Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Past, Present And... Future?

"What's Christmas-time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and 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?"
"If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"
__Ebenezer Scrooge to Nephew Fred, Stave I, A Christmas Carol
I wonder what novelist Charles Dickens would say if he somehow found himself visiting Christmas 2008, a time in which Scrooge’s classic anti-Christmas rants are no longer mere idle threats from a materialist heart, but increasingly a state-supported tangible reality.

Consider first: a 41-year old mother of three is told to remove her Christmas lights by a housing association worker - in case they offended her non-Christian neighbours:

[..."]I put the lights up in the first week of November and then recently a uniformed housing worker was outside, and it looked like he was counting my decorations.
"When I went outside he said that the lights were 'offensive to the community'. If I was offending anyone I could understand why he was telling me, but nobody has complained.
"My neighbours are Bengali and Chinese and I know that they love the lights - the children will always point them out when they walk past."
She said: "I told him that I am far from a racist and that I wouldn't be taking the lights down. I'm shocked, annoyed and upset. At the end of the day, it's the festive season and they're staying."
Independent councillor Ahmed Khan, who represents Mrs Glenn's ward, condemned the over-zealous employee's actions.
He said: "Every year this woman puts her Christmas lights up and I know how popular they are. It's great when people make an effort to decorate their houses."
"It's this kind of nonsense that sets race relations back 20 years. That woman did nothing more than decorate her house to celebrate Christmas."

Thank goodness that, for once, the overly sensitive busybody had his scheme defeated by that rare treasure, a reasonable bureaucrat, who remembers what it means for children to see their world light up at Christmas.

"Under the impression that [the Treadmill and the Poor Law] scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"
"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.
"You wish to be anonymous?"
"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge.

Elsewhere in the UK, the tilting balance of power sees the Salvation Army that operates out of Uxbridge, West London, no longer allowed to continue their tradition of rattling their tins to attract donations from passersby, in case it harasses or offends people of other religions:

Councils and police can enforce the no-rattle rule and have powers to prosecute or ban offenders.
The restriction was branded "bonkers" yesterday both by donors and long-serving Salvation Army volunteers.
[..."]I've been doing this for more than 40 years and I fail to see how rattling a tin could cause offence. If I was shaking a tambourine I could do it all day - if I shake my tin, I could end up in court."
Tony Keywood, shopping with his wife Sheila, was among a crowd enjoying the carols and stepped forward to make a donation.
"I jokingly told them off for not shaking their tins," said Mr Keywood, 78, a retired telecoms executive.
"They said they weren't allowed to do that in case it caused offence to other religions. They said they'd been told rattling a tin was considered to be intimidating.
"I don't know who makes up these rules but I suspect it will have something to do with human rights. I do feel Britain has lost its way on things like this."

One doesn't have to be too historically-minded to recognize that this would not be the first time that Britain lost its way, and needed to be guided back to the path well traveled, finding a way to reconcile present circumstances with past traditions. The people greeting Dickens' A Christmas Carol when it was first published in 1843 were struggling to remember Christmas as a day other than for drinking oneself to numbness in order to deal with missing the closeness of family. Today the struggle takes many forms, multiplying in complexity to the point that it seems hard, once more, to see with any clarity what future vision of Christmas lies in our destiny.

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but [Scrooge] dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
__Stave IV, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol

Maybe the grim news from China can serve as a timely wake-up call and alert us to the risks we run in pursuing a modern-age Saturnalia through a self-willed amnesia, snapping our bond to our past:

With Christmas approaching, the authorities are intensifying their crackdown against underground Christians, storming their prayer halls, beating and threatening them.

On Wednesday in Yancheng City’s Pinghu district some 200 thugs broke into a church during a meeting of underground Christians. Before they threw worshippers out, they beat at least ten of them and stole their money and other valuables.
The church was then closed down and a demolition order placed on the building.
“They are developing this plot of land, and they [developers] wanted the land on which our church is built," said Father Ding, who is in charge of the Chengnan Church, which was built thanks to donations of more than a million yuan.
The authorities had offered money but when their offer was refused, attacks against parishioners began.
"No agreement had been reached, and they hadn't even carried out an evaluation of the property” when a “deputy secretary from the municipal government led the gang," Father Ding said.
The police was called but they did not bother to show up to let the faithful have their church back.
On Tuesday in the village of Taoling in Pushan (Nanyang in Henan) 40 Christians were arrested; 16 were sentenced to administrative detention for 10 to 15 days and fined for taking part in unlawful religious meetings.
In Dazhu County (Sichuan), around 30 people were detained and then released, after authorities raided a wedding party at an unofficial Christian church. Their crime was “illegally spreading the gospel,” a participant told Radio Free Asia.
“They took away our banner with the words 'God loves humanity.' They checked our identification cards and threatened that we would be forced to attend only those churches with registration documents recognised by the government,” he said.


truepeers said...

More proof yet that the thugs of the world actually know and fear that Christianity is true, that God is love, the guarantor of our freedom. And yet maybe they only half see it, blinded by their desire to resent the discipline of God's love, that they may control and rip his sacred things apart...

Thanks for reminding us of the real meaning of the Christmas feast...

truepeers said...

BTW, do you know that the snobs of the Victorian world also resented the noise the Salvation Army made in going about the streets?

Charles Henry said...

the snobs of the Victorian world also resented the noise the Salvation Army made in going about the streets?

Yes, it's remarkable how much of history is cyclical. I only learned about the "making of.." details that led to Dickens writing A Christmas Carol last year, and I was quite struck by the echoes between then and now.

The more things change... the more they stay the same.