One writer against Christmas went so far as to say that the shopkeepers for their own commercial purposes alone sustain Christmas Day. I am not sure whether he said that the shopkeepers invented Christmas Day. Perhaps he thought that the shopkeepers invented Christianity. It is a quaint picture, the secret conclave between the cheese-monger, the poulterer, and the toy-shop keeper, in order to draw up a theology that shall convert all Europe and sell some of their goods. Opponents of Christianity would believe anything except Christianity. That the shopkeepers make Christmas is about as conceivable as that the confectioners make children. It is about as sane as that milliners manufacture women.–G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, January 13, 1906.
Exactly a century ago this Christmas-tide, Chesterton, with no little amusement, attacked the central heresy about whether the commercial side of Christmas invented this memorable feast, or whether Christmas came first and the commercialism came later, as a kind of prosperous afterthought. The very idea that commercial folks could get together in a backroom to dream up a theology explaining the core idea of Christmas, then proceed to convince the world of its truth, all so that the merchants could make a bundle of money during the otherwise-dull winter solstice, is, on the face of it, absurd.
Shopkeepers did not, in their greed or entrepreneurship, dream up Christmas. Neither did theologians. It is the other way around. Christmas, being what it is, a gift of no merely human origin, is a boon to shopkeepers and a stimulus to theologians. It is closer to the truth to say that Christmas invented shopkeepers and theologians, than it is to say that shopkeepers and theologians manufactured Christianity. Shopkeepers antedated Christianity. In Africa and Asia today, the shopkeepers are most likely to be Hindus or Arabs or Chinese. So shopkeepers did not need Christianity to be shopkeepers. It seems less clear, however, whether theologians could exist without Christmas.
No theologian could invent Christmas from the fervid ponderings of his own mind. Too few in this guild can, in fact, accurately explain what Christmas is about once it was invented not by themselves. Many opponents of Christianity “would believe anything except Christianity.” That is, many would do anything but understand what exactly it is that constitutes the precise explication of Christmas.
Some relation does exist between what we understand Christmas to be and how festively we celebrate it, or how inappropriately celebrate it, or refuse to celebrate it, as the case may be. Christmas customs and traditions should exist in order to explain more profoundly what the feast is about. Too often, however, they obscure what it is about. Unless they were inspired by the truth of the feast and lead back to it, customs can, if we are not careful, lead us away from the heart of Christmas.
An ex-student of mine was in town recently. She, an American, had married a Spaniard, has a daughter. Their family spent some time in Switzerland. She laughed that one year her daughter had three “Christmases”–St. Nicholas Day in Switzerland, Christmas Day in Philadelphia, and the Feast of the Three Kings in Spain. These are all gift=giving and receiving days.
The American Christmas, like its population, is a collection and mixture, even a hodge-podge, of Christmas traditions from all over the world rolled into one. We add our own touches with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” the ubiquitous and improbable Rudolf, and “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”
Mexican traditions of the lighted candles in sand bags to guide the Holy Family to our homes are found in the southwest. We all have, brightened with the latest technology, German Christmas trees, when we do not have artificial ones, made in China. Some have the English Yule Logs. Chesterton thought that the modern Christmas mood was largely the invention of Dickens. Santa Claus, though himself from Bari in Italy via a town in Turkey, has Scandinavian origins. Some reactionary people actually have mangers and cribs. I was once in Oberammergau in Bavaria where they produce wonderful wood carvings of the Nativity scenes sold all over the world.
There are purists who only want such Nativity scenes, no pagan greenery. Likewise, we find and ideologues who want anything but Nativity scenes, especially where anyone can see them. The early Puritans in New England forbad Christmas. There was a time a couple of years ago when greeting someone with a cheery “Merry Christmas” violated your neighbor’s constitutional right to your silence. No one wants to be reminded of the day. And we all know the madness of substituting “Holiday” Parties for “Christmas” Parties. I refuse to go to anything called a “Holiday” party during the Christmas season.
School systems seem to have taken the lead in driving out any reference to Christmas, even its name. “Winter” not “Christmas” breaks are in order. We fear not only the idea of Christmas, but the very word “Christmas.” I sometimes suspect there is more here than meets the eye. It is not just a question of “imposing” Christmas on others, but the unsettling sense that a joy is connected with this feast that cannot be admitted to exist. If Christmas is not a natural “right” for everyone of whatever persuasion, it must be gradually prohibited as a private privilege for anyone.
At bottom, however, Christmas cannot be held or enjoyed except on its own terms, that is, except on condition of acknowledging what it is that we celebrate. Christmas not only means that a Child is born unto us, but that, because of this birth, this world is not sufficient to us, not our final home. And Christmas is the feast of the home, both our family home and our eternal home. We live in the first age in the history of the world, aside from Plato’s Republic, that questions both the proper make-up of a home, with husband, wife, and children, and actually engineers alternatives to it.
We Prepare Ye…
Roughly, there are two contrary traditions about Christmas and how properly to celebrate it. One is the “expectation” approach, the waiting-for-something-to-happen time of the year, the longing for the real explanation of what we are. This season in the Church is called “Advent.” It recalls the long preparation for the coming of Christ that we see in the Old Testament. In the 25th Chapter of Isaiah, we read, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” These are menus we Christians anticipate for Christmas.
