Knit, Purl, Decode

a-tale-of-two-cities-granger My recent posts discussing the perennial favorite, A Christmas Carol, got me to thinking about the oeuvre of its author.

Besides the incomparable Christmas novella of Charles Dickens (my previous posts begin here), other books by Dickens retain their reputation as “classics.” I can’t remember my first reading of A Tale of Two Cities, but I recall the impression it made on me.

The contrasts Dickens uses give us a glimpse into this dramatic period of history and upheaval. As the novel says in its opening paragraph, this era was “the best of times” and “the worst of times,” and with the French Reign of Terror as a backdrop, Dickens moves on from this initial description to lay out one of his bleakest narratives.

Dickens was of course closer to the actual events about which he wrote than we are today. His concern about the England of his day (and Dickens thinking there was a possibility England might be following down the same road of sorrow as the French experienced) may have factored into his intent for writing this novel. Whatever his reasoning, he created believable characters struggling through a nightmarish clash of ideologies and lawlessness. There are characters who display heroism and others deeply involved in evil. The book definitely portrays the entire human condition.

Besides the actual tale itself, knowing this story unfolded in installments has always intrigued me. In recent years, I’ve read several writers who suggest serialization is making a comeback. (Of course, if by serialization, these writers somehow equate installment fiction of old with the regularity of blog writing, my intrigue diminishes.) I remain hopeful − but skeptical − that a 21st century kind of serialization is possible; I’d like to see such ventures succeed. So far and to my disappointment, currently available episodic reading material (other than classics like a Dickens serial novel) has failed to engage me.

One of the other intriguing elements about A Tale of Two Cities specifically is a practice described in the novel:  the art of tricoteuse. As a knitter myself, knitting is a creative endeavor I enjoy. The possible genealogical connection with German poet Der Stricker (weaver and knitter of tales, mentioned in this post) causes me to view all things knitting through a more personal lens. (I get positively territorial.)

Hence, the art of tricoteuse as depicted via the despicable fictional character of Madame Defarge bothers me. Defarge turns a positive creative expression (knitting) into a negative record of hate. Dickens shows how destructive and all-consuming Defarge’s drive for vengeance has tainted her “art.”

Tricoteuse also appears in another novel set during the same time period, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. The heroic main character, English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney, employs various disguises (including the tricoteuse motif) in order to rescue French citizens condemned to a grisly death via the guillotine.

opart1In Orczy’s novel, the fictional Blakeney’s portrayal of a tricoteuse seems less objectionable (to me) because Percy is saving people rather than cheering their deaths. Am I making a distinction without a difference here? (I’m open to other points of view.)

Whenever I’m knitting a piece, I often think about the fictional tricoteuse. What methods did these knitters use to craft enduring (and highly meaningful) pieces of art? I’ve read a variety of articles suggesting possible code patterns. I’ve even considered the way in which I would design a piece for this purpose, but I’ve never been entirely pleased with my final designs.

Perhaps that’s the mystery of tricoteuse:  a pleasing result might be too easily deciphered. And then, what would be the point?

A Christmas Yet To Come . . .

Continuing from yesterday’s post, here’s another glimpse of the marvelous universal narrative presented in A Christmas Carol. After the Ghost of Christmas Present has disappeared from Ebenezer Scrooge’s sight, the old man began to understand his own sad, even hopeless, state. He’s ready for reformation and seems anxious to stand face to face with the last of three spirits Jacob Marley promised would appear, this one The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Scrooge is clearly perplexed by this specific presence who neither speaks nor moves, but conveys its message (and terror) nonetheless.

christmas-future-2Scrooge has experienced a new understanding about himself during these night-time visits. He’s immediately aware when this last spirit appears that he will be shown things that may potentially occur. However, the dusky shroud of presence that appears to him is more fearful than either of the other apparitions. He feels “uncertain horror” when the “ghostly eyes” fix upon him.

At this point though, Scrooge seems more than eager to bear what is before him and to “do it with a thankful heart.” The tale that unfolds from here − without the apparition uttering a word − wholly transforms Scrooge. Before the wraith disappears, Scrooge begs:  “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life?”

