Christmas, we all know (despite the common belief of non-Christians), is not the most important feast of the Christian year. We know that that is Easter, and that it is only in the Resurrection of Christ that the story of our salvation comes to its climax and its fulfilment.
But Christmas does have about it a special magic, detectable by non-believers, which is somehow just there. It is the story of a beginning, a story of hope: and many a new convert, living through their first Christmas as a believer, has realised with a shock of recognition that it is there that it all began for them. Even among the possibly larger number of unbelievers who don’t make the transition into faith, there are many who have seen something.
I have just been reading, in a Sunday Times Christmas food supplement, accounts of Christmas cooking from England, France and Italy. Raymond Blanc contributed the section on Christmas in France (ribs of beef not turkey, lucky them); and after explaining how in the classic pudding the galette des rois, baked for the Epiphany, are hidden two porcelain figures and whoever finds them becomes King and Queen for the day.
“As children,” he goes on, “we loved it, and it’s wonderful to watch new additions to the family enjoy it just as much.” Then, he continues, without any change of gear, almost shockingly, with this: “I still find Christmas the most holy and divine time, whatever country I’m in. There’s something very different about it – a warm fuzziness in the air. Everyone shows a little more kindness, less impatience.”
This reminded me immediately of that famous passage from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which, to Scrooge’s “bah, humbug” outburst, his nephew replies:
“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round … as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, 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 really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
“If I could work my will,” Scrooge has just blustered indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
There is a puritan distaste for festivity on which GK Chesterton focuses in his famous Introduction to A Christmas Carol, in which he identifies secular rationalism as a kind of puritanism, and places Dickens’s achievement in defending us all against it firmly in its historical context. Dickens did not, as is popularly supposed, invent the English Christmas. But he did save it, as an institution, from being wholly engulfed by the secularism of his time.
The popular paradox of A Christmas Carol is very well symbolised in its title. Everybody has heard Christmas carols; and certainly everybody has heard of Christmas. Yet these things are only popular because they are traditional; and the tradition has often been in need of defence, as Dickens here defended it. If a little more success had crowned the Puritan movement of the 17th century, or the Utilitarian movement of the 19th century, these things would, humanly speaking, have become merely details of the neglected past, a part of history or even of archaeology. The very word “Christmas” would now sound like the word “Candlemas”. Perhaps the very word “carol” would sound like the word “villanelle”. In this sense a Christmas carol was only one historical type of poem, and Christmas one historical type of festival. Dickens might seem a strange champion for so historical and poetical a tradition.
He wrote no poetry; he knew no history … He saved Christmas not because it was historic, but because it was human; but his own adventure serves to show how many things equally human had been suffered to become merely historic. Dickens struck in time; and saved a popular institution while it was still popular.
This is Chesterton the literary critic.
He was, of course, one of the greatest of his century, one of those who not merely commented on literary texts, but definitively formed our culture’s reception of them. His book Charles Dickens is one of his best works; it was an immediate bestseller, and the book was not simply a critical success: it led to a popular revival of interest in Dickens’s writings, and to the publication of the Everyman edition of his works from 1907 to 1911, with individual introductions to every novel by Chesterton himself (collected in 1911 in Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens – from which I have just quoted his Introduction to A Christmas Carol).
But Chesterton did not need Dickens for his understanding of Christmas, and he had his own profound beliefs about the proper festivity of Christmastide, which for him was more than a mere popular institution.
For the unreformed Scrooge, Christmas means no more than holly and boiled pudding. For Chesterton the Christian apologist, it of course means more than that. For this is the religion of the Incarnation, the enfleshment, of God, the coming to earth of the ultimate spiritual power of the universe in material form. And boiled pudding, for him too, has its part to play.
Christmas is, as a matter of fact, the standing example of the proposition which I have been lately maintaining; I mean the proposition that without the superhuman we are not human. Rationally there appears no reason why we should not scream over lighted puddings in honour of anything, the birth of Michael Angelo or the opening of Euston Station. But, as a fact, people only become thus splendidly, thus greedily and gloriously material about something [spiritual]. It seems odd that a pudding should depend on a doctrine. It seems strange that a dogma of mystics should be the only thing which will make grown-up people play Blind Man’s Buff. But so it is. Take away the Nicene Creed … and you do some strange wrong to the sellers of sausages.
Chesterton is one of the few writers who are capable of being profound and funny at the same time: his humour is nearly always more serious than we at first suppose. Christmas for him was no light subject.
He believed in it, it is probably true to say (like many of us, certainly I myself), before he believed in orthodox Christianity. He wrote many poems about it over the years which make clear what it was about the Christmas story that drew him in: it was the way in which it made real not only that famous prayer of St Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
The most famous of these poems explains why we are not merely restless here below, but homeless, too. Our real home, Chesterton knew, is in heaven; and Christ came to earth on that first Christmas to bring us home.
So I end with “The House of Christmas” (c 1908):
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
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. Here we have battle and blazing eyes, And chance and honour and high surprise, But our homes are under miraculous skies Where the yule tale was begun.
A Child in a foul stable, Where the beasts feed and foam; Only where He was homeless Are you and I at home; We have hands that fashion and heads that know, But our hearts we lost – how long ago! In a place no chart nor ship can show Under the sky’s dome …
To an open house in the evening Home shall men come, To an older place than Eden And a taller town than Rome. To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are, To the place where God was homeless And all men are at home.
William Oddie is the author of Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy (OUP). He edited the Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004