The Catholic Thing
Sealed With an X Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Monday, 16 November 2009

The hero of Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy Sword of Honour, in the slough of despond in wartime Cairo, goes to a priest to confess that he has wished to be dead. “How many times?” the priest asks.

Verbal humor always turns on such little things, mistaking what is being modified in this instance. And as is often also the case, humor is a protective armor against the tragic. Guy Crouchback went off to war in the conviction that his country was embarking on a crusade against the two great political evils in the modern world. It would end as the obsequious ally of one of them, and a leitmotif of the trilogy is the way members of the British communist fifth column positioned themselves for the postwar world. After the war, loathing the leftward lurch of his country, Waugh said that the only way he could bear to live in England was to pretend he was a tourist.

Morose delectation is more often a temporary grace than a settled view of life, but longevity brings the feeling that one has outlived his time, that there are events it would have been better not to see, that human folly is a bottomless resource. Now when the secular Advent begins more or less on Labor Day, the familiar lament that Christmas is being trivialized, commercialized, and secularized is once more heard in the land, even though the mourner’s bench has becomes less crowded.

Christ’s Mass, the annual commemoration of the Word becoming flesh, the liturgical dwelling on the early chapters of Luke, the hymns that lifted the heart – all that is lost among the tinsel. Philip Roth, in one of his not infrequent anti-gentile passages, chuckles over the way Irving Berlin turned Christmas and Easter into a snowy landscape and a fashion parade, respectively. We all knew what dreaming of a white Christmas meant, but now little is left but the white.

Of course one could argue that this was well underway when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, but there one could still catch intimations of the Christian motive for compassion and brotherly love.

A lay brother in the Order of St. Clement, the religious society founded by J. F. Powers for his novel Morte d’Urban, spends his Advent lettering signs he hopes to convince merchants to place in their shop windows. Put Christ Back In Christmas. In the novel this activity is gently mocked as one more pointless effort of the benighted order to which Father Urban belongs. But perhaps Powers saw the campaign as what was already one more lost cause.

Religious observances often survive in altered forms. Christianity adapted local cults, and pagan temples like the Pantheon became basilicas. (Not to mention the continued profanation of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.) “Goodbye” once meant God be with you and in Austria God is thanked right and left. Football players who do what they are paid millions to do, often point skyward in an apparent act of thanksgiving, and there are still many batters who bless themselves when they step up to the plate. If God’s eye is on the sparrow, surely he can be on the lookout for a changeup pitch. I would wager there is more sincerity in that sign of the cross than in all the hoopla in shopping malls.

What once was Christmas has now been changed irretrievably into a special season of appeal to consumers. There is little chance of regaining it in the commercial world. Let it go, and thank God it is blurred into The Holidays, no doubt to make room for Kwanzaa. Some reminders of its original meaning will be heard, as when the ACLU objects to a crèche on the courthouse lawn. We live in a post-Christian world and it really is pointless to plead for the name of Christmas. Words have meanings and the meaning of that word is surely lost in the contemporary secular world.

So we must gather as Christians always have, not as the dominant party in the wider world, but as a group of gawking shepherds hearing the incredible news that God has become man. The message is meant for all, but the response has always alas been confined to a relative few. This should increase our gratitude and devotion rather than lead to grousing about what they are up to down at Macy’s. The secular view of Christmas will inevitably exercise its subtle influence on us. Our chief concern should be over that influence rather than trying to reclaim a word, a word than in any case has been forgotten.

