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Hope in Difficult Times

As published in the Raleigh News & Observer

By Nathan O. Hatch

Guest Column

A new book caught my eye recently, titled “The Man who Invented Christmas.” It is the story of Charles Dickens, and his masterpiece “A Christmas Carol,” a work written in the six weeks before the holiday in 1843 and which received immediate acclaim. The miserly Scrooge, (Bah, Humbug) the downtrodden Bob Cratchet, the winsome Tiny Tim, the fearsome ghosts and the transformation of Scrooge to become a man “who knew how to keep Christmas well” — these images are imprinted indelibly in our minds.

I have no finer memory of boyhood Christmas than sitting with my grandmother and watching “A Christmas Carol” on black and white television. I remember being terrified first by the door-knocker being transformed into the face of Jacob Marley; and then successively by the three ghastly spirits, the final one with clanging chains.

What a relief when Scrooge finally awoke to a cheery Christmas morn.

“I am as light as a feather,” he exclaimed, “I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!”

For most of us “A Christmas Carol” is a positive and uplifting parable. Despite the ghosts, it fits into a view of the holidays as a time of good cheer, busy merriment and appropriate charity.

Yet Charles Dickens intended this tale as a far more hard-hitting and unsettling message. His working title was “the sledgehammer,” and he intended it as an abrupt and forceful message about social injustice and poverty. Dickens depicted ignorance and want as ghastly children who would bring doom upon those who remained callous and indifferent.

Dickens himself knew the terrors of child labor. As a boy of 12, when his family fell into poverty, he was sent to work 10-hour days in a shoe factory. His father was imprisoned when he could not pay a debt of 40 pounds.

In October of 1843, Dickens, a struggling writer whose wife was expecting their fifth child, was asked to speak in Manchester, the world’s first industrial city. The squalor of factory workers disgusted and astonished him. He returned to London, worked furiously and delivered a manuscript to a publisher by the end of November. His goal was to “haunt their houses pleasantly.”

For Dickens the message of the holiday season had to do with gritty reality. The holidays were not an escape from, or a mask to hide, the difficult realities of life that we face. But the season was an opportunity for hope in difficult times.

A big problem with the holidays, now and then, is the idealized view of all being merry and bright, a picture postcard view of reality: new-fallen snow, happy families exchanging gifts, merry carolers around the fire and sleigh bells ringing in the background. Christmas season is a winter wonderland — for people who have risen above pain and trouble.

Unfortunately that is not where most of us live. And particularly in this season, we face unprecedented economic insecurity. For some, sleepless nights have replaced a sense that all is calm and bright. Banks have failed, retirement accounts have shrunk and jobs have been lost.

The essential message of Christmas, like that of Hanukkah, is not addressed to those who bask in good times. The message of this season is for those in need, for the lonely, the outcast, those whose world may have been turned upside down. The Christmas story pictures a sprig of hope blossoming in the most desperate of times: no room in the inn, even for a young woman giving birth, Herod madly killing the innocents, a young family, like vagabonds, fleeing for their lives to Egypt. Yet to forlorn shepherds, the angels did appear and proclaimed: Fear not, we bring tidings of great joy.

The 15th century German carol “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” captures the paradox of life that blossoms not in the balmy days of spring but in the bleak midwinter:

“Its fairest bud unfolds to light,
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.”
Life springs up in the face of deadness and darkness.

The Hanukkah celebration, which began Sunday, commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees defeated the mighty Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century B.C. Those who opened the Temple had enough oil for only one day, but, miraculously, it lasted for eight.

A traditional Hanukkah prayer gives thanks to God in this way: “You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in their time of trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrongs, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak. …” Kindling the Hanukkah lights for eight days acknowledges the deliverance of a small struggling people in an hour of great need.

As I face the holidays this season, I am thankful that our problems, however severe, are occasions for hope. They drive us to re-evaluate what is really important and in what we place our hope. Problems drive us to seek help from sources greater than ourselves, in faith communities and deepened spiritual awareness. They drive us to seek comfort among families and good friends — who accept us in good times and bad.

And may our own struggles drive us to seek how we might reach out to bring hope to families like those of Bob Cratchet.

In this way, may troubles not harden our hearts and make us bitter, but make us more thoughtful, more thankful and more generous. May it be said of all of us, as it was of Ebenezer Scrooge, that we know how to keep Christmas well. “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God Bless Us, Every One!”