Have a Dickens of a Christmas

In the late 1600’s in colonial Boston, the celebration of Christmas was against the law. Indeed, anyone evidencing the “spirit of Christmas” could be fined five shillings. In the early 1800’s, Christmas was better known as a season for rioting in the streets and civil unrest.1 However, in the mid-1800’s some interesting things changed the cultural response to the feast and, in 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday (which is to say that prior to 1870, Christmas was not a day-off in America). What happened?

American Christmas demonstrates the amazing influence of literature on a culture. The first important book was by the author, Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winckel fame):

In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended – in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.2

The second book, however, was, by far, the more influential: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When Dickens is dubbed, “the man who invented Christmas,” it is not far from the truth. For the American cultural celebration of Christmas largely began through the popularity of Dickens’ classic story. That same fact, though, accounts for much of the non-religious aspects of America’s celebration.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does not overlook the birth of Christ. It presumes the religious aspects of the day and its presence is woven throughout every part of the story-line. There is a brief mention of Bob Cratchett and his son, Tiny Tim, attending Church on the day. But it was not this part of the story that caught the popular imagination. All told, it was the “spirit” of Christmas that sold America on the importance of the day.

Dickens wrote in the depths of the Victorian era. That period was marked, both in England and America, by a rise of romanticism, a popular sentimentality for “old things,” “traditions,” and “customs.” The century before had been dominated by the Enlightenment, when all things rational ruled the day. Indeed, it is not incorrect to see the sentimentality of the Victorian period as a reaction to the coldness of reason. It was a swinging of the cultural pendulum.

America’s religious history has been a conflicted mix since the very beginning. The New England colonies (among the earliest) were settled largely by Puritans, dissenters from the Church of England, who wanted a radical reform of English Christianity. Unable to achieve their desires in England, they came to America and established their Churches here. They opposed Church festivals and frivolities of almost every sort. Their strict and dour form of Christianity waned and morphed over the decades, becoming a fairly moderate version of generalized Protestantism. The lower colonies (Virginia and to the South) were settled (officially) by Anglicans. However, migrations quickly populated those areas with dissenters, particularly the Scots-Irish who were largely Presbyterian with Baptists as well. Catholics were a tiny minority, restricted, for the most part, to Maryland.

English Churches outside of the Catholic and Anglican were non-liturgical. The “feast” of Christmas was as absent as the “feast” of anything else. It was not part of their consciousness. Thus, the growth of a popular Christmas in the mid to late 19th century took place outside the walls of the Church. It became a cultural holiday, with an emphasis on family and the home.

Surprisingly, Christmas is probably far more a part of Protestant Church life in America today than at any time in our history. But the echoes of cultural Christmas remain strong. When Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, Christianity in America revisits its conflicted past. It is not unusual to see Churches of a more Evangelical background cancelling Sunday services, deferring to Christmas as a “family” celebration. For liturgical Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.) such a practice seems scandalous in the extreme.

I might note, however, that the “power” of Christmas as an event in our culture, is rooted in the culture rather than the Church. In the Orthodox Church, Christmas is but one of twelve major feast days. If those feast days fall anytime other than a Sunday, attendance at Church will be thin indeed. And though Christmas is one of the three greatest of the twelve (Pascha, Christmas, Theophany), only Christmas and Pascha (always on a Sunday) receive great attention in America. Those of us who feel a certain superiority in our Church’s celebration of the Christmas feast, would do well to reflect on our own neglect of the other feasts.

This is not an article about what “should” be. Cultures are what they are and got that way by their peculiar history. If America were an Orthodox or Catholic country in its beginning, many of the other major feasts would likely be national holidays and their customs would be widespread. Such is the case elsewhere in the world.

There are protests against the secular Christmas that say, “Put the Christ back in Christmas!” From a liturgical point of view I’ve wanted to add, “And put the Mass back in Christmas!” It is, after all, a feast of the Christian Church. Neither of these, however, will likely be dominant in a culture that once had little Christmas at all.

Another suggestion I might make is to “put the Dickens back in Christmas.” I can think of no better homage to the man who “created” the modern celebration of the holiday than to read his delightful A Christmas Carol. If you do not want to read, watch a movie version. Several of them are quite faithful to the book.

