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22 December 2020

From the NS archive: Christmas, a feast not of reason but of faith

25 December 1920: The glory of Christmas Day is that it is a defiance of all fact – a challenge to history, astronomy, theology, zoology, archaeology and, if necessary, palaeontology.

By Anonymous

Why do we celebrate Christmas after all, asks the anonymous writer of this article, which was published on Christmas Day in 1920. Animals don’t. It is only man who insists on “speaking genially to people whom, all through January, February, March, April etc, he never addresses save in grunts”. Christmas has already had to contend with a lot – it was bitterly opposed by the church when it was first celebrated, and “harried from pillar to post” until it set its date as 25 December. Ultimately there is little point dissecting the “whys” and “wherefores”, writes the author, because Christmas is “a feast not of reason but of faith… And it is our reasonable conviction that plum pudding and brandy sauce and good cheer will remain till the end of the world, when their critics lie howling.”

***

There is, perhaps, something in Christmas. It does not change us, but it at least gives us pause. On Christmas Day the statesman and the wife-beater stay their hands. Even at the crisis of the war, the soldiers of the contending nations shocked or delighted us, according to our susceptibilities, by stopping the war and revelling to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”. There was probably not one in ten thousand of them who could have told you who good King Wenceslas was: we should not ourselves care to be asked for his date. All that most men know about him is that he has the gift of making men feel decent fellows, men who can share a meal, men who can share a bottle. There have been many kings, but few have had this particular genius. One might conceivably have died for William the Conqueror or Henry II or Charles I, but none of them ever helped to bring the great freemasonry of the human race a day nearer. They are remembered for making us not more fraternal, but more ferocious. Under them we became not feasters but fighters.

Pessimists have lately been impressing on us the notion that man is the most ferocious of all the animals. Dean Inge, we believe, has been guilty of this heresy. Christmas Day disproves it. Most of the other animals are ferocious on 365 days in the year. Man is ferocious only on 364. We do not think there has ever been anything comparable to this oasis of gentleness in any other animal society. The lion does not celebrate Christmas Day, nor the dog, nor the starling. Even the robin remains a solitary, his eye and breast red with rage, hating his fellow like a foreigner. Man alone is initiated into the mysteries of fraternity. He, who is as near being a murderer, a thief and a cheat as he can safely be without coming into the grip of the law, becomes, as if by a sudden miracle, neighbour to the beggar and the bus conductor. He enlarges his tips. He speaks genially to people whom, all through January, February, March, April, etc, he never addresses save in grunts. If he speaks crossly to anyone during the appointed 24 hours, his conscience accuses him of failure. Good nature lies upon him like a duty, and to fail in good nature on Christmas Day is like a sentry’s falling asleep at his post. That is why some people resent Christmas.

They say that it bores them. They dislike waits and carol singers and crackers, and plum pudding gives them indigestion. But worst of all is the intolerable strain of being good-natured. They want to know why the devil they should be expected to be good-natured to order. Life is a battlefield, not a bed of roses, and it seems absurd to choose one of the dullest days at the coldest season of the year and to say that on this day the malevolent animal called man must willy-nilly lay down his arms. Yet so it is ordained, and you who defy the ordinance this year may be sure that next year or the year after you will be roped in as converted Scrooges, doomed to good nature for the rest of your lives as a punishment for your recalcitrance.

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It used to be thought in some circles – evangelical and rationalist – that it was the Church of Rome that had thrust this curious orgy of cheerfulness on human beings. We knew an old Presbyterian minister who used always to call round on his hearers on Christmas Day and pray with them, and who always made it a point in his prayers to explain to the Almighty that he was not a benighted Roman Catholic who believed that the day was of any particular significance, or that Christ was even born on it. “Lord,” he would say persuasively, “Thou knowest that it is perfectly ridiculous to believe, as the superstitious Romanists do, that shepherds would have been out watching their flocks on the hillsides at a season of the year when there was danger of a snowstorm in which all their sheep might have perished.” He would have regarded it as a sin to hold a service in his church on Christmas Day, but even he had to do something, if it was only to eat turkey and to say an extra prayer with the ladies.

Christmas Day may be assailed in logic, but in sentiment it is invincible. A recent evangelical writer has been denouncing artists for painting pictures of the Nativity in the spirit of that beautiful line in the carol: “Ox and ass before him bow.”

“Oxen and sheep,” he writes with exquisite solemnity, describing the common life of Palestine, “which are never found in the precincts of a public inn, have been inserted as necessary adjuncts to a proper appreciation of the event, and various additional features included, to make a more appropriate background for the satisfaction of people familiar with enclosures and resting places for cattle in their own country of a more permanent character than a public inn, where travelling men and travelling beasts remain for the night and pass in the morning. All these things hinder rather than help the understanding of the true nature of the circumstances of our Lord’s birth, and cause men to deny the more likely features associated with it, which assist the mind in appreciating the fact. The simplicity of the scene is not enhanced by invention; it may even be destroyed.”

