December 3, 2012

A Holiday Wake-up Call

From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge has taken a place in Western culture as greed personified. This familiar holiday story has appeared in countless versions in books, plays, and film. Even the Muppets have provided an entertaining version of the timeless tale.

In the original serialized version, four times on the Christmas Eve of 1843 Scrooge receives a kind of wake-up call in the night. In the first episode the ghost of his deceased former business partner, Jacob Marley, appears to him and urges him to change his ways to avoid the same tortured afterlife as Marley himself is experiencing. While Seventh-day Adventists may argue with Dickens’ view of the afterlife, there can be no arguing with the moral impact of his story.  “ ‘At this time of the rolling year,’ ” Marley says, “ ‘I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!’ ”1

Scrooge is unmoved. He utterly rejects his partner’s warning to become a better, more generous person. And he expresses his disgust for all things pertaining to the Christmas holiday season.

Then, in each of three succeeding episodes predicted by Marley’s ghost, he is confronted by a different spirit: the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas future. In these last three visitations, he sees, respectively, scenes from his childhood and youth that brought him to his distaste for Christmas; present unfortunate conditions of the family of the lowly but devoted Bob Cratchit, his only office clerk; and his inevitable future if he continues in his miserliness to respond with his characteristically negative attitude to the suffering that is all around him.

2012 1533 page34And Ebenezer Scrooge at last goes through a change of heart. The result of his nightmarish experience brings about an uplifting transformation in his life. This particular story, in fact, was one of the most significant influences in a return during the Victorian era to some of the warmer Christmas traditions of earlier England. It has continued every year since to touch the hearts of an entire culture.

In the latter-day world of 2012, Ebenezer Q. Public is roused from sleep in a deep November night by a single visitation of another kind. At the insistent ringing of his mobile phone, he attempts to focus on the digital clock radio at the coldest, darkest time of the night: 4 a.m. He fumbles for the phone and brings the receiver to his ear: “Hullo.”

“Good morning!” begins the chirpy, recorded message, “this is your favorite ‘Big Box’ Store! We’re calling you at your request to remind you that today is Black Friday. We have all the very latest gifts in media and technology—all the equipment you and your loved ones need to be on the cutting edge. And we are offering discounts so deep that they defy gravity. We hope to see you when we open at 6 a.m.”

And so begins the official Christmas shopping season. In point of fact, Christmas decorations have begun to appear in stores since early September. In the United States the Thanksgiving holiday, first established by presidential proclamation in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, was officially designated to be the fourth Thursday of each November. Later, because the day after Thanksgiving became a kind of unofficial extension of the holiday to make a four-day weekend, many took the opportunity to begin their holiday shopping on that Friday.

Noticing this annual uptick in traffic, merchandisers began to capitalize by offering big sales to lure even more consumers into their stores. Economists have since pointed out that the purchases on that particular November Friday—the day after Thanksgiving—have become a threshold for the annual profits of many retail companies. For many businesses, the sometime frenzied shopping on that day has put them in the black for the first time in the year. Hence: “Black Friday.”

So the very day that officially kicks off the holiday shopping for the season celebrating the birth of Christ has become designated as Black Friday. On a number of levels, this seems so wrong.

In a letter, C. S. Lewis expressed his own complaint “about the horrid commercial racket they have made out of Christmas. I send no cards,” he said, “and give no presents except to children.”2  Sounds almost like Ebenezer Scrooge, except that Lewis’ objection to what the holiday had become rises from his wish for a return to the profound spiritual origins of Christmas.

And Christians aren’t the only people who may decry the celebration of consumerism at this time of year. Other faith groups who are trying at about the same time to observe religious holidays—Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and so on—also feel flattened by the profit-making steamroller.

So in the waning few weeks of each year, the media occasionally feature voices of all persuasions crying for a return to the simple, traditional blessings of the holiday season. In editorials, blogs, commentaries, satire, they tend to hold Christians responsible for what Christmas has become. Somehow, in the minds of many, Christianity and commercialism have become inseparably joined.

But the first Christmas—at whatever season of the year it occurred historically—was the antithesis of commercialism. There was no exchange of material goods, no expectation of financial profit, no slash in prices, no chaotic rush for bargains.

There was indeed a gift. It was a gift of unimaginable worth. And God had intended this greatest of all Christmas presents from before the beginning. The apostle Paul speaks of the “hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began” (Titus 1:2).3

“The plan for our redemption was not an afterthought, a plan formulated after the fall of Adam. It was a revelation of ‘the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal.’ Romans 16:25, R. V. It was an unfolding of the principles that from eternal ages have been the foundation of God’s throne.” 4

With obvious attention to meticulous detail, God avoided the rush and did His shopping early—eons before that first Christmas. His gift to humanity was at great cost to Himself, but without the slightest hesitation His love prompted this unfathomable expression of His grace.

And now, in the coldest, darkest time of the night in human history, He sounds a final, electrifying wake-up call. It is as old as time itself and as current as the rising of this morning’s sun: “Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch” (1 Thess. 5:6).

1.  <Http://>, accessed Oct. 29, 2012.
2.  Martindale, Wayne, and Jerry Root, eds., The Quotable Lewis (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1990), p. 104.
3.  Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references in this piece are from the New King James Version of the Bible.
4.  The Desire of Ages, p. 22.

Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.