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Charles Dickens on what Christmas means as we grow older

Old photograph of children looking at Christmas toys in shop window

Library of Congress

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 12/24/23

As one grows older, the biggest surprise may be that Christmas never grows stale or loses its shine. The magic of the holiday remains.
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The Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol” contains one of the famous opening lines in all of literature:

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

That’s the problem with Marley. He’s dead as a doornail. Thus begins a wonderful Christmas ghost story in which Marley returns to haunt his old business partner Scrooge, who learns through the experience about the true meaning of Christmas. After a long and emotional journey, Scrooge is eventually “reborn” on Christmas day.

“A Christmas Carol” isn’t only a moral lesson about one miserly old man. It’s also a commentary by Dickens on the hard times that the celebration of Christmas had fallen into in England. The Puritans had been culturally influential for generations, and they typically disliked the pomp and circumstance surrounding the holiday. They dismissed many Christmas traditions as pagan and the day itself as too prone to overindulgence in food and drink. Puritans preferred a more somber celebration and frowned upon too much merry-making and decorating. The holiday, Dickens seems to be saying at the outset of “A Christmas Carol,” is dead. It’s a ghost of what it once was.

The man who loved Christmas

As we see with Marley, though, the dead can rise. The Christmas spirit can never be buried. Because of the success and popularity of “A Christmas Carol,” which he wrote in 1843, Dickens is sometimes credited with “inventing Christmas.” This is a huge stretch; after all, the Christmas traditions we know and love were highly popular and celebrated in some form or another throughout the medieval ages. Dickens does seem to have sparked a revival of sorts, though, and should be credited.

The point is, Dickens really loved Christmas. It’s a theme he wrote about regularly. In 1851, eight years after “A Christmas Carol,” he published an essay on what Christmas means as we grow older. In particular, he tries to identify where the magic goes as we age. Is Christmas less special as we get older?

Old photo of Christmas tree market in New York City

Loot beneath the tree

As a child, I remember Christmas being all about the wish-list. Dreaming of the things I might receive, I had a habit of shaking each gift under the tree and trying to guess if it was a LEGO set or maybe the new Ninja Turtle Nintendo game that I was desperate to have. It was pure unmitigated greed. I wanted toys. Lots of them. I didn’t want to watch other people open their presents. I didn’t particularly care about family gatherings and was annoyed when we had to socialize and eat dinner before unwrapping the loot.

The gifts, they were like magic. They appeared in an overwhelming bounty of abundance. Toys I could only dream owning, well beyond my means to purchase for myself, suddenly appeared in the middle of the night, wrapped up and mysterious. It’s such a miraculous event to the youthful mind that a whole mythology of Santa has grown up around it.

Christmas from another angle

Now that I’m older, the experience of the holiday is distinctly different. I honestly don’t care about presents at all. At least, not receiving them. This isn’t because I’m a generous guy who wants for nothing and has no desires. Deep down, I still have a greedy instinct I battle against on a daily basis. No, I care less about gifts because now I can purchase what I want all by myself anytime I want. I’m not reliant on the magic of gift-giving.

At the same time, I see the same magic I once experienced light up the eyes of my children when they get their toys. I’ve come to recognize, in my own hesitant and stubborn way, that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive. Becoming the gift-giver has opened up a happiness I never knew before. Which, I suppose, is a gift my children have given to me.

Old photo of "Santa" collecting money for charity on a city street

Does the magic of Christmas vanish?

In his essay, Dickens examines the nature of the gift and how Christmas changes as we age. He worries that we might regret the lost magic of childhood, asking, “Do we mourn the lost dreams of our youth?”

“No!” he answers, but we must be attentive to where the magic shifts. As we age, our dreams develop new depths. The happiness of Christmas moves closer to our hearts. It’s no longer about material possessions but about people. Dickens says that our holiday cheer matures from childish ideas and into an embodiment of virtue and domestic happiness. In other words, as we age, we become happier and happier the closer we draw to Our Lord and our families.

This doesn’t mean we leave behind child-like joy in the holiday. Bring all the joy with you, says Dickens. Celebrate all the Christmases at once, past, present, and future. “Let us be more thankful,” he says, “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.”

“Welcome everything!”

Dickens goes on to capture what, to me, is the very definition of the Christmas spirit, writing, “Welcome, everything! Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to your places round the Christmas fire, where what is sits open-hearted!”

I suppose the biggest surprise to me as I’ve aged is that Christmas is more robust than I expected. It has never become stale, and it hasn’t lost its shine simply because I’m less interested in receiving gifts. Christmas welcomes all arrivals. It shelters the young, the old, the happy, the grieving, friends, family, and even enemies. The saints and angels celebrate it with us, and the infant Christ conquers all. Every Christmas can be greeted with the hope that even as we age and our lives change, the magic is always there.

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