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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Have Yourself a Very Liberal Christmas

(Yes, I'm still here. What can I say? It's been a hectic month.)

I go back to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol every holiday; I consider it the greatest noncanonical Gospel of them all. Where does that position me in the Christmas wars--as fundamentally liberal, more interested in tending to the needs of the individual than to religious truth? I wonder. Dickens himself isn't nearly so easy to pigeon-hole as some tend to think: he did once, in a letter to his youngest son, describe "religion observances" as "mere formalities," but he also insisted that his son "never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning--I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it." So, he was a praying man--but what was he praying for? Certainly not for a sectarian Christian establishment, but neither was he wishing for, much less actively fermenting, revolution: while many of Dickens's contemporaries characterized his work as expressions of a "sullen socialism," as George Orwell observed in his wonderful essay on Dickens, he was in no sense a "revolutionary writer"--on the contrary, his whole message, with all its vicious and righteous attacks on the injustice and inequality present in practically every English institution imaginable, in the end appears to be "an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent." So is that what it comes down to--all the spirits walking the earth in A Christmas Carol, and all its earthly invective as well, just want us to show a little liberal decency? Well, yes. But as Orwell also reminds, Dickens's platitude is far more profound than one might at first think.

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" So says the Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebenezer Scrooge, throwing his own words back at him. It is perhaps the most powerful line in a story filled with powerful lines. Yes, Dickens's vision of Christmas is a liberal one, in the deepest sense of the word: characterized by expansiveness and sympathy and "liberality," of discovering for oneself who the "surplus population" is, and putting oneself in their place. Modern philosophical tropes position liberty as a concern of the threatened individual and his or her body or property; there is nothing wrong with that, but to capture Dickens we have to think about the term more broadly. Christmas is a holiday premised upon what Christians consider to be that one supremely undeserved Gift which humbles and gladdens and changes us, all at once. Such a gift makes us remember, and it makes us hope too. Think again about Scrooge: the spirits use all that he had ever been given, and all he would ever be given, to reveal just how selfishly, how thoughtlessly, he had and would have discarded it all, counting all of it--family, friends, fellow-feeling, love itself--for naught. In the end, his own words convict him, and the horror he feels at how he had denied his own indebtedness to others drives him to his knees in prayer--and then out into the streets, in great generosity and joy. Scrooge the materialist, the miser, the master of his counting house, suddenly a child again, seeing treasures uncounted, gifts both large and small, flowing from him to others and back again, in all the ordinary world around him. That is the real liberty at the heart of the holiday.

But is such liberty naive? Is it a reduction of the glorious Christian message to a plea for what Orwell called "good rich men" (of which there are candidates aplenty) to come and save the poor, and by extension us all? Yes and no. Certainly to focus on ordinary gift-giving is sentimental...but I consider that a virtue, not a vice. A Christmas that does not combine the familiar and sacred in its estimation of the gifts we can and do both give and receive is, I think, no Christmas at all. Of course this particular version of the message of Christmastime is a little mawkish; in Dickens's hands, it provides no program for world transformation, no blueprint for a better society, almost no constructive criticism whatsoever--only an insistence on how we ought to have, how we need to have (again in Orwell's words) a "moralized version of existing things." A change of heart, of the "inner vessel," and not just a change of outward institutions, is what is most necessary. That is not to say that outward institutions do not need to be changed as well--Marx's diagnosis of private property, Orwell tartly observed, has as much a role to play in bettering society as Dickens's moralism. It is just that, should there be a revolution (or a sectarian restoration, if that's your preference), whatever replaces the workhouses and prisons--and schools and factories and slums and assembly lines and hospitals and asylums and everything else that Dickens attacked in his day for failing to serve the common welfare--will still be no better than what came before...if those who wield power through them remain indecent, unwilling to give of themselves. Dickens could see that. His liberalism--his wide-ranging, far-reaching, "generously angry" liberality--can be attacked by both secularists and the pious for lacking many things, but it most certainly was not reductive to the "smelly little orthodoxies" of the present day.

Nowadays, liberality is often is reduced to a polemical, ideological category, and thus is (unintentionally?) transformed into something easily attacked as unrealistic, and easily dismissed as cliched. For evidence, consider the work of Garrison Keillor, a pious liberal whose politics and beliefs are probably much the same as Dickens's were. Keillor spoken art is rightly considered a national treasure--as a humorist, storyteller and raconteur he is perhaps one of Dickens's greatest heirs--but I doubt any one would dispute that when he turns his expansiveness of spirit to political critique, he is sometimes, well, a little lacking in generosity. There is a place for ideological argument, of course, but to wrap it up in the language of a religious witness only makes it that much easier for those who are trying to point out the place and meaning of that Gift at the center of the holiday to be ignored. Fortunately, Keillor sometimes still reaches Dickens's level, and one can find an untainted spirit of liberality in his works nonetheless. As fans of A Prairie Home Companion know, Keillor likes to spend Christmases in New York City when he can: looking at the lights, reflecting on the past, serving and spreading cheer as best a man like him might. A few years ago, on his radio show, he put down some new words to a familiar tune; the result is deceptively simplistic. Like the holiday itself, it calls for neither a religious revival nor a political referendum, but something deeper--and hence is truer to that liberality we are called to this time of year than all the rest of the liberal vs. conservative talk which pollutes the airwaves.

