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Commentary: The Hope of Christmas Light

By Tom Dodge, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Before the miraculous birth in Bethlehem, there was a spirit of merry Christmas, and it was represented by light. When people of all cultures lit bonfires and candles on the darkest night of the year they were celebrating the hope that, together, they could triumph over the forces of darkness.

The best record we have of early Christmas celebrations is found in Samuel Pepys's London diary of the mid-17th century. Pepys's Christmases are devoted to seeking the light through church, feasting with family and friends, drinking, singing, reading, and giving to the poor. On Christmas Day, 1666, Pepys wrote that "our parson Mills made a good sermon. Then home, and dined well on some good ribbs of beef roasted and mince pies; only my wife, brother, and Barker, and plenty of good wine of my owne, and my heart full of true joy; and thanks to God Almighty for the goodness of my condition at this day."

In the following century Charles Dickens shows us how the corporate darkness of Scrooge's psyche was transformed in the end by his nephew Bob Cratchit's convivial glow. Yet one reading further into A Christmas Carol will discover that the grandmother in the Cratchit household has purchased pink ribboned caps as gifts for the servant girls and pocketknives for the boys. The glow of Bob Cratchit's convivial cheeks is no longer sufficient to overcome the darkness. Shopping has gotten involved.

By 1905 O. Henry's stories show us that Americans have carried this spending trend to the further diminution of Christmas light, church, and family cheer. The love that impoverished newlyweds Jim and Della have for each other in The Gift of the Magi must be indemnified by shopping.

But the joke is on them. He sells his watch to buy her a set of silver combs and she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain. So they're back to square one, except she's got a butch haircut and he doesn't know the time of day.

O. Henry was never able to quite enjoy the sentimentality he spooned out to his adoring readers.

He once said that the cry of wild geese flying south and women without sealskin coats growing kind to their husbands always signaled the coming of Christmas.

The great newsman Edward R. Murrow's Christmas in blitz-ravaged London in 1940 shows us a Christmas in stark contrast to our own. "This is not a merry Christmas in London," he said, speaking to Americans from the rooftop at midnight. Here he nightly joined others to scan the dark sky for incoming German bombers illuminated by the enormous spotlights. These were strange Christmas lights indeed and not designed to conform to the strict code of local neighborhood housing associations.

"A few blocks away in the underground shelters," Murrow continued, "entire families were celebrating Christmas Eve. Christmas carols are being sung underground. Little boys who have received miniature Spitfires or Hurricanes will be waking the late sleepers by imitating the sound of whistling bombs, just as we used to reproduce the sound of a locomotive or a speeding automobile.

"I should like to add my small voice to give my own Christmas greetings to friends and colleagues at home," he went on. "Merry Christmas is somehow ill-timed and out of place, so I shall just use this current London phrase - so long and good luck."

It's ill-timed and out of place for us too. We know we've lost sight of the light when Merry Christmas is a matter of politics and the quality of Christmas itself is reduced to a calculation of retail sales.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.