Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nobler aspirations fall off*

Call me Scrooge. 

It's a clumsy fit, but I'll wear it.

I'm the Scrooge especially of a key moment in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," when nephew Fred visits the counting-house and tries to wish his uncle a merry Christmas.

The moment in which Scrooge reveals his villainy:
"Out upon merry Christmas!" Scrooge said. "What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?"
He was not wrong, Scrooge.

He was not as right as Fred, who answered:
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!''
But Scrooge was not wrong.

Knowing little to nothing about Victorian Christmas, I dare say over-consumption caught Scrooge's rimed eye. Apart from his own sins and flaws — indifference, arrogance, privilege, selfishness, hardness of heart and head, which I share with Scrooge, as do we all, which is the point — Scrooge saw a holiday gone awry.

Permit me to offend you, but all these high holidays didn't happen at the beginning of winter (northern hemispherically speaking) by coincidence. Our forbears huddled in the cold, pondering the dark time of their souls, or just a freakin' dark time, and hungered for light. Not just the warm, glowing light of the fire, but the light of their better selves, as they sat in darkness and inevitably thought warm, enlightening thoughts and some sense of gratitude, for someone, some thing.

Our ancestors made various and sundry celebrations of it to ward off the cold and dark, with appreciative gestures to companions and community, for keeping each other somewhat healthy and safe. On through the years those celebrations got borrowed and stolen, mixed and culled, decreed upon and sanitized until eventually, by luck and work, Christmas won out and the others continue in its shadow.

Christmas itself through the years got filtered and fortified, stretched and morphed and molded and re-molded, clothed in red and fur and festooned with dollar signs. The small gestures of thanks became the be-all and end-all of the celebration.

The command of kings became the demands of commerce. It's putting scraps of gold and silver in somebody's pockets. The haves get and everyone else pays bills without money to keep up.

"Peace on Earth" became "Nothing succeeds like excess."

I'm all for celebration of goodwill, in whatever form or religion, or none at all — just not so much of it. Not turkey AND ham AND roast beef. Not 12 toys when one or two would do. Not a diamond necklace; certainly not a new car, despite what commerce demands.

I'm the basest hypocrite, of course. What right do I have to shut the door on Christmas as celebrated, when as a kid one year I got the telescope-that-becomes-a-microscope-and-a-periscope, two kinds of Hot Wheels®™ accelerating machines, the game of Life®™, more Creepy Crawlers™© goop, and more than I can remember — See?! More than I can remember! Or truly need or want.

And turkey AND ham AND roast beef.

But even as a kid, even in the midst of plenty, I had the weird feeling that one or two of these toys would have been more than enough. I'd examine my conscience the way a kid would, and conclude that to have deserved all these gifts, I'd not only have to have been without sin, but saved the life of several kittens and foiled a bank robbery.

So call me a hypocrite. I'll wear that too.

This time of peace has become madness. So much to do and buy! You see it in real and televised life, in the unrelenting surf of advertising. But why? According to whose dictates?

While momentum builds for my first modest proposal — to skip Christmas every other year, so we can get a chance to miss it and build calluses for its onslaught — I propose another: 

Give to charity instead (what Fred meant with his unfortunate term "people below them"). Not just a percentage to ameliorate the discomfort of receiving your own gifts. Not in addition to: In place of. Give what you can, find an urgent need, serve that need. Say with a smile, "I wish it could be more," and really mean it. If you already do that, bless you.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
(Oh, that moment always gives me chills. Which is the point.)

Then have a small celebration of thanks to whomever or whatever you're grateful, warmed by the lightness of having opened your shut-up hearts, and put a dent in true suffering.

Time to put the season right again.

Scrooge, after all, was redeemed. Which also is the point.
*“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
— Belle, Scrooge's love lost, long before.

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