Yes, it seems like a strange topic for a rabbi. The ultimate violation of “Stay in Your Lane”. But this year as the eighth candle of Chanukah burns down and the calendar moves to the 25th of December, I find myself thinking of Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.
I have to admit that until recently I had never read in entirety the work that gave the world the now famous figures of a miser named Scrooge, ghosts showing visions of past, present and future, and “bah humbug!” Still, I did grow up watching the Rich Little HBO Christmas Special where the once ubiquitous impressionist rendered a fairly loyal version of the story with some extra jokes and the characters voiced as everyone from W.C. Fields to Colombo. From a Jewish perspective, this version of A Christmas Carol was easier to digest even than the Charlie Brown special in which at one point Linus, blue blanket in hand, responds to Charlie Brown’s exasperation with superficiality and consumerism by rattling off the story of Jesus’ birth and what some like to call “the reason for the season”. But no such moment occurred in the Rich Little Special. And in fact, no such moment or even any mention of Jesus by name occurs at all in the words written by Charles Dickens, himself.
One of the few indirect references to Jesus in Dickens’ story is toward the beginning when he has the ghost of Scrooge’s benighted partner Jacob Marley lament that he failed to notice the Star of Bethlehem that had led the wise men to a “poor house” and thus he failed to find his way to another home where he could have bestowed gifts upon someone in need. In other words, Dickens used the image at the origin of Christianity to make a point not about Jesus’ birth per se, but about the dire consequences of failing to notice that others are in need.
Dickens was hardly a theologian and some more openly devout Christian writers in fact took him to task for his omission of more doctrinal elements of the Christian faith. However, so much of the Christmas that Dickens captured – the feasting and merry making, the pudding and the holly boughs, as well as the alms for the poor – are part and parcel of the American celebration of Christmas. While the “true meaning of Christmas” will always be a hot button issue and an important one for many who are invested in the Christian faith, Dickens helped lend weight to the celebration of the day as a time for enjoying ones blessings with an eye toward giving back to those less fortunate. Ironically, A Christmas Carol helps teach a lesson meaningful beyond the Christian faith and ultimately worth thinking about for those of us of different faiths or philosophies who have no intention of celebrating the day itself or connection to its deeper significance for our Christian brothers and sisters.
While the trappings of ghosts dragging their purgatorial chains or wearing black shrouds seems far from the world of Jewish traditions, the core lesson of being aware of one’s mortality is echoed in our own days of utmost holiness. The Jewish tradition features these insights in both the majestic liturgy and deathly white cloaks of the High Holidays, as well as the everyday emphasis on tzedaka, the responsibility to ensure that that with which we are blessed is put to good use and ends up in the hands of those in need. So too is joyful gratitude a key element in our holidays including Shabbat, a weekly opportunity for feasting, singing, and hosting each other.
Christmas as an occasion to celebrate the beginnings of Christianity is for me an opportunity to wish some of my friends and neighbors well. Christmas as a red letter day on the American calendar to talk up Santa Claus and buy things does not interest me as a Jew and also leaves some religious Christians I know, unimpressed. However, a chance to recognize one way or another what Scrooge finally sees: to realize that our steps, physical and otherwise, must not be bounded by the small world of self-interest, to recognize the preciousness of life and the good that can come from showing appreciation to others and even treating yourself to some joy… To that part of Christmas, I would be the last to say “Bah humbug.” For those of us who have just celebrated Chanukah, may the light continue to shine and joy continue to increase. For those who celebrate Christmas, may it be “a merrier Christmas” than seen “for many a year.” And, may this day and every day be a blessing for each of us, “every one.”