What the Dickens – Rev. Caitlin Cotter Coillberg

There is something about this season, isn’t there? Something magic in the decorations that go up around town and in our homes and this sanctuary. 

Something magic about the carols we sing and crafts we make and the goodies that are baked. 

In this season, especially, it’s good when we can, “Sing we joyous all together, heedless of the wind and weather” as we will at the end of the service. 

More than good, really, it’s powerful, even transformational, when together we create beauty even the midst of our worries and sorrows. 

There is so much that we, as spiritual and/and or religious and generally thoughtful caring folk, can do in this season.

We can take what we need from our religious sources, and our human hearts and minds, to make this season wonderful. 

Full of wonder. 

Full of magic.

Full of comfort and challenge. 

We can stay rooted in our traditions and be creative in how we live them out. 

We can make this season’s celebrations life affirming and deeply rooted and fun and meaningful and full of love.

There are many people in our collective history who have shown us how to do this.

One of my favorites is Charles Dickens.

Dickens, like many of the Unitarians of his day, like many of us, was a reformer- someone who cared about those facing oppression and injustice and callous indifference, who wanted to make the world a better and friendlier place. 

He was also a man who loved Beauty, who wrote rapturously about his first experience of a Christmas tree. 

He understood that making this world a better place was not just about seeing what was wrong with society; it was also about imagining how things could be improved… and how we might be changed as we become part of that transformation.

A Christmas Carol, my favorite Dickens novel, changed things.

More specifically, it changed the ways the Western World celebrates Christmas at a time when that change was desperately needed. 

Dickens wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when fewer and fewer people lived in their ancestral villages, the poor faced increasingly harsh living conditions, child labor was an accepted practice, and pollution was increasing at an alarming rate. 

When cold snaps people froze to death in the street.

Things were, in general in Dicken’s time, rather grim and dispiriting.

Christmas had been a wild, raucous, celebration belonging to the English countryside, pagan both in the sense that the traditions pre-dated Christianity and that they were “of the country”- which is of course what the word pagan means. 

Christmas was the one time of the year when meat and alcohol were plentiful and nothing related to farming really needed to happen, when peasants could turn the social order on its head and the nobility had to earn the goodwill of those who lived under them and came knocking on the door demanding food and drink and money. 

Even if Christmas hadn’t been outlawed by Oliver Cromwell during his reign as lord protector and been strongly discouraged by puritan religious leaders,

most of the Yuletide and Solstice traditions simply didn’t easily translate to city life, or the industrial age.

Now, some celebration of Christmas was already returning, and new traditions were already arising, when Dickens wrote this book.

The traditional German Christmas tree was becoming popular in New England, thanks to Unitarians Charles Follen and Harriet Martineau, the Anglican church was bringing back the tradition of carol singing, and families were beginning to give gifts to their children at Christmas time. 

Charles Dickens didn’t invent most of the festivities he describes in A Christmas Carol. 

He did make them popular, that’s true, but what he did goes far beyond that.

Charles Dickens gave this holiday a new meaning, pulling in old themes of generosity and goodwill and giving them new purpose.

He changed the very idea of Christmas.

Dickens dared to imagine that the spirit of the season could be generosity, forgiveness, love, and transformation, that children could be at the center of the story and we could see children as something precious rather than a resource to be exploited.  

He wrote this story to challenge his society to create celebrations that meant something, to give back to their communities and come together with their families- biological or chosen- and to truly see each other. 

This story is a wake up call.

Now, the meaning and vision of A Christmas Carol, like every story, is re-imagined by everyone who reads it to themself, and everyone who puts it on as a play or movie. 

Rev. Kristin particularly loves the Muppet Christmas Carol, which is a classic for a reason.

My favorite adaptation is a musical movie version titled “Scrooge” that came out in 1970.  In this version, Scrooge is a Victorian Era loan shark, intent on making as much money as possible regardless of the human cost to others. 

The street urchins in this version sing in the beginning about how Scrooge is “the meanest man in the whole wide world” – a miser, a skinflint who would probably steal your stocking if you left it out waiting for it be filled with a Christmas gift…and then in the end, after Scrooge’s transformation, about how he has become an incarnation of Father Christmas, as he laughs and distributes gifts and says looks everyone in the eye with a smile. 

“He loves us all and he shows it”, they sing.  

There is another song in this musical that gets stuck in my head every year. 

Scrooge first hears it, chillingly, with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come takes him to his own funeral and everyone he knows sings “Thank you very much” and dances around in celebration of his death, of the fact that he is no longer alive.

This song is reprised, at the end, after he wakes up on Christmas morning, goes out into the streets, and forgives all of the debts owed him. 

He tells all of the people he’d been threatening in the opening scenes that they no longer owe him anything, and the whole town breaks out into song.

“Thank you very much, thank you very much, that’s the nicest thing that anyone’s ever done for me”.

How amazing is that?

What a radical vision of what this holiday could mean.

Now, whatever else we see as a potential aspect of this holiday, A Christmas Carol gave to us the idea that this is a time when transformation is possible. 

We can go to bed one night full of despair and anger and wake up renewed. 

Charles Dickens writing reminds me that we can find cheer and light and warmth in the midst of winter’s gloom, in the midst of sorrow and crisis and a changing social landscape.

We can adapt traditions to fit with how we live and what we believe.

The way Christmas is often presented now may not work for you. 

It may not fit with your complicated family system, or your budget, or your spiritual and emotional needs, especially if forced cheer really isn’t what does it for you. 

We don’t have to like what Christmas, what this day and all the stuff that surrounds it, has become. 

We can keep imagining.

We can continue the legacy of the Unitarian Movement Dickens was a part of when he wrote A Christmas Carol.

We can make this season, this day, about the things we care about.

No tradition is static, this one least of all.  

Christmas can be whatever we need it to be, if we can wake up to ourselves and to others.

In the original story of Christmas Carol, after Scrooge literally wakes up to the sound of bells, after he orders a turkey for his employee’s dinner and gives a charitable donation to the gentleman who had asked for that the day before, he “went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses and up in the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.” 

He wakes up to the reality and beauty of all that is around him- the joy of connection to his fellow human beings and the promise of religious community and the hope of young lives just beginning.

I love that the day Scrooge wakes up to life he goes to church. 

I love that you were awake enough to come to our service today. 

We are a part of a religious movement that has the power to change culture, change hearts and minds, resist tyranny and inequality.

We in this room are not merely counter-cultural, we are culture shifters. 

We have the power to be a part of protecting our beautiful hurting world, to make this day, this season one of joy and generosity and love and hope.  

We can be present to our moment in history as Dickens was present to his, tell stories full of magic, invite others to wake up – to become the very best versions of themselves, present to the spirit of the season.

May it be so, and Amen