There is a widespread notion that the modern Christmas, the festive season of turkey and plum pudding, of generous alcoholic consumption beneath the “pagan” Christmas tree, owes more to the secular Christmas of Charles Dickens – a Victorian invention with little real theological content – than to the true celebration of the birth of Christ, of the great gift of God’s incarnation in human form.
Chesterton had no truck with such puritanical notions. To begin with, he believed in the Christian appropriation of the most genial elements of the pagan spirit; but most of all, he believed that Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, was a religion of which festivity and the enjoyment of life were an essential part. As he puts it in Orthodoxy: “[T]hose countries in Europe which are still influenced by [Catholic] priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.” And of the Dickensian Christmas he believed simply that though Dickens himself may, out of ignorance of what Catholicism actually was, have supposed himself to be hostile to it, nevertheless: “In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival, pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday... He cared as little for medievalism as the medievals did. He cared as much as they did for lustiness and virile laughter and sad tales of good lovers and pleasant tales of good livers. He would have been very much bored by Ruskin and Walter Pater if they had explained to him the strange sunset tints of Lippi and Botticelli. He had no pleasure in looking on the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the living Middle Ages, on a piece of the old uproarious superstition still unbroken; and he hailed it like a new religion. The Dickens character ate pudding to an extent at which the modern medievalists turned pale. They would do every kind of honour to an old observance, except observing it. They would pay to a Church feast every sort of compliment except feasting.” That comes from his first great masterpiece, Charles Dickens (1906) (still by general agreement the best critical book on Dickens). Three years before he wrote it he had published, in The Daily News, an equally robust theological defence of Christmas festivity as generally practised, including its festive consumption. It was one of the earliest public declarations of his belief in the totality of the doctrinal assumptions of the Christian tradition. In a leader-page article which appeared on Boxing Day 1903 he related the doctrine of Christmas to the season’s festivities, making quite clear his belief that what is involved in these festivities is the celebration of an incarnational relationship between the material and the spiritual which has to be understood in the context of the fully elaborated basic teachings of the Christian Church: “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 spiritualistic. 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.” Here, then is the first element in the Chestertonian Christmas: its festivity. The second is even more fundamental: its centredness on the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whom he believed fervently years before he believed in Christianity. Consider the following poem, which he wrote in his early 20s. At a time before he believed in the divinity of Christ, and when he was still writing scornfully about the priests and pontiffs of the Catholic Church, he was writing in the most traditionally Roman Catholic style about the Blessed Virgin. “A Christmas Carol” can probably be dated around 1896-8: At Bethlehem, that city blest Did Our Lady take her rest Mary, fair and undefiled There conceived and bore a Child Mater sanctissima Ora pro nobis And Saint Joseph, when he saw Christ asleep upon the straw, In great love he worshipped there Mary and the Child she bore Ave plena gratia Ave Rosa Mundi...
Throughout his career Chesterton wrote poems bearing witness to his rather touching Marian devotion, often but not always about Christmas, including “The Nativity”, also written around 1897. Another poem written around the same time (a period in Chesterton’s life when, it will be recalled, he was still fiercely anti-Catholic) was entitled “A Christmas Carol”; it appeared in The Wild Knight (1900), a collection of which the literary critic James Douglas approvingly perceived the predominant anti-clerical tone: “Some of the most powerful lyrics in this volume I can hardly venture to quote,” he observed, “so terrible is their pessimism, so insurgently brutal their insurrection against orthodox idols and ideals.” But none of this is to be sensed in “A Christmas Carol”: it is almost as though Chesterton believed in Christmas before he believed in Christianity; perhaps we might even speculate that the spirit of Christmas was for him one way in to full Christian belief. Certainly it inspired one of his most lyrical and most durable short poems: The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap, His hair was like a light. (O weary, weary were the world, But here is all aright.) The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast, His hair was like a star. (O stern and cunning are the kings, But here the true hearts are.) The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart, His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world, But here the world’s desire.) The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee, His hair was like a crown. And all the flowers looked up at Him, And all the stars looked down.
In the circles in which Chesterton later moved as an Anglican, his Marian devotion was not unusual; but when in the end he was received into the Church he was grateful to find his Catholic eccentricities normalised as he joined the mainstream. As he explained in the Autobiography: “I do not want to be in a religion in which I am allowed to have a crucifix. I feel the same about the much more controversial question of the honour paid to the Blessed Virgin. If people do not like that cult, they are quite right not to be Catholics. But in people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed...” Chesterton’s Christmas poems, it needs perhaps to be said, are not simply lyrical and slightly sentimental evocations of the Blessed Virgin, draped in blue, and of the star of Bethlehem over the stable: as his faith developed, more and more they evoked the deeper implications of this still joyful feast, the way in which it answers all mankind’s deepest longings. I conclude with the little-known poem “The House of Christmas”, written in the same year as Orthodoxy, 100 years ago: 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....
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 all 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.