Welcome to Part Six of our latest audio entertainment in our series Tales for Our Time: This seasonal tale is an undoubted classic, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In tonight's episode the Ghost of Christmas Present demonstrates the universality of the Christmas spirit by sweeping Scrooge out to sea:
To Scrooge's horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.
Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birdsâ€”born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the waterâ€”rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.
But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.
Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving seaâ€”on, onâ€”until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.
It was a great surprise to Scrooge, while listening to the moaning of the wind, and thinking what a solemn thing it was to move on through the lonely darkness over an unknown abyss, whose depths were secrets as profound as Death: it was a great surprise to Scrooge, while thus engaged, to hear a hearty laugh...
Yesterday, I mentioned en passant "Stir-Up Sunday", as the Sunday before Advent used to be known in the British Isles. That throwaway aside had Peter White scrambling for his Book of Common Prayer. He writes:
Having verified the text of the Collect, it is actually: 'Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.'
That's a fine prayer. But I was thinking of it less in a liturgical than in a communitarian sense. Even before its degeneration into a post-Christian eco-worship social-justice death spiral, the Church of England was not much for hardcore God-bothering, as the English say. But it did connect with and enrich the rhythms of English life. Ordinary churchgoers took that familiar prayer and made it into a pun: After church on that final Sunday before the Advent season, they would go home and into the kitchen, bring forth "the fruit of good works" - currants, raisins, sultanas, etc - and then have the children "stir up" the mixture in the Christmas Pudding bowl.
The English took the Christmas Pud and spread it around the Empire. These days, I enjoy an English plum duff maybe two Christmases per decade, but that ritual - the kids in the kitchen on "Stir-Up Sunday" - is what Dickens' passage on the Cratchits' pudding puts me in mind of. I understand and accept that traditions come and traditions go, but today in Christendom they seem to die in a generation or two and be replaced by nothing very much.
I'll be back tomorrow evening with Part Seven of A Christmas Carol. If you're minded to join us in The Mark Steyn Club, you're more than welcome. You can find more information here. And, if you have a chum you think might enjoy Tales for Our Time (so far, we've covered Conan Doyle, H G Wells, Conrad, Kipling, Anthony Hope and Scott Fitzgerald), we've introduced a special Mark Steyn Club Christmas Gift Membership that lets you sign up a pal for the Steyn Club and then choose a welcome gift for them - either one of two handsome hardback books or a couple of CDs, personally autographed by yours truly. You'll find more details here.