Sealed With an X

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 (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.