The highbrow approves of Christmas in general, and feasting in theory, and has a certain distant appreciation of historic festive rituals, but has a difficult time loosening his own collar and joining in.
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This Christmas, some of us will again begin clucking our tongues and wagging our heads in disgust at the vulgar accouterments which have attached themselves to the Feast of the Nativity. Complaining about the excesses will become a favorite way to begin conversation in certain societies. We will note that the window displays are even gaudier this year; we will remember when stores used to wait until after Thanksgiving to begin advertising; some might suggest putting Christ back in Christmas. This caviling will be variously inspired; I can think of three. First, the temperate person will think the feasting and drinking has gotten out of hand; second, highbrows will think it preferable to give a nod of approval to the idea behind the feast, but not slump into actual participation; and third, some puritans will object that the theology of the Christmas feast could be better preserved without pollution by pagan profanities. However, on the basis of remarks Chesterton makes about Christmas, I’m inclined to believe that instead of joining any of these three types of nigglers, we would instead find him stringing the garland and basting the goose.
The temperate spirit strives for moderation, acting to avoid both want and excess; it therefore finds both the Christmas feast and the Lenten fast puzzling. Chesterton believes such puzzlement might serve as an expansive stumbling block for that soul, so leaves the conundrum untouched.
The Thing Why I am Catholic)
Chesterton makes no attempt to explain matters until the temperate mind has been sufficiently dilated to see that human well-being is served by both conditions.
The highbrow approves of Christmas in general, and feasting in theory, and has a certain distant appreciation of historic festive rituals, but has a difficult time loosening his own collar and joining in. Chesterton was surrounded by such people in his day. They liked to talk about the glories of ancient festivals, but…
To sophisticates, the word ‘vulgar’ means deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement; marked by a lack of good breeding; boorish. To Chesterton, the word means what it originally meant – belonging to the common people – whose company he enjoyed very much.
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Puritan objections stem from a prejudice against any trappings which seem pagan. A partial list of offenses associated with Christmas includes trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, and even the December date because it is supposed to derive from the Teutonic winter solstice. In order to be Christian, they think, the celebration must discard any festive embellishments also utilized by non-Christians. To Chesterton, this is baffling; to complain that Christmas feasts or processions or dances are of pagan origin is like saying “that our legs are of pagan origin. Nobody ever disputed that humanity was human before it was Christian; and no Church manufactured the legs with which men walked or danced, either in a pilgrimage or a ballet. What can really be maintained, so as to carry not a little conviction, is this: that where such a Church has existed it has preserved not only the processions but the dances; not only the cathedral but the carnival …” (What’s Wrong with the World) Far from being dismayed over some commonality between the Christian Christmas and the pagan festival, Chesterton is pleased that the former seems to fulfill and preserve the latter:
Chesterton is very happy to discover that the hearth fire in a stable on the outskirts of Bethlehem has a kinship to the fires round which pagan antiquity built human civilization. “There is nothing quite like this warmth, as in the warmth of Christmas, amid ancient hills hoary with such snows of antiquity. It can address even God Almighty with diminutives.” (The Catholic Church and Conversion)
Chesterton will rescue my Christmas when it comes. As a temperate man, an academic, and a theologian, I will be in danger of looking askance, looking down, and looking critically at a Christian holy day become an Americanized holiday. But Chesterton will remind me that the divine warmth which smothered the world in the darkest night of the year is a warmth which can be felt from the celebration even before it is learned by the seeker.
The Everlasting Man)
David Fagerberg is Associate Professor of Liturgy and Senior Advisor Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.
Originally published in Gilbert!, Volume 2, Number 3, Issue 12, December 1998, 14-15.