‘The true wonder of Christmas lies in mysteries so deep that only adults can appreciate them,” Jonathan V. Last writes in his introduction to The Christmas Virtues: A Treasury of Conservative Tales for the Holidays. The collection includes NR’s own Jonah Goldberg, Rob Long, Christopher Buckley, and many other familiar and beloved names. Last talks about Christmas, virtues, and more. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What do you find “achingly majestic” about Christmas? Even with deflated inflatable Snoopy all about the suburbs of America?
Jonathan V. Last: The idea that God would care enough about us to make us is enough to stop your heart. But then, to see that He would send His own Son to be with us? It’s impossible for us to fully fathom that sort of love.
Look, I used to be a real snob about the aesthetics of Christmas — I was a white-lights kind of guy and I looked down on the colored-lights people. But I’ve come to really appreciate light-up Snoopy, inflatable Santa, blinking-snowflake stuff in all its glory. Not everyone is a Wise Man. Most of us are just humble shepherds, out there in exurbia, doing what we can to celebrate the Christ child’s birth.
Lopez: “Children cannot understand the ontological truth that creation is inherently an act of love.” Can adults? Is that a bit of the goal of the book? To help get us there?
Last: I hate — really hate — arguments that devolve into “You can’t understand if you weren’t there.”
That said, it might be impossible to understand completely the extent to which creation is an act of love until you’ve had a baby. Or at least, it was impossible for me. I do hope that The Christmas Virtues helps people draw the line between that truth and the truth of Christmas, though.
Lopez: What’s the most fundamental virtue to living Christmas?
Last: Tough to say. But you can never go wrong with charity, hope, and gratitude.
Lopez: Do you really believe “The Eighth Commandment is about microeconomics” as P. J. O’Rourke writes?
Last: Yes and no.
As Kirsten Powers writes in her chapter, I sometimes look at the insane commercialization and then think to myself, There’s a war on Christmas? Where do I sign up?
But on the other hand, I love giving presents. There are very few things in life that give me as much pleasure as finding a really great gift to give someone I love. Example: A few months ago I lent my brother-in-law the super-awesome Matt Fraction Hawkeye. And he really dug it. For Christmas, I found the T-shirt Clint Barton wears throughout the series. It’s totally obscure and he’s going to love it and I can’t wait to give it to him.
I’m not sure what this has to do with the birth of our Lord and Savior. But as P. J. calculates in his chapter, Jesus got something like $4 million (in today’s currency) for his birthday. (You’ll have to read the book to follow his math; I’m not going to show my work here.) So clearly, giving isn’t a bad thing.
Lopez: How did you settle on these virtues?
Last: Truth: The first two books in this trilogy — The Seven Deadly Virtues and The Dadly Virtues — were my ideas. This book was the brainchild of Susan Arellano, who runs Templeton Press. She’s a genius. And also the nicest person in all of book world.
Lopez: Can you stand by Rob Long’s “bizarrely compelling” defense of Scrooge?
Last: Let’s just say that as the guy who wrote the case for Darth Vader and the Empire, I was an easy sell on Rob’s defense of Scrooge. It’s kind of my move.
Lopez: Could you have conceived of publishing a Jonah Goldberg essay on Christmas without reference to Bill Murray in Scrooged?
Last: Honestly, I had no idea Jonah was so into Scrooged. But now that I look back on it, I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s perfectly Goldbergian.
At Christmas, you have to give kids something to hold onto on the superficial side of things, since that’s where kids live.
Lopez: What’s Christian about making Christmas a “special time for children,” as Jonah describes what Dickens did for Christmas?
Last: There’s nothing especially Christian about it except for this: Kids aren’t philosophically sophisticated enough to really understand the miracle of God’s love for the world he created. I mean, they can get the basics, and you should give them a Christ-centered Christmas (if you’re into that sort of thing). But they aren’t really going to get it in the way that a grown man can be reduced to tears for an hour while kneeling in front of the altar before midnight Mass. So you have to give them something to hold onto on the superficial side of things, since that’s where kids live.
Lopez: What’s your solution to the “melisma mama ”— best personified by Mariah Carey — problem Andy Ferguson writes about?
Last: Two answers: 1) Pandora. Thanks to the magic of which I never, ever have to hear either Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey. 2) Andrew T. Miller’s Birth of Christ. If you’ll allow me a bit of proselytizing, this is — hands down — the best contemporary Christmas work of the last half century. And it is absolutely criminal that it doesn’t have a huge following.
If you’re only going to buy one gift for yourself this Christmas, get Miller’s Birth of Christ. You won’t be sorry. Of course, you should allow yourself two gifts, and the other should be The Christmas Virtues.
Lopez: Have we missed something of the Christmas virtues if “you show up to honor the Holy Family while rolling your eyes at your own”?
Last: It really depends on your family. I don’t judge.
Lopez: What has St. Joseph taught you about fatherhood?
Last: Not enough, I’m afraid. After reading Christopher Buckley’s chapter about him, I will always think of him as the patron saint of both a peaceful death and Christmas Eve toy assembly. Which actually kind of makes sense.
Lopez: Did Mollie Hemingway’s essay give you a new appreciation of Mary? Of motherhood?
Last: I was a little worried that Mollie thought I was pushing her into the neighborhood of heresy with all my Catholic Marian devotion. But it turns out Lutherans love the Blessed Mother, too!
Lopez: What is the gift of Kirsten Powers’s essay?
Last: For me it’s threefold. First, from the earliest concept of this book, I wanted Kirsten to write this chapter — about her first Christmas as a Christian. Second, her essay is everything I knew it would be and more. I’m going to come back to it and read it every year during Advent. It’s beautiful and perfect. Third, I’d actually never met Kirsten before asking her to be part of the book and now we’re friends. And her friendship is something I cherish; she’s an amazing writer and an even better person.
Lopez: You’ve edited three books about virtues. What have you learned about them? Which do you most treasure? Which is the greatest challenge?
Last: You’re always supposed to say that you like the current book best, but for me, The Dadly Virtues has a very special place in my heart. That said, I’m really proud of The Christmas Virtues. It’s going to be part of my family’s Christmas traditions every year. And I hope it’ll become part of yours, too.