But, more than this, would be the moral of Dickens’ story: Christmas is well-kept by a life of generosity and kindness. That dear story is one of profound repentance, the healing of relationships and the righting of wrongs. Dickens’ Christmas was synonymous with a life lived in accordance with the gospel. He said it well at the end of his story:

Bob Cratchit was very surprised, and so were many people who found Scrooge so changed. Scrooge became a better person. To Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. Scrooge became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city or town in the world could know. It was always said of Scrooge, that he knew how to keep Christmas well. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

I absolutely think that Christmas should be a time for Christians to gather in Church to give thanks for the birth of Christ. But outside its doors, no one of us could do better than Scrooge. The busy-ness of Christmas, as well as the business of Christmas, could do well to listen to the words of Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, the tortured soul doomed to wander the world in chains. Scrooge observed to him that he was always a good man of business. Marley replied:

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Would that such business were as popular as the tinsel and trees. Thank you Charles Dickens, for having said it so well.



Footnotes for this article

  1. For a short article on the history of Christmas in America see this article.
  2. ibid.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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18 responses to “Have a Dickens of a Christmas”

  1. James Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    I didn’t know about Christmas not being widely celebrated back then. It’s interesting to watch my friends who don’t call themselves religious joyfully participate in different traditions and rituals around Christmas time. We don’t just want to consume, we desire to participate in the feast. I just listened to a recording of Fr Thomas Hopko talking about the Nativity Fast, his addition to “putting Christ back in Christmas” was instead “put Christmas back into Christ”. I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas, Christ is born!

  2. Brandi Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Freeman, for another inspiring and delightful post. I always wonder how many people are brought to faith’s threshold because of literature like A Christmas Carol! As a young reader growing up in a Protestant household, I was always romanced, myself, by what seemed to be a richness of culture (including a church culture I did not know) in the classic stories I read. What’s a mass? A parish? A feast day? A feast day sounds wonderful! (Little did I know what would await me.)

    Our tradition is to watch the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol, starring George C Scott, at least once during the Advent season. It is, in my humble and unimportant opinion, the very best movie version. 😬 And we bawl every time we watch it because as you said, it is such a wonderful story of repentance.

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

  3. Stephen Price Avatar
    Stephen Price

    Fr. Stephen, bless –

    Over from Fr. Barnabas Powell’s suggestion to read this article. Very good and very informative and very convicting.
    I also want to thank you for your books on Church history.

  4. Lynnette Avatar

    In the UK Dickens isn’t very far away. A few years ago the BBC made a series called Dickensian. If you can get it do. Many of the characters from various books are in it but the story revived around the murder of Jacob Marley and the subsequent investigation. Miss Haversham has a part,, as does Little Nell and the Old Curiosity shop and many others and they are all brilliantly woven into the story. Brilliant for Dickens lovers.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. I think the history books are by a different Fr. Stephen.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As we are leaving Divine Liturgy on Sunday this Advent our choir has sung us out with some classic English Christmas Carols. It never fails to lift my heart as they bring back the joy of my youth.
    It is important to remember and cultivate the Joy in each of our hearts. The Joy that is a sure sign the He, our Holy Mother, the Saints and Angels are with us.

  7. Drewster2000 Avatar


    You said, “It’s interesting to watch my friends who don’t call themselves religious joyfully participate in different traditions and rituals around Christmas time.”

    Though this might be obvious to you, I have found that we are all religious, though many would not call it that. My father once said, “We were made to worship, and we will worship; it’s just a matter of what.” As it pertains to your comment, I would expand on that and say we were made to hold certain times as specialand worth taking time and energy to celebrate. It helps distinguish one day from the next.

    To paraphrase Dash Parr, if every day is special, then none of them are. But on the other side of that coin, if all days are plain, that’s just as bad or worse.

  8. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    I enjoy reading your thoughts and the history of Christmas. For me, Christmas has an irresistible attraction, though I’m not necessarily drawn to do the same things every year. But some project, (or a combination of many) always grips my imagination. It might be crochet, or baking, or finding presents, or decorating, or (this year) packing for a trip. Part of me is vaguely aware of practical or even cynical considerations but they have no power over me. Living in a part of the world where the temperature plummets and the nights are long and dark, maybe we simply *need* something like Christmas. Maybe, living without the strange and exotic (to me) traditions of “feast days” all my energy goes into Christmas and takes me over. I don’t know, but there’s something in the air, and I just go with it!

