Gravediggers, Goblins, and How Dickens Discovered Christmas

Christmas has become a humbug. Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge was a sour soothsayer for our times. By and large, Christmas is a humbug these days. It preaches peace, but breeds pressure. The ritual of the mall stands in for the ritual of the Mass. Santa Claus is not really Saint Nicholas. The holidays are not really holydays. Humbug! Christmas is not itself anymore. It is a lost and long-forgotten mystery in need of a good, thundering awakening, which is the work of Advent, St. Paul, and Mr. Charles Dickens. Dickens’ Christmas stories are an important (if not indispensible) voice in the Christian observance of Christmas, and he discovered that voice in the most unexpected of places—a haunted graveyard on Christmas Eve.

Charles Dickens was called “The Man Who Invented Christmas” because his writings brought a true and charitable understanding of Christmas into the hearts and minds of good Christian men. Dickens’ tales jarred the world out of the cosmopolitanism and puritanism of his day, even as they jar that same world out of the commercialism and secularism of today, replacing unholy preoccupations with a holy humanitarianism. Dickens discovered the indigenous Christmas—and it abounds with ghosts, illustrating the Christmastide theme of the union of distinct worlds, the worlds of men and gods … and goblins.

As with most things Dickensian, this motif springs from Pickwick. Within the pages of that gentleman’s chronicled adventures is the historic moment when Dickens found his character voice—when Mr. Peter Magnus conjugated himself into the imperative mood; and the equally historic moment when he found his Christmas voice—when Mr. Wardle of Dingley Dell held a Christmas party and told of the goblins who stole a sexton. The results of the former are inexpressible. The results of the latter are immortal creations such as Scrooge and Cratchit, Trotty Veck, Plummer and Tackleton.

Dickens delighted in disparity and the comedy afforded by caricature, but also in the poetic and dramatic attitude that such symbolic extremism evoked. What could be further from Christmas Eve, from the crackling fire, the hissing crabs, the howling children, the steaming punch, the beaming cheeks, the wintry greenery, than a crusty undertaker carving out a grave in the iron-hard ground of a desolate churchyard? What could be further, or more provocative? Dickens knew the power of paradox and wielded it cunningly. Even the name of this grave-making sexton proclaims the great mystery of Christmas: Gabriel Grub, divinity and decay juxtaposed.

For Gabriel Grub, nothing was more odious than the cheer of Christmas. He marched with spade in hand down Coffin Lane on a frolicsome, frozen Christmas Eve, scowling and growling amid the merry spirits that glowed against ruddy windows, while the only spirits he proceeded possessed with were the spirits in the wicker bottle he carried in his coat pocket. On he tramped to labor on what he called “brave lodgings for one.”

“‘Ho! ho!’ laughed Gabriel Grub, as he sat himself down on a flat tombstone which was a favourite resting-place of his; and drew forth his wicker bottle. ‘A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas Box. Ho! ho! ho!’”

But that was the end of Gabriel Grub’s perverse jollifications. Suddenly, seated jauntily on the headstone before him, appeared a goblin of unearthly aspect and uncomfortable accusations. “What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night as this?” Before long a whole goblin horde descended upon the place with madcap antics and piercing taunts against the man who had come to dig a grave on Christmas Eve to spite the joys of humanity. Thus began the mysterious, dreamlike journeys of Gabriel Grub, as he was given goblin-glimpses of hardworking men, devoted women, and those who snarled at their mirth, till “he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all.”

Charles Dickens was attuned to a great mystery of humanity as he wrote about the heavenly mysteries of Christmas: that people often have to believe in ghosts before they can believe in God—which is the faith that leads on to the understanding and empathy of fellow men. Thus, the ghosts and goblins in Dickens’ yuletide tales are more angelic than demonic, despite their devilries. This was Dickens’ way of sharing his discovery that Christmas was more about graves than grandeur or gross national product. In the words of Fred from the Carol: “I have always thought of Christmas time … when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

As Gabriel Grub found, Christmas morning is the time to awake to common sense as well as uncommon miracles performed by unseen powers that are part of life. The Incarnation fused two realities together in a fresh and fantastic way, and the wisdom of the ages incarnates this truth with lore and fireside tales that recall the elfish business at work in the world, the joyful work of heaven on earth. Goblin stories are ordinary enough, but in the context of Christmas they become increasingly poignant as they allude to the fact that the supernatural is content to mingle with the natural. Goblins and the rest of their kind represent invisible powers of tremendous consequence that move among men, conjoining the secular to the sacred in a wholesome and humane balance. This is the Christmas that Dickens discovered and defended. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, from his inimitable biography, Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men:

In fighting for Christmas, [Dickens] was fighting for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday… Christmas is, as I have said, one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making… For the character of Christmas (as distinct, for instance, from the continental Easter) lies chiefly in two things: first on the terrestrial side the note of comfort rather than the note of brightness; and on the spiritual side, Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy.

There are more witnesses to Christmas than Luke and Matthew—and Charles Dickens is one of them. There are creations that proceed from these biblical sources—and Gabriel Grub is one of many. There are mysteries that subsist in the Mystery of the Word made Flesh—and some of them are goblins. Therefore, keeping Christmas well should include keeping things strange and wonderful well—things such as elves, fairies, ghosts, and goblins: things that combine heaven with earth in a reenactment of that time when heavenly nature took on earthly nature.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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