We are to renew its mood and atmosphere in the month before Christmas. Of course, if someone sees no such expectant thing in the Old Testament, then Christmas, as we Christians know it, must seem like an imaginary illusion. Christians hold that solid textual, historical, and theoretical foundations exist for what they maintain about the Birth of Christ in Bethlehem, who He was, where He came from, both His far-reaching origins in a Jewish family, and in His transcendent origin as the Word now made flesh, the Son of God, to dwell amongst us
The “anticipation” approach is one of expectation, of a hushness over the world, even of penance. Advent contains a sense both of our unworthiness and of our longings. “Veni, veni, Emmanuel, Captivum solve Israel….” Preparations for Christmas begin to be seen in the streets and shops around Thanksgiving time in this country. Even in towns and cities that insist on practicing paganism in their decorations, whose public squares are truly naked, with only lights and greens and tinsel, no crèches, no angels singing on high, it is difficult to avoid the impression that, nevertheless, something not yet here is coming in the stillness of the night, in the “Silent Night, Holy Night.”. Indeed, in areas where the Nativity scenes are still allowed, or in homes and churches that have them, the full Manger Scene, with Joseph, Mary, and the Child, the shepherds, does not appear until Christmas Eve.
However, in most cities, usually a radio station or two are still free to play the well-known and not so well-known Christmas music, from the classic traditions to those of various ethnic origins, even liturgical music. It is not uncommon to find CD’s or other forms of recorded music with all of this music performed by finest orchestras and vocalists to be best-sellers. But if one likes bluegrass or country music, these stations specializing in it are sometimes very good in keeping, playing, and indeed composing Christmas music. It may be easier to drive the Christ Child out of the public square than out of the airwaves.
In any case, plans are made, presents bought, cards sent, homes decorated. Students come home, relatives plan to meet. Christmas, as I hinted above, is a season for food and drink, egg nog, wassail. Traditions and memories are kept alive simply by the smell of mince-meat pie, or turkey, or popcorn balls, or “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Reds and greens appear in our garb.
Still behind all of these preparations lies the expectation, the sense of something being given to us, something intended for us but about which we have no control. We are not worthy. It is a gift, not a reward, not something earned. Yet it comes because we sense something lacking to us. We await. No real appreciation of something can exist unless we also wait for it, wait in some awe.
The second tradition is what I might call the “celebration” tradition, the Twelve Days of Christmas, the days from Christmas to the Feast of the Magi, the Three Kings in January, the Feasts of Stephen, the Holy Innocents, Beckett, and good King Wenseslaus in-between, with the rather secular New Year’s Day being thrown for good measure. The dating of Christmas does seem to have something to do with supplanting pagan feasts, but also, as Chesterton said, with keeping what is best in the pagan traditions. Like any birthday of any given human being, Christmas, also the birth of one of our kind, cannot be fathomed in one day. Yet its own day, Christmas Day, is the best day. A celebration is what we do when something beyond our powers or sometimes even beyond our comprehension happens to us, something that is addressed to the heart of things, to our very meaning, to our very souls.
Easter Will Come
Of course, both the anticipation and the celebration are essential to Christmas. Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem because of a “decree that went out from Caesar Augustus.” How remarkable in the Gospel of Luke is this “coincidence,” this linking of the first Roman emperor with the birth of the Son of Man in a manger, in that particular place at the origins of the House of David. But few knew of this event when it happened. Though angels were singing on high, it was a whole before a couple of Roman historians even hinted at it. Christmas is not a feast of great events in this world. Rather it is a feast that reminds that great things take place in small towns, in out of the way places, things that need time to grow, to flourish.
Rush Limbaugh one day talked of a book called The War Against Christmas. No doubt there is such a war. Christmas seems to bring out in some a certain kind of venom that strikes us Christians as bordering on the diabolical. “Why is this most tender of feasts subject to such resentment?” we wonder to ourselves. In these days of an often-intolerant tolerance, we hesitate to speculate. We know of the words spoken of this Child born amongst us that many would rise and fall because of Him. A sword would pierce the heart of His mother. He could not be ignored, even if rejected, perhaps especially if rejected. Such things go against the mood of our age, yet are more true in our age than ever before.
In the Breviary for Christmas Eve, we find a sermon of the great Augustine. “Awake, mankind!” he tells us. “For your sake God has become man…. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.” Is this the clue we need? “You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh.” We do not like to be reminded of our sinfulness. We do not like to know what is wrong so that we are left free to do what we will.
On Christmas Eve, our redemption is at hand. But it does not work itself out as we might like, as we would have done it if we were in charge. The shadow of the Cross hovers over the Manger. But what happens is for “our sake.” We are to be “awake,” almost as if it is possible for us to miss the most momentous thing that has happened to our kind. We can, indeed, choose not to see.
About Christmas an incredible concreteness is found. Little things must be done for ordinary people, by ordinary people, ourselves included. John says in his first letter, “This is what we proclaim to you, what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have touched–we speak of the word of life….” Shopkeepers did not invent Christmas. Neither did the theologians.
What we most associate Christmas with is a gift. A gift is not something we can demand, not something that is due to us. Ultimately, the structure of the universe is first to be understood as a gift. Who made Christmas? “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” It has never been put more succinctly. We can choose other explanations and no doubt we do. All gifts must be freely received by those to whom they are freely given. This is the principle upon which the universe is constructed.
–Father James V. Schall, S. J., is a professor of government at Georgetown University. He is author of, among other books, Another Sort of Learning.