  9. M E Avatar
    M E

    I think you may like the version of A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim , 1951. Black and white but very clear on Youtube now. Alistair Sim is an excellent Scrooge. Many famous British actors were in it even in small parts and the backgrounds are authentic gloomy dirty Victorian London.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Alistair Sim version is the best. Thank you M E for the reminder. It has been a long time since I have seen it. Your mention of it brought the whole experience back to me. Even the fact tha is in black and white somehow adds to it’s authenticity.

  11. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    It’s bizarre to think that something as “essential” as Christmas wasn’t invented until the 1800s, especially to those of us who believe that everything truly good must be ancient. (grin) But I’m not sad that “A Christmas Carol” was the main mechanism for bringing it about. I’ve always loved every piece of that story.

    You made a couple of interesting observations that caught my attention this time around. The first was that this holiday didn’t actually originate in church, and the second is that in Protestant circles, when Christmas falls on a Sunday, there is often a tendency to cancel services so that it can be observed at home “because Christmas is a family celebration”. These got me thinking but I didn’t know what to do with them.

    But yesterday I was listening to Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr’s “Just This”, a small collection of thoughts about meditation. As kind of a periphery comment, he mentioned that classic Christianity started with much more of an emphasis on the daily liturgy in the lives of the individual. I’m assuming this refers to all the customs of the Jews, i.e. you wash your hands this way in the morning, you face this way for prayers in the evening, and so on. He then goes on to say that at some point the focus changed to the corporate liturgy happening in the context of the churches.

    I know it’s a leap from the Christmas conversation, but it got me wandering if the Protestant credos of Sola Scriptura and “me, Jesus and the Bible” (though misguided) stem from a kernel of truth. Perhaps they’re simply looking to reinstitute a daily liturgy in their lives, though they aren’t aware of it, much less know how to get there.

    A long time ago I was in a liturgical church which, as you might expect, had a heavy load of services during seasons like Lent and Advent. After awhile there was a general cry from the people for more body life, to which the leadership responded with more services (and greater disappointment). Reflecting back on the situation with this article in mind, I can’t help wonder if one of the essential ingredients they were missing was a daily liturgy.

    When I mentioned the Rohr idea to my wife, she commented that Sunday liturgies probably become so much more important because the daily ones had disappeared, perhaps as Jewish influence waned over time. While I have little doubt this is true, it still speaks of something missing. The point at which we touch the truth (corporate worship in this case), it should begin to spread out and affect the rest of our lives as well. I will invoke here the Orthodox “both/and” principle, which I have come to love. We need the corporate but equally so the individual liturgy.

    Switching for a moment to science, one of the greatest things I’ve learned from DNA is that each cell in the body has a blueprint for rebuilding the whole body. In the same way it would seem that each individual should in some sense be a complete miniature temple in the image of the church body. This needs to be so in the event that the rest of the body was destroyed. Cue zombie apocalypse or other such tragedy. Indeed we are called priests.

    I don’t know how it would be accomplished, but it seems that our daily internal liturgy should mirror what is performed corporately every Sunday – and vice versa. Then if/when the apocalypse happens, it’s just a matter of “two or three gathering in My name” and the individual cells can begin to reconstitute the body once again.

    High liturgy is performed in the churches, Christmas and a few other rites are performed at home, but what do I do within my own temple on a regular basis? “Whatever works for you” sounds freeing but in the end sets a person adrift more than it is helpful. “Be kind” and “give thanks for everything” are good general principles but don’t speak to traditions and life routines. We are creatures of habit and many are seeking a way of life to follow so that these principles can be integrated into our lives naturally instead of having to be intentional 24/7.

    I know this is a big ask, but I believe the lack of guidance concerning daily rituals is so keenly felt in places like North America because of our extremely strong emphasis on individual freedom. We have thrown the baby out with the bath water and now find ourselves almost bereft of any examples or role models.