Now God help us if this is not sheer bovine bovicide! The next thing we shall see is a naval expert explaining that “I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day”, is an outrage on the statistics of the Jewish merchant fleet. Surely, it would be better to recognise at once that the glory of Christmas Day is that it is a defiance of all fact – that it is a challenge to history, astronomy, theology, zoology, archaeology and, if necessary, palaeontology.

Christmas is a miracle – the miracle of a Babe, the miracle of a star, the miracle of three ships and three kings, and the miracle of you and me. It is a feast not of reason but of faith. It belongs not to earth but to wonderland. And he who would cut out the three ships, or the ox and the ass, or the 25 December, or the turkey, or the Christmas tree, is a thief and a robber. These things are the treasures of the peoples of Europe. We have preserved them in spite of the churches and in spite of the enemies of the churches. There is not, we believe, a single feature or fancy of the Christmas festivities which has not at one time or another been assailed. But Christmas has triumphed over all its foes. And it is our reasonable conviction that plum pudding and brandy sauce and good cheer will remain till the end of the world, when their critics lie howling.

[see also: From the NS archive: The real Father Christmas]

Reflect for a moment on the difficulties with which the Christmas festival had to contend before it established itself as the supreme day of the European year. The early Church had many festivals but no Christmas. When it began to be celebrated, it was bitterly opposed by the Fathers of the Church. Origen declared that it was sinful to keep the birthday of Jesus “as if He were a King Pharaoh”. In the Scriptures, he said, it was only sinners, and not saints, who celebrated their birthdays. At that time, even the date of the birthday had not been settled. In the second century, some Egyptian theologians had assigned it to the 20 May. The 19th and 20th of April were other suggestions, and a logic-intoxicated man gave it as the 28th of March “because on that day the material sun was created”. They knew things in those days that we no longer know.

Thus Christmas Day was harried from pillar to post through every one of the 12 months of the year. Where or when our present Christmas Day originated seems to be uncertain. The authorities tell us, however, that it was born in the West, and Asiatic Christians accused the Romans of sun-worship for celebrating on 25 December instead of 6 January. For the 25th of December was also the birthday of the sun. Even in Britain the day seems to have been celebrated as the beginning of the year before the people had been converted to what, for want of a better word, we may call Christianity. In the fourth century Christmas had overcome the Church, but not altogether Christmas as we now know it. Gregory of Nazianzus who lived and died in that century, “cautions those who observe it to guard against excess, and protests against dancing and crowning the doors with evergreens, which, he affirms, is a heathen practice”.

Gregory spoke too late, however, as have all those other censors of Christmas details, down to the late AH Bullen, who attacked “Good King Wenceslas” on the ground that “the language is poor and commonplace to the last degree”. The world brushes aside these trivial fault-findings and refuses to abate a jot or tittle of its Christmas. The Lord of Misrule has gone, and the mummers are now little but a memory. But, apart from these, the Christian orgy remains, heralded with the traditional songs, adorned with holly and mistletoe, and hailed with the accustomed dishes. Even Scotsmen celebrate it when they travel abroad into Christian countries. When the Puritans forbade the celebration of Christmas in 1644, ordered the shops to remain open, and denounced plum pudding and mince pie as heathen, popular feeling was so strong that blood was shed at Canterbury. Even after the Restoration, we are told, Puritans continued to refer to Yuletide as Fooltide. But the Puritan himself has turned fool since those days, and in the 20th century he eats goose and apple sauce glory of God.

Pessimists declare from time to time that the festival has no future. They point to the decline of the Christmas card and the decline of the Christmas pantomime and suggest that in time we shall all become rationalists. The pantomime, however, is but an accident and not of the essence of the season. It is but a temporal and local thing, like the Republic of Baboonery which once flourished in Poland. Christmas would not perish for lack of a pantomime as it would perish for lack of mince pies. It is conceivable that Christmas might even survive Pussyfoot. But wine, like Christmas, is a leveller, and we shall be slow to part with a gift that so cheaply makes all men companions: “Come, butler, come bring us a bowl of your best/And we hope your soul in Heaven shall rest;/But if you do bring us a bowl of your small/Then down shall go butler and bowl and all.”

Not a Christian sentiment? We wonder. Apart from the threat to the butler – and, if he be a good butler, he has nothing to fear – here, at least, is a pause to strife and cunning and the uncharitableness of the market. Here is a rosy world – a world of gifts and lavishness and laughter. The only un-Christian thing about it is that it does not go on all the year round. And no one can explain why. Is it because there are not enough turkeys, or because there is not enough Christianity, to last?

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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