A noble work — Keeping Christmas

Posted on December 24, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

One of the marvels of our modern era is an odd disconnect: We have access to more education, information and communication than ever, yet the caliber of our literacy wanes.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the Christmas season, but seems more pronounced when thumbing through the literature of previous Christmases.

I annually reread Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Despite being a familiar story, it perennially surprises me and I discover new, meaningful phrases and nuances every December.

Like all novels that wind up on the big screen, there’s a great deal in “A Christmas Carol” that never made it to any movie version. One of those missing scenes occurs after the Ghost of Christmas Past has made old Ebenezer Scrooge witness the loss of his fiancée.

There is the well-known exchange in which Belle (in case you never knew her name) tells Scrooge that he has changed and that a golden idol has displaced her in his heart. Reliving the heartbreaking moment, Scrooge demands the spirit fetch him home.

“One shadow more!” the Ghost insists.

What is shown to Scrooge next is Belle many years later, sitting fireside with her daughter in a room full of noisy and uproarious children. And it is here that Dickens references a poetic work without crediting the author.

“And, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem,there were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty,” he wrote.

It’s easy to overlook the reference, because Dickens continues to masterfully and eloquently convey the resulting tumult when kids and Christmas are combined in close quarters.

Referencing other literary works used to be more popular as a subtle but efficient means of making a point. The assumption was that most readers had been exposed to writings widely accepted as classics.

Few today could name the poem, including me. I had to look it up, and it turns out to be “Written in March,” penned in 1802 by William Wordsworth. Dickens draws from this stanza: “The cattle are grazing,/Their heads never raising;/There are forty feeding like one!”

Readers wouldn’t have to know the poem to appreciate Dickens’ prose, of course, but like cartoons that include humor for adults, its inclusion enhanced the work.

A subject like Christmas features centuries of contemplative commentary. Yet as we’ve become more sophisticated and educated, our literary depth of holiday reasoning and analysis has diminished, transplanted, for the most part, by a simplistic preoccupation with buying, giving and getting gifts.

I ran across a profound Christmas essay by Theodore Cuyler, a Presbyterian minister and religious writer who produced the bulk of his work in the late 19th century. He published his last book, “Our Christmas Tides,” in 1904. Cuyler wrote in its first selection about his own Christmas past, including his boyhood memories from rural western New York of watching children in a mission school mesmerized by the huge Christmas tree.

Then he turned his attention to the “various methods of systematic beneficence” being explored many decades later, at the time of his writing, as Bureaus of Charity and associations for the relief of the poor were being organized.

“A noble work,” Cuyler observed, but he was troubled by a trend he detected. “After all,” he observed, “the most effective ‘bureau’ is one that, in a waterproof and a stout pair of shoes, sallies off on a wintry night to someabode of poverty with not only supplies for suffering bodies, but kind words and sympathy for lonesome hearts. A dollar from a warm hand with a warm word is worth two dollars sent by mail or by a messenger boy.”

Cuyler then summedup a concept that has been all but discarded in our modern governmental attempts at welfare assistance. You can almost imagine the 82-year-old minister, with steady eyes and silver bushy sideburns, soften his countenance to deliver his conclusion.

“The secret of power in doing good,” he wrote, “is personal contact.”

Then, almost as if he were passing meditation on the widening gap dividing rich and poor in our own time, he went on: “The portentous chasm between wealth and poverty must be bridged by a span of personal kindness over which the footsteps must turn in only one direction. That is the only remedy. Heart must touch heart.”

Words of wisdom from the season of goodwill that we would all do well to consider, as state governments and Washington struggle beneath the weight of social spending that is utterly impersonal to its recipients.

Henry Van Dyke distinguished that the keeping of Christmas was better than the observance of it. Perhaps one foundational flaw of our welfare policies has been accepting the myth that a government check can ever be a surrogate for human benevolence.

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