

The celebration is good and can even be holy. The fellowship and joy is a balm for a broken world. But any society that can celebrate in plenty while ignoring those in need has no pretense to calling itself Christian. The incarnation has changed the world, but does it change each heart, individually, every day, as it should?

The tradition of Christmas became an obsession to Dickens, and his "Carol philosophy”—the importance of compassion and human contact, the power of memory, the vitality and innocence of childhood, the essence of Christ's teachings—resonates through much of his subsequent work. It became the embodiment of Christian living for him, and he held out special disdain for people who observed the forms of the celebration while their hearts were cold and dead, particularly to the cry of the needy. In Great Expectations, it is Pip who embodies the spirit of Christ when he feeds Magwitch on Christmas day, not the boorish adults at their fine holiday feast. Scrooge may have been a miser, but he was an honest miser and didn't celebrate the season on the surface while not feeling it in his heart or living it in his actions. Thus, Scrooge could be redeemed.

Tradition Is In the Bone

Dickens was part of a cultural moment that saw the medieval traditions of the Christmas festival seasons revived after being suppressed by Puritan ban of the 17th century. (While the modern crusaders against Christmas see themselves as righteous secular warriors, they are in fact little more than neo-puritans treading the well-worn path of anti-humanism.) He didn't “invent” Christmas, as some say, but many of the traditions that lasted did so because his art and influence preserved a moment in time that resonates down through the years.

My Dickens collection has about 1,200 pages worth of novellas, stories, and vignettes dedicated to Christmas, and many of the longer works have some Christmas scene in them. In Pickwick Papers, we first grasp the meaning of Christmas to Dickens, and to us. The country house celebration at Dingily Dell is a point of convergence, where the generations come together and the old pass on traditions to the young. This continuity is not a mummified tradition, but one that is vital and alive. As Chesterton observed, the antiquities of these traditions do not suggest something dying, but rather something deathless.

Chesterton found the Dickensian paradox fascinating and telling. "How did it happen,” he writes of Dickens, "that this bustling, nineteenth-century man, full of the most cock-sure common-sense of the utilitarian and liberal epoch, came to associate his name chiefly in literary history with the perpetuation of a half pagan and half Catholic festival which he would certainly have called an antiquity and might easily have called a superstition?”

Indeed, Dickens disdained popery, and his radical sensibility should have rejected it as old rubbish. Something deeper called to him, however: something more profound than the intellect: something in the bone.

That's where you find Catholicism: in the bone and sinew of man. People can reject belief and tradition, cast it aside as so much trash, move on, get over it, try to forget. But it's never gone. I know that through regular practice of our religion—mass, sacraments, prayer, catechism, lived faith—I have fused Catholics into my children as surely as the adamantium fused to Wolverine's skeleton. It will always call to them, no matter where they run. That's what Chesterton meant by his "twitch upon the thread.” As the branch is bent, so it grows. No revolutionary can overcome himself. Not even Dickens.

The world outraged Dickens. Well it should have. The world should outrage us, too. But it's a fool who attempts reform of his times while cutting off the branch of history he's standing upon, and Dickens was no fool.

Our feet are planting firmly on the solid ground of tradition, but we mourn for the suffering of a fallen world, and in so mourning seek to uplift the crushed and forgotten. This is Catholicism: looking forward and backward, Janus-like. It was once the default position of America as well, but the ongoing utopian attempt to obliterate the past and the culture is dissolving the ground beneath our feet, and not merely at Christmas.

Modernism is the great forgetting. It sees the past not as solid ground that supports, but as chains that bind. In truth, it can be both, but the wise radical knows what's worth keeping and what needs to be left behind, and there are few wise radicals left.

Dickens was a wise radical. When Scrooge says that he will live in the past, the present, and the future, he is laying claim to a balanced view of being and history. It's also the Catholic view: sustained by tradition, attentive to the present needs of our fellow man, and striving for salvation. 

My the blessings of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you this season as we celebrate the birth of Our Savior.