Charles Dickens’ Paganism

I have to admit that I am post-dating this to the Winter Solstice, but hopefully it will not be utterly without some degree of illumination.

The holiday of the Winter Solstice is celebrated almost globally whether in its guise of Yule, Saturnalia, Dongzhi, or even Haudeshaune. It’s true that it is not celebrated universally, but that is a matter for comparative studies. I certainly don’t need to go into all the ways that Christmas has aggregated pagan practices to itself. There are plenty of others who have done that perfectly well, the history of Christmas offering quite an interesting model of colonialism in action in so many different ways.

A great deal of that has to do with the English and their peculiar brand of expansionism, a movement that could arguably be considered a latter-day Germanic migration. Again, that’s a bit beside the point, but it helps to remember that when looking at what we in English-speaking North America (and other places) presume about Christmas and solstice celebrations. The christmas tree, for example, was a German tradition brought to England by Prince Alberchristmas_tree_albert2_747156t when he married Queen Victoria in 1840. It was their good, old fashioned family values that inspired the country, and English society was so inspired by their
example that it followed their customs.

That’s all well and good, but not really seminal in terms of what Christmas means to North American society. For that we need to move three more years forward to 1843 when Charles Dickens published his most well-known work: A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. We remember it now simply as A Christmas Carol.

There were a great many issues boiling around in England at the time which found their way into Dickens’ work as important themes: family life, social responsibility, the conflict between a strictly economic view of the world and an appreciation of life as a spiritual journey, to name only a few. This last theme was especially relevant because the mid-eighteenth century was a time of enormous social change under the influence of the industrial revolution. The old rural systems of kinship and what we would call barter — itinerant farm laborers, for example, would traditionally be paid in beer or cider (you’ll need to fast-forward to about 51:05) in some cases as part of an age old, pre-Christian understanding of “economy” — were falling away under economic pressure of mechanized agriculture. The population in the cities had exploded at the end of the eighteenth century. Edinburgh, for example, undertook and enormous expansion project at the end of the eighteenth century to ease overcrowding in the Old Town of the Royal Mile, and in London an entirely new landscape of crime developed in the newly born anonymity of city crowds; small wonder that in this new cityscape of faceless poor and proliferating mechanization that turned successful tradesmen into preposterously wealthy captains of industry Charles Dickens decided to make his central character someone who had truly become lost in the miasma of burgeoning modernism.

Is it pagan, though?

It’s called A Christmas Carol. It has Christmas in the title, but picking up from all the hard core Christians who want the “Christ” put back into Christmas, there really isn’t much to do with Christ in the book. Sure, Tiny Tim speaks the epically famous quote “and God bless  everyone,” and we hear about Tim at church, but Christ is never actually mentioned. The closest Dickens gets is when Bob Cratchit says how Tim

“… hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

Wait. Who is that? Sure we can reasonably presume he means the Nazarene, but the vagueness is important. It isn’t a vision of God or the Christ that causes Scrooge to repent. It isn’t angels coming down or the intervention of saints. It’s the intervention of Yuletide spirits and the bona fide ghost of Jacob Marley that enact Scrooge’s ritual of reclamation. What is more, there is a fantastically complex relationship between the spirits and Scrooge. Death appears as the ghost of Christmas yet to come because sooner or later we will fly out of the meadhall into the darkness of death — sooner in Scrooge’s case if he doesn’t turn things around. The ghost of Christmas past introduces her specifically as Scrooge’s past, but it is the ghost of Christmas present who really shows the pagan nature of Dickens’ work. There is too much for me to point out, so I will just quote Dickens’ description of the ghost.

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp 146161-004-41a7e7acleaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

A sacred grove, the greening of the house, the pagan sacred plants of holly, ivy and mistletoe, the great midwinter feast, “seething bowls of punch” echoing the old cauldrons of the pagan past, a passing reference to the horn of plenty and even the ghost’s form as a giant all bring the pagan past rushing out of the mists of the pre-Christan past into the industrial dystopia of post-industrial London.

As they go forth, Scrooge and the ghost converse, and at one point Scrooge asks why the ghost and his kind would seek to quell people’s innocent enjoyment on the seventh, i.e. Sabbath, day. The ghost replies:

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

There is no recourse to Christian doctrine, holy grace, or scriptural tradition. Instead, we get the implication that there is a panoply of spiritual realities interacting with human beings. It sounds quite pagan to my ears, but that is not where the paganism ends. We actually see a very important example of spiritual interaction when the ghost parts its robe to reveal …

… a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

This is one of the most important moments in the book in terms of seeing Dickens’ understanding of spirit and humanity. When asked whose children they are, the ghost answers …

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

Are there possibly more pagan virtues than knowledge and satiety? I’m not sure. Every pagan tradition is concerned first and foremost with wisdom and abundance, for those two qualities are bound together as if they were members of the same family. Thus in this scene, the jovial spirit of the Winter Solstice claims and cares for ignorance and want, rendering them harmless. They are the ghost of Christmas present’s shadow, his wisdom and abundance covering the painful awareness of ignorance, want and the damage they do to people who cultivate them.

Like Scrooge and Marley …

Of course, the ghost of Christmas present’s revelation of Ignorance and Want is the great scene of Scrooge’s indictment. This is no soft-spoken spirit who forgives all sin but an old-school daimon who is not afraid to throw Scrooge’s own words back in his face. In one of my favourite scenes from my favourite adaptation of the story, the ghost says flat out that “it may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child,” and this is a very important moment in the story.

You see, the spirits aren’t actually there to save Scrooge.

They let Marley die in his sin, condemning himself to eternity as a hungry ghost. Why didn’t they save him? Marley even says that Scrooge’s chains are heavier by seven years! Clearly the spirits are not moved by human depravity to acts of self-sacrifice. What is it that the spirits are doing here?

Well, it’s obvious they don’t have any love for Scrooge. These may be kindly spirits, but they aren’t necessarily pleasant. Unlike the protagonists of Into the Woods, the spirits may be good, but they aren’t nice. It’s not like his death will make a difference in the grand scheme of the world.

Or will it?

We are told that if something isn’t done, Tiny Tim will die. In fact, Dickens goes out of his way to show us that both Tim and Scrooge are both going to die, but while no one mourns Scrooge’s death Tim’s death just about destroys his family — until Scrooge has his revelation at the side of his own grave. We get that awesome scene where Scrooge repents and turns himself around, and then it’s a heady romp to the last paragraphs of the book. It is there we find this passage:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He 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, town, or borough, in the good old world.

Scrooge saves himself and Tim, which means that the spirits aren’t there to save Scrooge. They’re there to save Tim. He is the Noble Princeling: abundant and wise knowing how to appreciate what he has and never hoarding it but using it for the benefit of all.

Nothing is more pagan than that.

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