    I welcome any thoughts and reflections on this, drewster

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Rohr would have to expand on his thoughts for them to be examined. Orthodox practice, as directed in various manuals of devotion, contain much of a daily liturgy in the home, and faithful tradition expands on that. I remember a small book I was reading in which the author describes living on the Isle of Patmos (an Englishman). He said in the morning, walking down the street, he could smell the incense from various homes as its smell wafted into the streets.

    Historically, ancient Roman/Greek religion, had their own daily, household rituals, particularly in honoring ancestors and with prayers to the “household gods.” Thus there was no Jewish daily devotion versus pagan non-devotion. Christians would have taken up their own Christian versions of household prayers (and did). What we have today is often the loss of such things through the forces of a secularized existence.

    In the earliest centuries of the Church, the faithful carried the Eucharist home and partook of it every day. That obvious danger of abuses with this served to eliminate the practice. Nonetheless, in Slavic tradition, little breads (prosphora) are blessed in the service, with particles removed for the names to be prayed for, and the faithful take the breads home. Over the week, they can (and do) partake of these loaves as a continuing daily liturgy in the home.

    I can only assume that each priest in his parish gives some instruction on such things with his people. It’s important not to neglect it. Godparents can also play an educational role in this.

    As to Protestant practice – it’s worthwhile to note that Protestantism is a constantly changing thing, and tends to reflect cultural shifts. That is to say, there’s very little in current Protestantism that reflects the thoughts and reactions of 500 years ago. It’s simple morphed from that. There was a profound interior and daily liturgy during the Middle Ages. One of the most accurate bits of historical writing that I’ve seen about the Reformation “on the ground” can be seen in the work of Eamon Duffy (The Voices of Morebath, The Stripping of the Altars). His careful historical work looks at various local effects in the Reformation. Much was lost.

    Orthodoxy is one of the few (if only) forms of Christianity little changed by the Reformation. But it lives in a secularized semi-Protestant society. I cannot make suggestions for those outside of its daily parish life – other than to say that we cannot re-invent the wheel. We need to place ourselves within the fullness of that life and work to acquire the gifts that it gives us.

    In all things, though, the providence of God is at work. I trust His goodness above all else.

  13. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    To return to Dickens, I coincidentally came across this article that, if you haven’t read it before, you might find interesting in that Dickens shared many of your thoughts about modernity:


    I like that the problem of “A Christmas Carol” does not find its resolution a great social change of the system, but through a transformation of “a life,” as you write above–always, the repentance in the *particular*.

    “Workers are not of value only to the extent to which they contribute to a product for the cheapest possible labor cost. They are of value as ‘fellow-passengers to the grave,’ in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, ‘and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ Employers owe their employees as human beings—no better, but no worse, than themselves.”

    As you and I were discussing last night, governments and corporations are never going to act any more morally or humanely than the individual people they comprise. In the singular human heart, therefore, is where every social change, for good or evil, begins.

  14. Dino Avatar

    You seem to pose a most practical question, regarding daily ritual and the need for it.
    I have encountered this advice –i.e.: the need for a daily ritual– many times from discerning saints. There is no other way but that of a daily spiritual program for them. The more we adhere to this, the greater the spiritual fruit. If we let go of it, the slow corrosion of latent internal distraction (or imperceptible internal dishevelment) starts encircling our unsuspecting hearts, even if somehow we manage to remain humble and grateful without it.
    I distinctly remember two great saints counsel on this.
    The one warned that we must categorically retain a daily rule, without which there can be no real and conscious union with Christ: whatever relationship we think we have, without this regular reference to Him, is wholly evanescent without the stability provided by this daily reference to Him.
    The other saint was pressed by a disciple of his –who had been made an abbess of many nuns at an unusually young age– what three things should she ask of God to handle such an overwhelming vocation (expecting the answer to include qualities like discernment, clairvoyance, etc) and she received the simple response: “programme, programme programme!”
    So this need for a daily programme in spiritual life, (a ritual if you like) is key!
    The Orthodox tradition, in as well as out of monasteries, has a kind of long-standing consensus regarding this. This includes a cfew of time-honoured elements: a daily scripture reading, a daily psalm reading, a daily Jesus prayer invocation and at least something from the daily ecclesiastical readings/prayers so that there’s an encounter with the saints of each particular day. These are all ‘rituals’ if you like (even the readings, ie: they are not the ‘studying kind’ but the ‘standing-before-the-Lord kind’).
    Of course, reading/studying in the more cerebral sense is also required; it is one of the best ways to add wood-fire to the heart’s spiritual fervour, especially for beginners, perhaps better even than prayer [for beginners] in that particular capacity for rekindling our zeal. It’s strange how lying in bed reading certain spiritual books of saints can have more influence than standing and praying or prostrating in our very modern minds… I remember how saint Paisios always had Saint Isaac under his pillow and suggested we all do the same.

