I suppose that if there is a real symbol of a Victorian Christmas, it is A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, first published in 1843. Dickens professed to be a Christian, and that seems to be documented in a number of places. His A Tale of Two Cities is fundamentally a story of salvation and resurrection. The paradoxes, problems, and solutions in the life of Sydney Carton (number twenty-three) are summed-up in Christ’s words: “I am the resurrection and the life.” These words are quoted at least four times in the novel.
Yet Dickens was not a Charles Haddon Spurgeon (the Victorian era’s “Prince of Preachers”), nor was he a Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ), and I’m guessing it is possible to read all of Dickens’s works, including A Tale of Two Cities, and not “get the message.” Such issues have been written about at length by others, as they grapple with the issues of what it takes to be a Christian, and as they attempt to apply the criteria to Dickens.
This being the situation, it can be refreshing when a Victorian-era author transmits an undisguised Christian message in his or her writings. This was the case in more than one of Angelo J. Lewis’s contributions to London Society, under James Hogg’s editorship. Below I quote from Lewis’s “Over the Snow,” which was published in the London Society Christmas Number for 1865:
There was a long quiet pause, in which nothing was heard save the heavy breathing of the dying girl, and the hard tick of the clock on the mantelpiece, counting her life away.
The solemn stillness was broken at last, by a voice so faint and low, the listeners had to bend forward to catch the parting words. ‘Mother dear, where are you? I can’t see you! How dark it in getting.—Hark! they are calling to me.’
The dying arms drew the babe closer in a last embrace. ‘Mother dear—baby—don’t forget. God bless–‘ And then the soul flew away with the blessing on its lips, and sped to finish its loving prayer at the foot of the great white Throne.
A corner of the window-curtain had fallen aside, and through the opening a stray sunbeam crept in, and fell, quartered by an intersection of the lattice, upon the white coverlet. Was it an omen? Was it chance? The lifeless form, with a smile on its silent lips, lay sleeping UNDER THE SHADOW OF THE CROSS.
And now, as the freed soul shook the earth from its wings, and spread its pinions for its heavenward flight, the church-bells burst forth with their chime of joy and gladness, in honour of the Christmas morn. The sound of the joyous peal floated into the death-chamber, and brought sweet hope and peace to the aching hearts within. The mother’s face was sad, but the look of weary longing had passed away. ‘God knows best, Davy dear. Without this bitter cup, mayhap we wouldn’t have had peace and good-will in our hearts to-day. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be His name!’
* * * * *
A sad Christmas story—say you? Is it so? Perhaps it is; but there are Christmas tears as well as Christmas smiles. The very holly, the token of mirth and merriment, is but the symbol of the Saviour’s crown of thorns; the crimson berries the type of the blood-drops on His brow. And shall we, born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, never feel a prick in our Christmas crown? Not so! To many, to most, it shall occur to be at some time in their lives, in the valley of the Shadow on Christmas day; the season of joy to Christendom shall be to them the hour of mourning and deepest sorrow. To them (till grace bring balm) music shall have no melody; even the song of peace and goodwill shall bo ‘like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.’ But to the happy ones whose loss they mourn, far otherwise. To their truer sense, attuned to the harps of heaven, all universe shall join in harmonious chorus with the sweet angel-song, whose echo is faintly heard on earth at this Christmas season. The pence on earth, imperfect at the best, and the goodwill among men, so often marred by earthly passion, shall fade into nothingness before the ‘unspeakable gift,’ the ‘perfect peace’ of Heaven.
This brief passage (the final part of the story) contains a number of scriptural references. There may be others, but Lewis referred to the following Bible verses:
And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. (Revelation 20:11)
Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward. (Job 5:7)
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,–And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21,22)
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
The phrase “under the shadow of the cross” is an oft-used expression, but I do not think it appears in the Bible. Lewis also includes a Shakespearean allusion, namely, “like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.” That is from Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1 (Ophelia).