In the bleak midwinter / all around the park
Tall apartment buildings / blazing in the dark
Standing here on Broadway / and West 64th
Watching for a taxi: / who is heading north?

In the cafe window / little candles glow
Where we met for dinner / long, long ago
In the bleak midwinter / happy times recall
Loved ones smiling, laughing / blessed memories all

Over by the church door / twenty feet away
A figure wrapped in blankets / lying in the hay
Who is this stranger / sleeping in cardboard?
So says the gospel / it is Christ the Lord

Where can we find it / Christmas love and cheer?
Where are the shepherds / standing, waiting near?
Who is the choir? / Shall we sing our part?
Hear the Christmas music / in you heart.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Surprised by Snow

Yesterday was St. Andrew's Day, which we have arbitrarily chosen to be the first day of our family's Christmas season. Well, not entirely arbitrarily; we like the excuse to make and eat shepherd's pie and put on some Scottish Christmas music, after all. But mostly it's a good day to get out all the Christmas decorations and go crazy putting everything up at once, which we seem to prefer to spreading it out over several days. Then it's December 1, and the kids get to fight over who opens the first door on the advent calendar or who gets to light the advent candle for the first time, and we're up and running. Well, that's exactly what we did last night, and it was good fun; we were all set for the morning. Then I woke up to find that about 4 inches of snow had fallen overnight. I got out the snow shovel (the first time I've needed to in over three years--that's what living in the South will do for you) and shoveled the driveway, pausing to look occasionally across the cornfields and lawns around our home, now covered in white. It was hard work; the shovel felt clumsy and unfamiliar in my hands. I couldn't have been happier.

Why? Well, it was just that our family celebrations had gotten off to a good start, partly; we've had our share of November 30th catastrophes too. But I think, mostly, it was the snow. I've missed it, especially around Christmastime. It's not necessary, of course, but like a lot of Americans, the cultural images of Christmas and its traditions that have mostly shaped my consciousness of the holiday are thoroughly north European--if not strictly New England--in origin; that is, Christmas always makes me think about the winter weather and the retreat within, about getting close to home and hearth. And while that's by no means the only mode of thought appropriate to the holiday, it is one that fits it well: winters can be hard, but their beauty is often sublime, thus leading to a sense of hiding oneself way alongside a wonderment at the changed world all around. And doesn't that express the meaning of the season well? A weary couple in an out-of-the-way stable, yet overwhelmed by the world opened up to them. The celebration of something weak yet transformative at the same time.

Snow is silent; it can be forecast, but it doesn't announce itself as it falls, and once it's there on the ground it muffles the rest of the world. Sure, there's the bad road conditions and the accidents (I saw two cars off the side of the road while riding the bus to work this morning). And on the fun side, there's the skiing and ice skating and sledding (speaking of which, we need to buy a sled--with our children having been born and raised in Virginia, then, Mississippi, then Arkansas, we've never really had a need before). But like every season, the winter also has it's quiet side as well--and because the winter is darker, and often harder to endure, its silence perhaps looms even larger, in our imagination as well as reality. It can be haunting, as well as humbling. The idea that our loud and busy world can be rendered slow and silent and dark, and that yet in the midst of such there is a birth, a gift, a little thing--a present under a tree, perhaps--that will nonetheless illuminate it and make it all seem alive again . . . . well, again, I'm not saying that you can't grasp Christmas if it isn't wintertime where you live. But for me, it certainly helps.

I have no idea what Hannah Arendt thought of Christianity as a set of religious claims, but I like what she said about how Christianity--and perhaps in particular the Christmas story--can illuminate the nature of our existence: it teaches us about freedom. "Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe; man is free because he is a beginning . . . In the birth of each man, this initial beginning is reaffirmed, because in each instance something new comes into an already existing world which will continue to exist after each individual's death. . . . [Such freedom is a "miracle], namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected" ("What is Freedom," Between Past and Future, pgs. 167-168).

Snow, of course, is an "automatic process"; it's just one of those meteorological things the world gives us. But in another sense, snow is interruptive and always unexpected; it breaks into our routines, makes us break out the snow boots and shovels, requires (and invites) us to put ourselves out into it, while at the same time making us wish to hide away and hoard what we have. It can be, in other words, part of a story and sensibility that makes us think not about the ends of our actions, but about the actions themselves: how small they are, and yet how meaningful. And, more importantly, about the correspondence between exactly those two: the tiny beginning, the baby's cry, the turn of the calendar on the darkest day of the year, the surprise of a snowdrift outside your window--and the way it is the very fact of such possibilities and opportunities (for work, for learning, for forgiveness and loving) which makes us all free.