  15. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Yes Dino, you are correct. I’m thinking more practically. The way I would frame it is that I’m looking for the individual instead of the corporate practice.

    As I was listening to Rohr, 2 statements from St. Paul came to mind. The first was that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. If that’s so, then liturgies are performed inside those temples, just as they are in the larger church body. There must be processions, litanies, an epiclesis, and so on. I realize that asking for an individual liturgy that would fit all individual is lunacy, but I guess I was asking for basic principles, such as you have provided with the reading recommendations.

    The other piece from St. Paul is to pray always without ceasing. Many have pondered the meaning of this of course. Rohr indicated that this wasn’t so much about saying prayers under your breath or in your mind 24/7 but rather (and here I am lacking in knowledge because I’m just now being exposed to this) perhaps a way of keeping your mind in your heart as you go about your day. In a sense you stay within your temple rather than only going there for scripture readings and prayer times.

    I ask for more information about individual practices because I find so few examples around me of what this looks like. Indeed I usually find more daily liturgical routine among my Buddhist and Islamic neighbors than among Christians. While I’m sure Christian monastics have fairly standard daily rules, it is not so among lay people.

    We talk (and rightly so) of being touched and taught by God at one point in our lives and ideally it spreading from there into the rest of them. The Eucharist is one of the most common examples of this. However I find that in large part this is not the North American experience. We live in an area of the world where people like to dissect everything and put it into categories. In like manner we put Sunday morning in one bucket and the rest of the week into another. Thus the birth of secularism, a false construct which has become the norm.

    I think I’m asking how I baptize the rest of my day/week/life. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    How many Orthodox Christian neighbors do you have? (You compare Buddhist and Muslim neighbors to “Christian” neighbors) As I’ve noted, Orthodox manuals of prayer are replete with instructions on the individual praxis of the faith – which is normally implemented under the guidance of one’s parish priest. I’m hesitant to describe a generic individual plan – because one size does not fit all. It is something that is best found within the life of a local parish. That’s where I would direct you.

  17. Dino Avatar

    It is as you say Drewster, one is called to become a temple -unceasingly offering a sort of personal Liturgy in their heart- but the completion of this immense calling is done by the Holy Spirit in those who have done everything else towards that calling within their reach.
    During the distinct (communal) time of Divine Liturgy -through Holy Communion- all the other times of the day/week are nourished.
    So without these distinct occasions of Holy Communion, our personal reference to God during our daily ‘programme’ cannot quite flourish.
    At the same time, Holy Communion in a heart that does not keep a daily ‘programme’, will not quite ‘animate’ as it otherwise would either.
    This is the teaching of Elder Aimilianos that I am very familiar with. Saint Sophrony also says exactly the same – even though he never had to articulate it with the same clear rigour.
    The more our spiritual (“neptic”) ‘introversion’ (i.e.: spiritual watchfulness of the heart) increases, the closer we come to St Paul’s unceasing prayer.
    It is rather simple because one is essentially taking care of a “stove”, the more regularly you add wood, the more meticulously you block heat losses, etc. the more continuous the heat will be.
    St Paul was essentially one enormous blaze walking around the world. And you still have exceptional people like that, even if the overwhelming majority of them (like Elder Aimilianos) had led the formally ‘consecrated life’.

  18. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I understand your position and accept that. I don’t have many Orthodox neighbors (and of course I was using that term to describe anyone I encounter on a somewhat regular basis), and those that I do have seem to be much more fluent in discussing the corporate liturgies rather than the individual ones.

    I appreciate your comments. They were helpful. It makes me think that in many cases perhaps it isn’t the specific actions of a person’s daily routine that are important as much as the fact that they are captured and transformed by God so that they help us along the inner path to become one with Him.

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