A literary critic whose name I do not now recall observed that Charles Dickens’s greatness as an author lies in the fact that he could put death into a Christmas story . . . and get away with it. Who, after all, is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come but the Grim Reaper? Only the encounter with death serves finally and decisively to move the erstwhile miser Ebenezer Scrooge to declare, “I will. I will keep Christmas in my heart.” It’s the only path of conversion.
As Americans prepare to celebrate Christmas 2020, a Grim Reaper stalks the land. More than a quarter of a million of those who were here with us last year are gone. And as I write, many parts of the country are facing a resurgence of COVID-19, the virus that took them away.
In anticipation of Christmas, newspapers usually serve up a rich repast of “what’s hot and not”—holiday customs and local Yuletide festivities, recipes, and plenty of pages of advertising. Amidst that banquet, it’s traditional to see—with the frequency of mashed turnips—an article on “coping with the Christmas season” for those experiencing loneliness, grief, and bereavement.
Christmas is always hard on some people because the holiday’s joyful, family focus is out-of-kilter with the feelings of aloneness and sorrow that those who are grieving experience. This year social distancing, individual cautions and fears, and legal measures are likely to atomize the season even further, rendering it downcast and muted while—paradoxically—accentuating both families and aloneness.
A pro-life Christmas season must acknowledge the pain many of our fellow citizens are feeling this year. “Acknowledge” means precisely that—to admit and accept grief. The French philosopher Damien Le Guay criticizes modern trends in funeral practices precisely because, by eliminating the public manifestation of mourning as a period of time, we have reinforced a cult of silence around death. Grief is limited to those most directly affected by someone’s death and is usually only expressed in the privacy of one’s home. In public, those who are grieving “put on a brave face” while friends, co-workers, and even other relatives awkwardly avoid the “d” word. As the English anthropologist Geoffrey Görer noted, today we treat death as unspeakably as once we treated pornography. Honestly shared empathy and acknowledgement are in short supply.
It should not be so in 2020. Many of us know at least one person who has suffered the death of a loved one during the current pandemic. The most genuine gift we can offer this Christmas season, especially to them, is the gift of self and time, the spiritual work of mercy, of comfort and consolation. But this work of comforting and consoling others is not abstract. It needs to have concrete expression.
In Poland (as in many Catholic countries in Europe) the focus is not so much on Christmas Day as on Christmas Eve, and its Wigilia dinner. Among the customs associated with this annual repast is the tradition of including an empty chair and extra place setting at the table. This has a two-fold purpose. It recalls those who once sat at the family table who have passed away, and it remains available for whomever—the traveler, the stranger, the poor acquaintance—who might find his way to one’s door.
This year, the world might profit if we all adopt this custom, remembering those who cannot be at the Christmas table, and inviting those who might otherwise be alone—the widows or widowers, the left-behind parent and child—to join in sharing the Christmas meal. Such gestures of human solidarity should not be sidelined by ad hoc “public health” measures such as those cobbled together by some jurisdictions to serve up Thanksgiving quotas for the holiday table.
Almost ten years after he wrote A Christmas Carol, Dickens penned the essay “What Christmas Is as We Grow Older.” As children, we have something of a magical vision of Christmas, full of “enjoyments, affections, and hopes.” But growing up means putting away childish things to embrace a world of joy and pain, happiness and hurt, infinity and finitude. And, for Dickens, this means expanding Christmas to embrace everything, including those that have gone before us. He summoned it up in this way:
On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing.
“Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying deep?” the voice replies. “Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe? Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?”
Not even that. Of all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us. City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, thy people who are dear to us!
God bless us, everyone.