The Morning After

dickens_gurney_head

Quite apart from seeing a live performance of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has been on my mind a bit this Christmas season. I suppose that’s not surprising since it has been suggested that Dickens “invented” the modern Christmas, but it is really, I think, because of how the wider world seems to be spinning backwards. The poor have always been a personal concern of mine. I grew up poor and I know how much suffering it entails. My case was a rather mild poverty—we were never out on the street, and we didn’t actually go hungry. We had nothing in the way of luxuries, though, and I could see the possibilities even as I could see the sky where the boards on the roof were pulling apart. It wouldn’t have taken much for us to have been cast out in a cold Pennsylvania winter. Others have it much worse.

On my daily walks to work, I see the homeless. Some sleep in cardboard boxes, some in tents. Others are out under the stars. One morning I walked by a particularly creepy and sad sight of a person sitting, shrouded in a blanket over his or her head, on a subway vent to catch some of the ambient heat. I know that I don’t have the means to buy each one a meal. Their number has been going up, not down. And I think of Bob Cratchit, threatened and bullied by Ebenezer Scrooge. He will lose his job if he’s not in early today, the day after Christmas. Because of his change of heart, Scrooge buys his clerk a pot of “smoking bishop.” And herein lies the only possible cheer.

My wife got me started on Dickens. She also sent me a story from NPR on smoking bishop. It seems, according to the story by Anne Bramley, that British Protestants delighted in making fun of church offices by naming their tipples after titles. Churchmen (and they were men) were largely exempt from being poor and, according to historians, often supported the Poor Laws that made the fate of the poverty-stricken even worse. In a kind of perverse revenge against privilege, drinks were named after various ecclesiastical offices. There’s little that the poor can do, except to try to find the scant humor in a situation where no one has the reach of a Charles Dickens anymore. Ebenezer, unlike Bob, is a biblical name. It means “stone of help.” In these chilly days dare we hope that help may come, even from a stone?

Feasting

In addition to music, Christmas has also been associated with seasonal foods. Unlike today, when we think of foods primarily in terms of either fast food or culinary sophistication, Christmas dishes of yesteryear often had religious symbolism. While singing an English carol, for instance, you might hear of figgy pudding. I tried my first when living in the United Kingdom and it was nothing like the images its name conjures. It is more like a dense cake made of raisins and dried fruit, set aflame to burn off the brandy. Sometimes it is topped with holly. According to an interview on NPR, the Christmas dessert, in addition to taking weeks to make, contains thirteen ingredients, to symbolize Christ and the apostles. The holly is to represent the crown of thorns, and the flames the passion. That’s a lot of theology to stomach. (In seminary I had friends who used food analogies for theological purposes, but I suspect they didn’t know it was such an ancient tradition.)

Christmas cheer, I would’ve been shocked to learn as a child, generally involved spirits. For example in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens reverses his entrepreneurial relationship with Bob Crachit over a bowl of smoking bishop. I had always supposed this was a kind of soup or stew, but, again NPR comes to the rescue with a piece about Christmas drinks. Smoking bishop was made of port, and, according to the NPR story by Anne Bramley, is of the class of Protestant drinks called “ecclesiastics.” These were various alcoholic drinks named after Catholic church offices that Protestants used to poke fun at the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic tradition.

Christmas

A Christmas Tree primer

It is difficult to conceive of anything more basic than food and drink. All living things require nourishment. It stands to reason that when religious sensibilities began to appear that they would certainly be associated with the necessities of life. Holidays, as necessary breaks from the mundane, offer opportunities for bringing theology to the table. The most basic of ingredients, as any observer of biblical holidays knows, can contain more than just nutrients and roughage. There is a symbolism in what we eat. In these days when it is fashionable to declare religion nothing but stuff and nonsense, it can’t hurt to stop and look at what might be on our plate or in our cup before declaring it to be mere animal nourishment.