So I will go back to lettering my cards. Take The Mass Out of Xmas. That will leave only a symbol of the unknown.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All right reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Linda, November 17, 2009
What a wonderful perspective! I have found myself in years past getting caught up in the frustration and anger one feels witnessing the secularization of Christmas. This year I will recall your column and happily go along my merry way appreciating this wonderful holiday for what it truly is. Thanks for "giving" me the freedom to do this.
God Bless
It's My Christmas
written by Willie, November 17, 2009
And here it comes again. Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings, trees, lights and savage shoppers hoping to get their gifts so this will be the " Best Christmas Ever." If you ask what this is all about, most will just say, " Well it's the Holidays." Well, Bah Humbug! These are not my holidays. My holidays are the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Christmas is my Holy day; the ACLU and political correctness be damned. Sad to say they will try to take this away from me again this year.
written by Dennis Bartlett, November 17, 2009
Waug's novel is a fun read too. Crouchback joins the Royal Halberdiers (created for the novel) nickednamed the Applejacks. The appellaltion comes from French English war wherein they were ambushed by French knights in an apple orchard. Unable to deploy their halberds because of the branches, they counterattcked the French by throwing apples and pulping up the visors on the knights' helmets.
A Christian season
written by Bradley, November 17, 2009
Thank you Prof. McInerney! We have found it helpful to bring the church calendar into our home: an Advent wreath and calendar, Advent music (Lutheran/Anglican CDs help here), a Christmas tree that is first lit on Dec. 24 (and is not discarded on Dec. 26!), an observation of St. Stephen and Holy Innocents, Solmenity of Mary and, Epiphany. Non-Christian friends love to take part (this is evangelizing!). Our children think that the frenetic "Xmas" shoppers are the crazy ones who need help.
written by william z, November 17, 2009
I love shopping on Christmas Eve. The mall is almost deserted. The Christmas music echoes. I like the lights, the trees, and even being around things I can’t afford to buy. Because no matter what, for me, there’s that sense of expectation, something is going to happen. Maybe that’s where a certain sadness or anxiety comes from, and it’s not because of the commercialism, but because we’re the few who have an understanding of the wonder to come.
Sealed with an X
written by William H. Phelan, November 17, 2009
Thank you for a great and well written piece, Dr. McInerney. You have captured the tone and tenor of the times! I often recall the words of Christ to His disciples as he sent them off two by two: To those who will not convert and be baptized, shake the dust of the place from your sandals and move on.
written by Nick, November 17, 2009
Why feel angry when, instead, you can affect change?

- Speak about Saint Nicholas with friends and family instead of about Santa
- Put up the Nativity in your home and/or place Christmastide hymns
- Meditate on the joyful mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ
- Invite friends and family to meditate with you, help you with the Nativity, and plan to meet up at Holy Mass on the eight days of Christmas
Obsequious Ally?
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., November 17, 2009
Help me out here, Professor. To which country did Great Britain becomce an obsequious ally? Of course, to the Left GB is a loyal vassal of the USA, but that cannot be what you mean. To Germany? To the USSR? If that is what you mean, please elaborate. The Red influence in GB is be lamented, she stood with the USA thoughout the Cold War. Help me out here. I know I must seem really stupid.
Morte d'Urban
written by Christian, November 17, 2009
Thanks for mentioning this fine, but nearly extinct book. Anyone looking for an adult Catholic novel could do much worse than this winner of the 1963 National Book Award.
The feast turned festival
written by Joseph, November 17, 2009
Bishop Sheen observed that Christmas was once a feast, now it is a festival, to which one can add a grand stretch of two months to regenerate the slumping economy. How many times will we be forced to endure nightly news updates of "ringing cash registers" and "smiling mall Santas", cheerful bell ringers, and warm-and-fuzzy tales of post office letter writers answering a child's plea for a simple toy.
Time to cut off the duck's head and for everyone to sing, fa, ra, ra, ra, ra!
Happy Holidays!
It's not coming back
written by Bob G, November 17, 2009
No merry Christmas for the economy this year, nor, maybe, ever: the economy is not coming back. In the new era, as traditional celebrations are hollowed out, secular society will begin to miss what it had and look about to see what went wrong: the goose that lays the golden eggs was served up for dinner. From now on it's rice and beans.
written by Robert Royal, November 17, 2009
Thomas, I think Prof. McInerny is referring to the now embarassing propaganda Britain - and also America - began to put out in favor of the USSR and "Uncle Joe Stalin" when they became our allies after beng attacked by Hitler. Waugh satirizes it in the third volume of Sword of Honour. The Cold War obviously came later.
Happy Easter
written by Pio, November 18, 2009
We should keep in mind that the observance/importance of Christmas has varied widely throughout church history. So even if we succeed in re-Christianizing the public aspects of the Christmas holiday, it alone would not convey the centrality of our faith. Christians are fundamentally "Easter people."
Feeling the years...
written by Graham Combs, November 18, 2009
I'm "only" 57, but feel the years especially in Advent. As a new Catholic, the Christmas Story means more than ever. Aside from cards (always of the Mother & Child), I participate less and less. I recently read Prof. McInerny's memoir -recommended- which reminded me of how much I have missed. Yet my childhood Anglican Christmases retain their charm and beauty - mostly gone today as well. The professor's advice is apt - I dread a White House's hostile recognition of the Nativity.
A Lenten Advent
written by Susan, November 19, 2009
Advent has become my second most prayerful of the Liturgical Calendar, the first being the Easter Tridium: The commercialism is a forced time of inner silence and aloneness--All One with Mary.
I attempt to go on a retreat during Advent.
I do penance--to prepare for His coming--I become pregnant and carry Jesus in every cell of my being. "With the divinest Word, the Virgin
Made Pregnant, down the road Comes walking, if you'll grant her a room in your abode." St.John of the Cross
written by John McCarthy, November 19, 2009
What a beautiful essay! And what meaningful letters! Gracias.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author