“What Christmas is as we Grow Older” by Charles Dickens

Much shorter than his previous story (“A Christmas Tree”), the Christmas story that Charles Dickens published in 1951 is not so much a narrative as it is an exhortation, and from the essay “What Christmas is as we Grow Older” comes the often quoted line:  “Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance!”

Interestingly, the essay encourages readers to be thankful for all associations and memories, good and bad.  He writes, “Therefore, as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.”  Those who have had grudges or conflict throughout the year must bury that ill will at Christmas.

He asks if there is room for memories of the dead at Christmas time and then goes on to describe, in most beautiful prose, that

Of all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us. City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, thy people who are dear to us!

Following this is detailed description of those who are deceased, young and old, lost to sickness or war.

I think of all the negative moments, the stress and complaining that some of us adults do in the Christmas season, and I resolve to return to this essay and its beautiful embrace of life and death to set me on a better path of Christmas cheer.

Reading “A Christmas Tree” by Charles Dickens

Arguably Charles Dickens’ words helped to create the Victorian Christmas as much as any illustrator.

 I mentioned before that the novella, A Christmas Carol, was just the start of his Christmas stories, and for many years, Dickens published a Christmas short story annually in the magazine he edited, Household Words

The first, in 1850, was “A Christmas Tree.”  There are many websites that feature the entire text, one that I have linked here.  The tree takes on magical proportions, as it does in our own homes, especially in the darkened house.  Any plain ornament is transformed in the sparkling lights.

In the story, the narrator imagines the decorations on a Christmas tree and the stories that those decorations inspire.  Early in the story, he describes some of the objects including “real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs.” 

I was captivated by this idea, and I began to imagine how exciting it would be to have a “time” themed tree next year.  There are so many antique stores and flea markets where I could probably buy some interesting pieces.  Craft stores sell other clock items, too.  (I digress, as usual.)

In the story, the narrator describes several ghosts, including one of a drowned housekeeper who wanders the halls trying her ghostly keys in locks.  She haunts the entire house but also a particular room where there hangs that portrait of the man who jilted her.  Scary ghost stories are part of Victorian Christmas for certain!

I find that reading Dickens aloud is the only way to really appreciate the magnificence of his craft.  People who had to read Dickens in high school (remember Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities?) often have negative memories of his difficult syntax, but they missed the humor of the characterization that comes with reading aloud.

My next personal challenge is to read all of Dickens’ Christmas short stories.  It would be a great tradition to read one aloud each Christmas!

In the short story, he writes this beautiful passage: 

And I do come home at Christmas. We all do, or we all should. We all come home, or ought to come home, for a short holiday, the longer, the better, from the great boarding-school, where we are for ever working at our arithmetical slates, to take, and give a rest. As to going a visiting, where can we not go, if we will; where have we not been, when we would; starting our fancy from our Christmas Tree!