Even if you’ve read it before, you won’t be disappointed to re-read the novella today. Once more, the question begs to be asked:  what relevancy does A Christmas Carol hold for those of us living in the twenty-first century?

Charles Dickens was a brilliant man. Today (Christmas Eve) represents for us (as it did for Ebenezer Scrooge) our Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Not a second of Christmas Yet To Come so far has been written in stone. From Scrooge’s example, we’ve seen how Christmas Past and Christmas Present offer opportunities for selflessness in the Christmas Yet To Come.

How did Dickens portray the change in Ebenezer Scrooge? It was a complete reversal from Scrooge’s previous Humbug attitude. In Scrooge’s case, it meant adopting a spirit of generosity. It meant swallowing his pride for all the vileness he’d sown and shown to people around him. As Dickens reminds, he even learned to laugh again, and “… for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh.” He learned to heartily embrace the words Merry Christmas!”

Celebration of Christmas isn’t strictly a religious practice. It is that to be sure, yet I acknowledge there are many who celebrate the occasion without relating the day to faith. Likewise, A Christmas Carol doesn’t happen within a religious context, but it is still something of a morality tale. The central character is seeking salvation from the wretched life he’s known and when he realizes how despicable he’s been in the past, he’s eager to embrace transformation (another religious concept).

holyfamilyovalJust before the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come disappears, Scrooge grabs hold of the spirit’s spectral hand. Scrooge frantically declares:

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

The stone to which he refers is, of course, his own tombstone (notice the tombstone in the picture above). For me, Scrooge’s final plea to the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come brings the entire seemingly non-religious tale into beautiful spiritual perspective.

“Tell me,” Scrooge implores. “Tell me.”

Yet Scrooge is surely old and wise enough to realize no matter how he changes his life, no matter how good he becomes − honoring Christmas in his heart and trying to keep it all year − the day will inexorably arrive when a death date is carved into his headstone.

The latter pages of the tale relate how Scrooge honors Christmas in his heart, but the real nugget of the story comes in Stave 2 (while The Ghost of Christmas Present is visiting) when Dickens refers to Christmas, saying:  “… it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”

Interestingly, Jesus offered similar advice in the first verses of Matthew 18:   “… unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

A Christmas Carol isn’t meant to be a religious tract, but Dickens and the Babe in the manger acknowledge the same language of love and reconciliation upon which Christmas is (once and for always) the capstone.

A Christmas Present

In yesterday’s post, I suggested all of us have similarities to Ebenezer Scrooge − we each have a Ghost of Christmas Past in the sense that our experiences have helped shape our character (or lack thereof) to some extent.

In A Christmas Carol, author Charles Dickens lays out (through the Ghost of Christmas Past) Scrooge’s earlier life and how his experiences engrained in him deep bitterness and hurt. Because Scrooge fed those feelings, he had become a terribly unpleasant and inconsiderate old man.


Again using the example of Scrooge’s night-time visiting spirits, we pivot here from Christmas Past to Christmas Present.

Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Present seems a dearer spirit, “a jolly Giant” dressed in a “green robe … bordered with white fur” and wearing on his head a “holly wreath” set with “shining icicles.” Christmas Present carries a torch that he uses to spread goodness and cheer wherever he goes. He also carries unpleasant knowledge (such as a potentially shortened life for Tiny Tim) that he only reveals to Scrooge in snippets.

So what makes the Ghost of Christmas Present so relevant for us today?

Christmas Present is today, this season in which we’re engaged (some of us more than others). This is our currency … the now. There’s no bringing back Christmas Past. Each one in the past has vaporized to memory.

Scrooge, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Car...
Scrooge, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plus, there’s no guarantee we’ll experience a Christmas Future (as Scrooge experienced the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come). Dropping dead before Christmas, dying on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, we probably all know someone who has experienced such sorrow. Dying before next Christmas may not be a pleasant thought, but it happens. (Forgive me please, if this brings up grievous memories for you!)

We only have today, this moment. I think Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Present tried to impress upon Scrooge the importance of making each moment count, and this ghost “lived” the perfect example. The once-vibrant spirit ages so quickly in the tale, Scrooge questions the sudden change. The Ghost tells Scrooge his life is “very brief,” in fact, the length of Christmas Day only.

