There’s more than a bit of magic associated with the New Year. And not the good kind. I’m not talking of course about the “magic” of being in Times Square when the clock strikes twelve, which I’m certain would be “magical” in the sense of being awed. Surely such a thing conveys the sense of participating in something that feels existentially grand (unless you happen to be Mariah Carey). Rather, the magic I’m talking has more the flavor of pagan superstition and wizard’s spells. It is quite a thing that in these modern and rapidly secularizing times, an age which increasingly prides itself on the use of reason, that we would in mass invest the changing of the calendar with the magical properties of being able to change ourselves. And thus enter stage right, the New Year’s Resolution.
The majority of New Year’s resolutions are health related, which only makes sense considering the large quantities of holiday goodies consumed during the weeks leading up to the big day. If you’re a man of means (talking to you Mark Zuckerberg!) your New Year’s resolution can be far more interesting than simply shedding pounds. The Wall Street Journal even encourages the nation’s youth to get in on the fun, making resolutions to “talk in a normal voice when frustrated” or “to do a better job sharing” (ho!). The heady optimism attached to such resolutions overlooks the obvious fact that such things are resolutions, in that they depend not upon the magical properties of the New Year but upon the far more basic matter of human resolve. And human resolve, as even the ancient pagans confessed, was a frail thing. Of course we know as much. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many articles on “how to keep your New Year’s Resolutions,” including the ludicrous and dispiriting suggestion to have an accountability partner call you every morning and ask you THIRTY-TWO ACCOUNTABILITY QUESTIONS. An ancient Pharisee of Jesus’ day or medieval priest would fail to come up with a more burdensome remedy!
What then of human change? One could come up with more reasonable solutions as hilariously suggested here. Or, one could look for a different kind of magic, a magic more powerful and more reliable than the magic of the New Year. This is a central feature of Dickens’ famous holiday tale The Christmas Carol (I prefer the Muppets version), wherein a man whose very name raises associations of greed and hatred experiences change right down to the marrow.
Dickens describes Scrooge as a man whose “nobler aspirations” have fallen off one by one until the “master passion” of gain (or greed) has engrossed him. His former associates, now deceased, visit him from beyond the grave. Eternally burdened by chains “fashioned in life,” they inform Scrooge that he is fashioning his very own chains that will burden him if he does not change. This he attempts to do with the help of three ghosts (the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) who visit him throughout the course of the night.
Not until the final visit can Scrooge see clearly where the path he has charted for his life will lead. The Spirit leads him through various groups of people discussing the death of a despised man. The man’s identity is kept a mystery, but surely both the reader and Scrooge himself know who this wretched man is. As the two approach the graveyard to gaze upon the tombstone to learn beyond a shadow of doubt the name of this hated creature Scrooge speaks:
‘Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,’ said Scrooge, `answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only.’
Scrooge’s desperation cuts to the heart of Dickens’ novel. He has seen clearly what he is and what he will be if he does not change. ”Are these the shadows of things that will be?” he asks, “or may be?” Here is a man intent upon changing directions.
It may seem strange for the setting of a novel about change to fall upon Christmas Day, rather than New Year’s. After all, New Years is the day of resolutions. It is the day of New Beginnings. But not for Dickens. Dickens understood that while New Year’s Day changed the numbers on the calendar, Christmas changed the fundamental fabric of the world. And this is precisely what Scrooge needed, a change in his fundamental fabric.
Such change has always been a part of the Christmas promise and even part of the Christmas magic, if such a term may be used. Wesley knew it well. As he hailed the “heaven’ly Prince of Peace” he also announced that the Christ child was born for a purpose.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
And there it is. Born to give them second birth. Bound up in the many promises of the manger is the promise that the babe born in Bethlehem has power to reconstitute human beings, which means he can start them over again, spiritually speaking from scratch. This is what the Bible means by “born again,” or what Wesley meant by “second birth.” And this is indeed what Scrooge needs. After all, neither we nor he wish to trust his eternal chains to the fragile and fickle powers of human resolve. Better to enter into the mystery, terror, joy, and dark night of Christmas Eve as one man only to emerge hours later through miracle (or magic?) another man.
Flinging the curtains open on Christmas Day, his spiritual pilgrimage through the past, present and future complete, the first thing Scrooge does is laugh.
Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs.
“I don’t know what day of the month it is,” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”
“I’m quite a baby.” Indeed. Christmas magic made the man new. He had started all over gain. He had been born anew. Dickens’ point was not about ghosts and phantasms but rather about Christmas itself. The sheer fact of Bethlehem, God become man mysteriously makes men knew. Such logic is woven into the worship of the Anglican tradition. Cranmer said as much in his Christmas day collect:
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we being regenerate…
Re-generate, remade, born again. It came to Bethlehem just as it did to Scrooge not as a resolution but rather as an unasked for, uninvited, intrusion. Scrooge’s New Year didn’t begin with a resolution, but with an unexpected knock upon the door. And the strange midnight visitation of Bethlehem, God’s intrusive knock upon the locked doors of the human heart, whether magic or miracle, has the same power for each compelled to open by his tireless persistence. Ebenezer’s New Year, as it does for every genuine Scrooge, always begins on Christmas.
This post was written by Rob Sturdy