Lecture 87: The Spirit of Christmas

If Christmas has just passed, all of the anticipation and celebration is banished for another year. It is hard to write about that magical and mysterious season when it is just over with. It would be easier to write about it in the summer. “Christmas in July,” means something: it means you have an unexpected gift, a celebration that seems out of place. “Christmas in March” doesn’t mean anything. We can think about the crucifixion and resurrection anytime, and in fact, we are supposed to think about it rather pointedly at least once a week. But we keep our thoughts about Christmas confined to one special season. Easter doesn’t even stay in one place, but Christmas is fixed on the calendar. The Crucifix is always on the wall, but the Nativity set only comes out once a year.

Children, of course, go a little crazy at Christmas. G.K. Chesterton says they enjoy everything about Christmas – except getting smacked (which, he muses, is probably where that particular tradition began.) And while children do indeed enjoy Christmas, Chesterton claims he enjoys Christmas more as an adult than he did as a child. The appreciation of domesticity, like the appreciation of Virgil, increases with age. He says, “The fun of Christmas is founded on the seriousness of Christmas.”

Each year for over thirty years, G.K. Chesterton would write at least five or six articles on Christmas, along with one or two poems and some other odd piece, that would be spread among the journals for which he was a regular contributor and Yuletide issues of other journals for which he was not. His biographer Maisie Ward once expressed the desire to collect all of Chesterton’s writings on Christmas into one volume, not only because there was such a wonderful variety of material available, but especially because this was a subject in which Chesterton’s charity seemed to shine most brightly.

It was Marie Smith who finally carried out Maisie’s idea and created a book by Chesterton on Christmas. She would go on to put together five posthumous Chesterton collections, only one fewer than Dorothy Collins. The Spirit of Christmas is probably the most successful and possibly the most satisfying.

This book could easily have been five times larger, but even though it represents only a fraction of Chesterton’s Christmas writings, it is an excellent selection, containing both familiar delights and unusual gems. Presented in mostly chronological order, Marie provides a pleasing layout of poems, essays, stories and even the very rare play, “The Turkey and the Turk.” When the book was published in 1984, most of its material was appearing between the covers of a book for the first time. The other rarity, in addition to the mummer’s play, was the previously uncollected poem Gloria in Profundis – the paradoxical “Glory to God in the Lowest.”

As is evident in such selections as “The Shop of Ghosts” and “The Modern Scrooge,” Chesterton shares an intimate connection to Christmas with his favorite writer, Charles Dickens. This is not surprising, since both of them share this intimate connection to Christmas with all the rest of Christendom. Chesterton argues that Dickens saved Christmas in England. Chesterton helped save Dickens in England, thereby preserving some of our Christmas traditions, including the snarling of seasonal fools whose sentiments amount to “Bah! Humbug!”

The Nativity represents a detachment from the world that the world cannot explain, even though the world mocks it, feeds off it, dances frantically ’round it. But for one intense instant, everything stops, just as everything has to stop when a baby is born. Life is interrupted by life.

Almost every line of every Chesterton poem is a poem in itself. “The Truce of Christmas” begins, “Passionate peace is in the sky.” Now that’s a corker. We do not normally connect the adjective, “passionate,” with the noun, “peace.” But Christmas is founded on a paradox. It is a feast in defiance of winter. It is the story of a homeless family being celebrated in every home. It is kings bowing down. It is (in Chesterton’s exquisite line that is surprisingly not included in this book) that moment when “the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.” We begin to consider what it means: “passionate peace is in the sky.”

There is one of his Christmas poems that grows more beautiful for me every time I read it. “The Wise Men.” It ends with a verse that epitomizes G.K. Chesterton: humble yet triumphant, with a joy that still rattles the world:

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain,
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

The book, The Spirit of Christmas, can be found at used book sellers.

The Shop of Ghosts appears in the collection Tremendous Trifles.

The Modern Scrooge appears in the Collected Works Volume 14.