Ebenezer and the Christmas Story
Mid-2011, I was working on a Christmas article for a children’s website, and I came across this startling piece of information: “By the early part of the nineteenth century, Christmas [in North America] had almost died out. The Times newspaper, for example, did not once mention Christmas between 1790 and 1835.”
Curious, I asked Google why Christmas celebrations nearly disappeared during that period in American history. It turns out that many American settlers of the 1600s were Puritans, strict Protestants who believed that Christmas was a Catholic holiday and therefore not to be celebrated. And for the next 200 years, until the start of the 20th century, Christmas was not celebrated by most in America, and was celebrated quietly by those who did.
And in England under the government of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 to 1658, it wasn’t celebrated either. Though in 1660, two years after Cromwell’s death, the ban was lifted, and Christmas was again instituted as a holiday. However, from the mid-1600s to the end of the 18th century—almost 150 years—Christmas celebrations weren’t much like we celebrate today. It was during the Victorian era that so many of the holiday traditions that we currently celebrate were embraced. What changed? A lot had to do with one man writing a story about Christmas.
In 1843, British novelist Charles Dickens (1812–1870) wrote A Christmas Carol. Not counting the story of the first Christmas, it’s probably one of the most popular Christmas stories of all time. In his novella, Charles Dickens idealized a certain kind of Christmas that we now base a lot of our Christmas perceptions on. You might think that with him writing such a wonderful description of Christmas as celebrated by Tiny Tim’s family, that this was how most of England celebrated Christmas—the tree, the Christmas carols, the turkey dinner, the family togetherness, the gift giving. But not really. At least, not at the time.
“When we read or hear A Christmas Carol,” says Bruce Forbes in an interview with a regional radio program, “We are not seeing a reflection of what Christmas was like in his day; we’re seeing what Dickens would like Christmas to be.”
At the start of the 19th century, Christmases weren’t like what we see depicted in A Christmas Carol. “There was a lot of unemployment,” Dickens scholar John Jordan says. “There was misery, and he saw Christmas as something that tended to function as sort of a counterforce to the negative effects of the industrial revolution.” So, many thanks go to Charles Dickens for somehow looking beyond how Christmas was celebrated at that time and creating a vision of something better.
I’ve been circling; what I’d like to say is that there’s nothing stopping you from creating your own Christmas traditions that have honest and special meaning to you.
Growing up, I had Scrooge-like feelings when it came to the Christmas holidays. For the past few years, though, I’ve come to enjoy Christmas, and I think it has to do with creating new Christmas traditions for myself, or reminding myself of the meaning of the old traditions. I’ve come to understand that traditions are at their best when they are done to commemorate something that shouldn’t be forgotten—and which absolutely needs to be celebrated.
Christmas traditions should be about celebrating a glorious idea—love.
Are opportunities to show love to those whom Jesus loves being lined up for you this year? Consider saying yes. And not just in your mind: that part that rationally understands that Jesus loves others. But also in your heart. Because if you can stand to say yes to showing love from your heart, that can make a world of difference—not just to those on the receiving end, but to your personal level of enjoyment as you do so.
Decide on wonderful things to do for those you love; bathe your actions in love—and you’ll have one of the best Christmas traditions ever.
A Christmas carol
The well-known tale of the bad-tempered, miserly Scrooge has been often retold through the many years since its first publication by Charles Dickens in 1843. To many, the story has become a symbol of Christmas; yet while most of us are familiar with the hardheartedness, stinginess, and greed of the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, how often do we apply the story’s lessons to our own lives?
The plot takes a wretched miser and brings him through a dramatic change for the better. Before his transformation, he was the opposite of all the good qualities that Christmas stands for—love, charity, goodwill, unselfishness, care for those around us. While Scrooge may be a rather extreme representation of miserly features, he’s perhaps also a metaphor for the miserliness that resides in each of us.
There’s a little selfishness in all of us, isn’t there? Goals gone a little awry, high ideals long forgotten? Do we pass by others without a word or kind glance when they cross our path, too caught up with ourselves to notice?
We don’t have to wait until we become as extreme in our selfishness as Scrooge before we decide to make a change. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if at every Christmas we could take an honest look at our lives, at the things of the past, at what we’re doing in the present, and our goals for the future, and see what really has become most important to us?
In the ultimate act of love and unselfishness, God gave Jesus to us on earth, so that He could teach us His love, and then die for us to purchase our eternal salvation. At Christmas, we celebrate the giving of this marvelous gift. We can never hope to pay Him back, but Jesus says that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40 NIV) Every kind word and deed done out of love—not because it’s logical or in our best interests, but because it will help someone else—will ultimately help us, most often in ways we were least expecting.
Let’s make it a goal—and not only at Christmas—to step back a bit and reassess our life and values and discern what has been the driving force in all our actions. Let us savor every moment while we have it, and make the most of every opportunity to help another human being, because in the end, that’s all that’s going to matter anyway.
—Natalie Anne Volpe (1991–2011)
Searching for Ebenezer
Toward the end of last year, I was haunted by the word “Ebenezer.” It all began when I heard it on a Christian podcast, but the speaker didn’t clarify what it meant. The word stayed in the back of my mind for days, and I wondered where I’d heard it before. My children identified it as the unusual first name of the Scrooge character in Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Christmas Carol, but that wasn’t the Ebenezer I was looking for.
The mysterious “Ebenezer” popped up again when I visited my daughter during the holidays. There it was, written in bold letters above the entrance to a new shop in the village square. “Ebenezer” seemed to be appearing all around me, but who was he?
The answer came when I was listening to another inspirational audio. Out of the blue, the speaker mentioned the word, and also gave a Bible reference: 1 Samuel chapter 7. I looked it up right away, and it turns out that in the passage, the prophet Samuel puts a rock between two places, Mizpah and Shen, after his people had won a great battle against their enemies. This rock was named—you’ve guessed it—Ebenezer, meaning “the stone of help,” and was set up in acknowledgment of and appreciation for God’s assistance. And so it turns out that “Ebenezer” wasn’t a “who” but a “what.”
I can picture myself sitting on top of that big rock. On one side, the year that has just ended, with all of its obstacles and trials and victories and joys. I look back from my vantage point and my heart fills with praise.
On the other side, the new year, full of mysteries yet to unfold. I’m filled with anticipation. If God has always come through for me in the past, surely He will in the future too!
This year, every time a sorrow or difficulty comes my way, I will strive to rely on Ebenezer, the stone of help and the rock of hope. I will make a resolution to face this new year with the expectation that the future is as bright as the promises of God! In the words of David, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1–2 NLV)
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