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Keeping Christmas

December 6, 2010

A friend recently asked, “What does keeping Christmas mean?”

I learned from internet research that keeping Christmas is an expression in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Though the phrase was certainly used in the Victorian era, the origin goes back at least to medieval times.

My mother was adopted. In her new family, she had one older sister, whom she called Sister. It was only natural that my seven siblings and I should call this dear woman Aunt Sister. She was a proper Southern lady. Her heritage went back to a plantation in Darlington County. She was the first person I knew who used the expression keeping Christmas.

When my friend raised the question about the phrase, my thoughts went back to Aunt Sister. What did she mean by keeping Christmas?

Keeping Christmas well means to worship, not only in a candlelight service, but also with acts of kindness. Beyond good food, decorations, gift giving, and family time, it is important to keep Christmas in our hearts.

It was something Ebenezer Scrooge had to learn in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge had become so self-centered that his life focused on material wealth.  He refused to light a coal fire, preferring instead to curse the cold weather in an attempt to save one more shilling.  Like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, Ebenezer’s heart was two sizes too small.  He saw the world around him as a miserable place. The real problem was within his own soul.

As the story unfolded, Scrooge was confronted with the painful truth of his own life.  The failures and disappointments of the past made him a greedy recluse, uncaring and cruel to the people around him.  Allowed to glimpse the future, he saw himself as a man impoverished in spirit without any friends.

The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future confronted Scrooge with his own spiritual poverty.  Through these revelations he had the opportunity to change.  Much to the astonishment of Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge became a different man.  The streets of London were the same.  Tiny Tim still had his affliction.  The transformation that occurred was in the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Keeping Christmas requires a change of heart.

One Christmas Aunt Sister sent me a poem by Henry Van Dyke. Here is a portion of “Keeping Christmas.”

There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you;
  • to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
  • to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
  • to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness?

Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
  • to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
  • to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
  • to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
  • to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
  • to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke,
  • to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings?

Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—

stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—

  • and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem … is the image and brightness of the eternal love?

Then you can keep Christmas.

And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2010

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