One thing you learn from the doctrine of vocation is that the Christian life includes what we might describe as the secular. The realm of “Christian” does not consist just of overtly devout exercises. Rather, it also includes our lives in the family, the workplace, and the community. This point also applies to how we celebrate Christmas. We are surely right to complain when Jesus is left out of the celebration of His birthday, but those who complain about the secular observances–wanting it to be just a religious holiday celebrated in church, being irked that even non-Christians are celebrating it, and complaining about all of the presents–may be missing something about the scope of Christ’s reign and the nature of vocation.Consider, for example, this piece by Patrick Callahan, Charles Dickens’ War on Christmas. This is a much better and more nuanced treatment than most, but it advances the by-now-familiar thesis that Dickens’ The Christmas Carol is responsible for “the transformation of Christmas from a religious feast to a secular holiday.”
First of all, Dickens did not invent the Christmas customs and sentiments that he records. The philanthropists raising money for the poor, the office parties, the family feasts, the spirit of benevolence and merry-making, the talk of holly and plum pudding–none of that would make any sense in the story if the readers had never heard of them before. Dickens is writing about Christmas observances; he is not making them up. In fact, his treatment of the Ghost of Christmas Past suggests that the customs were much more robust in the old days.
Mr. Callahan does concede that Dickens refers to Jesus and to church quite a few times, in passages scattered throughout the novella. Consider this quotation from Scrooge’s nephew:
I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
This passage refers to the past associations of Christmas time, but, more importantly, note Mr. Callahan’s italicized reference to Christ. It indicates what, I would argue, all of Dickens’ allusions to Christ indicate, that nothing belonging to Christmas, as Dickens presents it, can be seen “apart from the veneration due its sacred name and origin.” That is, that the secular observances are framed and given significance by Christ’s birth.
Dickens’ readers were closer to the time when the doctrine of vocation, which likewise relates the secular to the sacred, was a commonplace of Christian teaching. Those visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past were even closer. But around Dickens’ time, things had indeed started to change.
The industrial revolution had the effect of making work less personal, as opposed to the Reformation teaching of personal calling; and the new economic theories focused on self interest, as opposed to the vocational focus on love and service to the neighbor.
Ebenezer Scrooge, like his dead partner Marley, has amassed great wealth, but he does nothing with it other than to amass it. He exploits his employees. He has chosen the pursuit of wealth over marriage and parenthood. He ignores his extended family. He acknowledges no civil obligations. As a result, he is completely isolated from any other human beings.
The Christmas Carol is about vocation. Scrooge has to learn to love and serve his neighbors, which is the purpose of all vocations. As an employer, he has to learn to see employees like Bob Cratchitt as human beings with families and with struggles, to love them and then to serve them, even as they serve him in their work. Scrooge has to learn to love and serve his family, including his earnest nephew and his bride. He has to learn to love and serve his neighbors in the London alleys who are poor and destitute. He has to learn to love and serve the urchins in the street and the passersby in the square.
The catalyst for this archetype of self-seeking capitalism discovering the true purpose of his vocations in the family, the workplace, and the community is the spirit(s) of Christmas.
Today, too, Christmas has to do with our vocations. Consider our “secular” sentiments and customs:
“Christmas is a time for family.” Our vocations in the family.
“Christmas is for kids.” Family vocation + homage to the Christchild.
Office parties. Our economic vocations.
Shopping. Our economic activities as part of the exchange of vocation. Whereas usually, our economic activities pursue our rational self-interests, our Christmas shopping makes us think about the interests of the neighbor we are shopping for.
Gifts. Giving and receiving gifts is the image both of the grace of God in Christ and the mutual giving and receiving that takes place in every vocation.
Is Christmas too materialistic? Well, it’s not as materialistic as God becoming flesh, redeeming our sinful flesh, and sending us back into the material world to live out our faith in love and service to our physical neighbors.