'The fun of Christmas,' Chesterton believed, 'is founded on the seriousness of Christmas'
Every year for more than 30 years, GK Chesterton wrote five or six articles and a number of poems about Christmas. Chesterton’s friend and biographer Maisie Ward once wrote that she had an ambition to collect all of Chesterton’s writings on Christmas into one volume. But it was the writer Marie Smith who first assembled a book of Christmas pieces and poems by Chesterton. This was followed by no fewer than five such collections. Chesterton’s secretary, Dorothy Collins, assembled six.
Why was Christmas and its celebration so important to Chesterton? One reason – though not, I shall suggest, the most important – was connected with his love of children. Childhood, for Chesterton, was a time of great clarity of vision. In his 1933 book on St Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton said that the Angelic Doctor’s intellectual grasp of great realities had led him, at the last, to the clarity and innocence of the child. He offered an unforgettable evocation of the philosopher’s death:
There must have been a moment, when men knew that the thunderous mill of thought had stopped suddenly; and that after the shock of stillness that wheel would shake the world no more … and the confessor, who had been with him in the inner chamber, ran forth as if in fear, and whispered that his confession had been that of a child of five.
Though Chesterton himself had no children, he knew many, and many knew and loved him; and he knew that for them Christmas was a truly magical time. As Maisie Ward records: “From the Christmas party at Overroads [his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire] all adults were excluded – no nurses, no parents. The children would hang on Gilbert’s neck in an ecstasy of affection and he and Frances schemed out endless games for them.”
The children loved particularly Chesterton’s toy theatre, for which he cut out and painted figures and scenery, and devised and wrote plays.
But he never subscribed to the notion that Christmas is mainly for the children; indeed, he claimed that he enjoyed Christmas more as an adult than he had as a child. “The fun of Christmas,” he profoundly believed, “is founded on the seriousness of Christmas.”
This is how Maisie Ward explained it:
Chesterton gathered history in his mind and saw together before the Christmas Crib the shepherds who had found their shepherd, the philosopher kings who “would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things; and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete.”
It was, in other words, to do with the search for the truth about human life and the human condition: and that had necessarily to do with the understanding of and unceasing battle against evil. Christmas is the stable and the shepherds; but it is also the massacre of the innocents.
When it came to understanding what was happening in Germany in the mid-1930s, it was a matter of understanding the phenomenon of National Socialism, not simply as a broad political question from which his readers could detach themselves, but as one which, like the celebration of Christmas itself, had a resonance in the lives of every one of them. To “make vivid the horrors of destruction and mere disciplined murder”, he wrote, “we must see them more simply as attacks on the hearth and the human family; and feel about Hitler as men felt about Herod.”
To understand any social or political question, it was vital to see it in intimate human terms: “If we want to talk about poverty, we must talk about it as the hunger of a human being … We must say first of the beggar, not that there is insufficient housing accommodation, but that he has nowhere to lay his head.”
Here is the true meaning of Christmas itself: for it was to allay that universal sense of having no home here on earth that Christ was born in Bethlehem. I find myself returning again and again to that greatest of all Chesterton’s Christmas poems, The House of Christmas:
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home …
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done …
“Christmas,” he wrote, “is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
Christmas was, he believed, a concrete point of entry into much deeper levels of understanding of the human situation than those who simply enjoyed it understood at the time. It was an experience whose true meaning often made itself clear only after many years, sometimes after a lifetime. “The great majority of people,” as he put it, “will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.”
Chesterton always believed in the concreteness of the nearest thing leading beyond itself to levels of spiritual depth we had hardly begun to suppose even existed. Thus, we had to be loyal to the family before we could believe in the nation: patriotism was the result of loving first what we knew and understood best. We had to begin with the tangible, not with the vague and intentionally spiritual.
“We must,” he wrote, “talk of the human family in language as plain and practical and positive as that in which mystics used to talk of the Holy Family. We must learn again to use the naked words that describe a natural thing … Then we shall draw on the driving force of many thousand years, and call up a real humanitarianism out of the depths of humanity.”
Not only that: the more we home in on the simplest understanding of such things, the more will our imaginations be unleashed, the richer and even more sumptuous will the reality become for us.
As he put it in Christendom in Dublin (1933): “The more we are proud that the Bethlehem story is plain enough to be understood by the shepherds, and almost by the sheep, the more do we let ourselves go, in dark and gorgeous imaginative frescoes or pageants about the mystery and majesty of the Three Magian Kings.”
In the end, in all Chesterton’s many writings about Christmas, there is an almost palpable feeling not simply of Chesterton’s imaginative vitality but also of what always lay behind it: his own personal warmth, and most importantly of his love and gratitude for the world in which he lived. As the American writer and actor Christopher Morley said to Maisie Ward: “One of the simple greatnesses of GKC shows in this, that we think of him instinctively toward Christmas time … Chesterton was best moved by love; and nowhere does that love shine more clearly than in all he wrote about Christmas.”
William Oddie is the author of Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy (OUP). He edited the Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004