The Working Catholic: Christmas So Soon?
by Bill Droel
The grocery store was more congested than usual this morning because Christmas has taken over two aisles—miniature lights, extension cords, wreaths, decorative boxes, greeting cards and wrapping paper. Plus there are several gift displays at the front and back of several aisles—trays of chestnuts/hazelnuts/pecans and holiday sausage plus winter ale, which I bought for Thanksgiving and which I’ll get more of later. My regular grocery cashier, who is also a floor manager, mentioned that she spent her first hour in a Christmas meeting: How to adequately staff for these next weeks, how many turkeys to order, etc. I had to also stop quickly at the drug store where the same items are prominent. (Yes, my drug store sells festive beer.) There is a radio station in Chicago that from November 3rd exclusively plays Christmas music until 11:59 P.M. on Christmas Eve.
Who started all this? Who invented Christmas?
One correct answer is Our Blessed Mother Mary. Another answer might be St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who is credited with inventing, or at least popularizing, the Christmas Pageant. But Christmas in the sense of shopping, office parties, mounds of presents and the like is less than 175-years old.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was into a major writer’s block in 1843. His last three stories were duds and he was in debt. Walking the streets of Manchester that fall, Dickens thought about children and Christmas. Back home in London he wrote A Christmas Carol in a fury. The publisher didn’t like it. Dickens decided to pay for the publishing, thus increasing his debt. Of course, it took off and many editions and adaptations followed. The 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite.
Dickens didn’t exactly invent Christmas. But Dickens “played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday,” writes Les Standiford in The Man Who Invented Christmas (Crown, 2011). Dickens “complimented the glorification of the nativity of Christ with a specific set of practices derived from Christ’s example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions and a decent life for all.” Dickens’ influence links “the birth of a holy savior into a human family to the glorification and defense of the family unit itself.”
Obviously, the themes of Christmas associated with the original Bethlehem setting, with St. Francis’ pageant and with A Christmas Carol can be lost in the frenzy of shopping. It is silly, however, for Christians to wage a culture war on behalf of our holy season. For example, no one needs the permission of President Donald Trump to greet anyone in friendship by saying “Merry Christmas.”
Instead of grousing about commercialism, why not use the weeks of Advent to implement Christmas themes in the neighborhood, in the workplace and in one’s family? In particular, why not—as many people already do—use these days to fight poverty, even with small gestures? Pope Francis declares November 19, 2017 as World Day for the Poor. Each of us can make an anti-poverty resolution on that day, and evaluate our effort on January 6, 2018, the Epiphany. For a booster shot of the Christmas theme, read again A Christmas Carol. There is a decorative edition with an introduction from pastoral theologian John Shea available at Acta (4848 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60640; $14.95).
Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)