The Victorian Christmas popularised by Charles Dickens may be a cliché, but it’s a seductive one.
For those who like to indulge, The Man Who Invented Christmas (released in cinemas this week) provides ample opportunity, with an entertaining if rather nonsensical account of the story behind the creation of Dickens’ magical A Christmas Carol. ‘Fanciful festive fluff’ is how the Daily Telegraph described it, but you’d have to be a bit of a Scrooge not to enjoy it.
But the book that was the centre of Dickens’ own Christmas celebrations is less well-known. Written by Dickens in 1849, it remained unpublished for over eighty years at Dickens’ own request. It was only in 1933, on the death of his last surviving son, that the remaining family members agreed to allow publication.
A retelling of the gospels, The Life of our Lord was written by Dickens to read aloud to his own children gathered around him each year at Christmas. “My dear children,” it begins, “I am very anxious that you should know something about the history of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.”
It’s a book which is simple and predictably sentimental in style: the story of the humble carpenter from Galilee who loved the poor and the outcast, the publican and the sinner. But it’s also a book which bears witness to the Christian humanism that informed so much of Dickens’ fiction and social commentary. Here, in Dickens’ account of Jesus, is the real story behind the man who invented Christmas. Read this, and Dickens’ treatment of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, and the dramatic conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge all make sense.
“Remember!” Dickens wrote at the very end of The Life of Our Lord, “it is Christianity to do good always – even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act upon them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.”
Sentimental and clichéd? Perhaps. But still true.