If we look at our lives this way − making today count and living each day with the same gusto and vigor − the briefness of life becomes irrelevant. I was recently reminded of someone whose life epitomizes this truth.

The man’s name was William Borden, heir of the Borden milk-products family. He was born in 1887 and enjoyed all the advantages of wealth and privilege. While still a teenager, he made a momentous decision to become a missionary and he focused his life with this goal in mind. (Of course, this wasn’t his family’s goal for him; they wanted him to take over the family business.)

Borden entered college at Yale University, spent four years there and went on to Princeton Theological Seminary for three additional years. Friends were dismayed at Borden’s single-minded devotion to serve as a missionary; they considered he was “throwing his life away.” In contrast to this thinking, Borden continued to move forward. In his journal, he wrote:  “Say ‘no’ to self, say ‘yes’ to Jesus every time.”

While he was still attending seminary, he gave away his personal fortune. Inside the flyleaf of his Bible, Borden wrote the words:  No Reserve.

After completing his education, job offers followed. He turned them down. Writing once more in his Bible, he added two new words:  No Retreat.

Having chosen to serve as a missionary to China, Borden embarked on his voyage. Beforehand though, he received word his father was seriously ill. Instead of returning immediately to his father’s side, he continued on his journey. Another statement was added in his Bible:  No Regrets.

But Borden never arrived in China to begin his ministry. He was in Cairo when he contracted meningitis and within a month the 25 year old had died. Did he (as some classmates suggested) throw his life away?

It’s true he never achieved his goal of being a missionary to China. Nevertheless, the accounts of the years before he set sail indicate he was already living a life in service to his Lord. He was living in the Present, doing what he believed God wanted him to do now, at each moment. Each activity into which he poured himself became an example to those who worked alongside. Newspapers far and wide carried the sad news of his death.

Borden’s short life conveys the urgency that the Ghost of Christmas Present taught to Ebenezer Scrooge. In thinking of gifts for loved ones, our presence is often our best present.

A Christmas Past

1923-xmas-happy-scroogeLike Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, every one of us has a Ghost of Christmas Past. I don’t suggest we’ve encountered ghostly presences such as Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased former business partner. When I consider the idea of Christmas Past, I’m looking through the lens of experiences that have marked our lives, sometimes adversely, to contribute to the person I am (or you are) today.

Humbug! may not be your knee-jerk response to greetings of Merry Christmas, though it appears to have been a typical Scrooge expression. Whether you celebrate Christmas in traditional fashion or you don’t celebrate it at all, it’s almost inevitable that one’s life experiences have parallels to Ebenezer Scrooge. Look back at your life. Am I correct?

ebenezer-scroogeAttending boarding school as a child, Scrooge experienced extended loneliness, feelings of abandonment, social and familial alienation. Those feelings brought lifelong scars. Later, as a young adult, his gruff personality already entrenched into selfishness, his fiancée walks away from their relationship. This appears to have been a crushing blow for quashing all tenderness in the aging Scrooge. When in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Past, he seethes with anger, underscoring the bitterness on which he’s fed for years.

Thinking of Christmas Past, the story of a young couple comes to mind. It’s a post-war era and families around the world are exchanging gifts and feeling enough of a distance from World War II to celebrate the hope of peace (though battling nations rarely lay down arms or hatred for long). Optimism is on the uptick. Housing is beginning to pick up, jobs are on the rise, and the Baby Boom is making history.

Still, this post-war era seems fraught with uncertainties:  Mahatma Ghandi is murdered, tension between India and Pakistan threatens further escalation, the Soviets blockade West Berlin, South Africa institutes apartheid, Israel becomes an independent state. Earthquakes kill thousands. WWII is past, but peace seems desperately out of reach. (A perilous world similar to the days when Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem.)

Like Mary and Joseph, the story of this young couple centers on an impending childbirth. However, the similarities screech to a halt there. This young Gentile couple already have a son, born two years earlier and three days after Christmas. Now, they’re awaiting the birth of a second child who arrives late in the evening of Christmas Day.

Unlike the first Christmas parents, this couple has no divine instruction for naming their daughter. When they choose an unusual French name, their seemingly whimsical choice surely creates a stir. What’s wrong with Mary or Susan or Linda or Barbara (the popular names that year)? Does anyone cattily suggest the young father had a wartime French girlfriend of the same name?

No matter. The couple ignore idle talk, focusing instead that this child with the unusual name is their Christmas gift to each other. They suffer no illusions their child will save the world; they simply love, nurture and do what they can to provide a peaceful home life for her and her siblings. (Yes, four younger siblings arrive in the years that follow.)

This is of course my Christmas Past (and that of my parents). That unusual name Renée I wear today had the potential to be Michelle Renée (Daddy’s choice) but Mamma overruled and I became Renée Louise.

In contrast to Ebenezer Scrooge, the events of my early life thankfully didn’t draw me into bitterness and lost relationships.

Nevertheless, my naming definitely worked to frame my identity. Sharing the same (traditional) birthday as Jesus, I understood from an early age a desire to confirm a personal relationship with him. Then one day, I discovered my name’s meaning:  reborn. That I am and when Christmas Day arrives each year, I’m mindful I share a birthday with the Savior, but one day I will be forever in his presence.

This, as the angel told the shepherds, is truly the “… good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:8-11) Good news indeed!

Christmas Is For Children

“It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas,
when its Mighty Founder was a child Himself.” — Charles Dickens

Christmas is such a special time for me. (I acknowledge I’m not alone in loving this time of year, but you might say I’m inextricably attached to the Day … it’s when I was born.) No matter how old I am, Christmas always brings me back to childhood.

When the calendar turns to December, I’m often reminded of two writers. The first is Charles Dickens, whose novella A Christmas Carol is a perennial favorite that brought the author monetary success and literary kudos. A reading of this classic Christmas tale demonstrates the warm affection Dickens had for one of his characters, the child named Tim, crippled son of Bob Cratchit.51aLjlWEvZL

The second writer who stirs my thoughts during the Christmas season is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his time, Longfellow was an immensely popular literary and highly-regarded figure. Unfortunately, the Romantic era during which he wrote began to wane as themes of nature and beauty were deemed unfashionable as the so-called Realism era gained ascendance. I have a coffee-table book from 1965 that says:  “… no American poet is known in as many American homes as Longfellow.” That may have been true in 1965; I have my doubts it is still true today.

Longfellow’s lyrical style enabled his poetry to be easily set to music, and of course, music is a significant component of many Christmas celebrations. Generally lumped into the category Christmas Carols, these seasonal pieces certainly bring to mind the “Mighty Founder” of Christmas to whom Dickens referred, but Christmas recollections do not exclusively evoke the Holy Child.

As a poet who lived from 1807 to 1882, Longfellow experienced a different world from ours today, yet there were also striking parallels to 21st Century America. One of Longfellow’s most memorable poems (for me) rose out of tragic circumstances and the grief he endured.

Originally titled “Christmas Bells,” I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day may not be considered among Longfellow’s best works, but the 1864 poem keenly expresses Longfellow’s deep personal despair (having yet to recover from his wife’s death in 1861 and concern for a son badly wounded in war). He also echoes the sense of universal despair that still gripped the Country in Civil War.

This is a poem of contrasts:  there’s a brazen denunciation of evil, but the final stanza turns the work into an anthem of hope. The poet summons a chorus of Christmas bells, then mocks the “wild and sweet” with a refrain that daringly repeats “peace on earth, good will to men.”

It’s tempting to give in to despair. Following his wife’s death, Longfellow spent several years paralyzed with sorrow and lacking any incentive to write. Whether he managed to find the inner strength to view Christmas again through the eyes of childhood, who can say for sure? However, in his poem The Poet’s Calendar, written in 1882, he repeats an earlier theme in the last two lines:  “My songs are carols sung at every shrine, Proclaiming ‘Peace on earth, good will to men.'”

Here’s a musical rendition of I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day performed by Casting Crowns. I think it’s outstanding. I’ve included the lyrics below for your reading enjoyment as well.

“Christmas Bells” (1863)

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”