Chesterton on Christmas

For those of us who love and admire the British Catholic journalist, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), he lives still in his Inverness cape, with sword cane and pince-nez. And he lives because his words are timeless. His commentaries and views on the continuing dehumanization of man, the so-called social sciences, the idealistic movements and totalitarian ideologies, and the intellectual fashions of his day continue to be relevant in our own age. Even The New York Times conceded in September 1986, “Chesterton was one of those indispensable writers whose job it was to keep modern art and life honest.”

Chesterton truly enjoyed life. His delight was to be with his beloved common man whether in a pub, chophouse, or on an omnibus. The result: hours of hilarious discussions and debates over bottles of port. Always, the quest was for the truth and preservation of what Russell Kirk has called the “Permanent Things.”

The great man’s favorite season was Christmas. He could easily pass as Father Christmas and I’m sure he held Christmas pageants on the specially designed stage in his home, Top Meadow, to entertain neighborhood children. Chesterton also wrote extensively about the birth of the Christ child.

For a quarter of a century, my wife, Barbara, and I have printed special Christmas cards that contained an excerpt of Chesterton’s reflections on the season. When we were selecting this year’s quotation, my wife handed me a file that holds a copy of past Christmas cards. Reading through them I was, once again, awed by Chesterton’s vision.

I’d like to share some of these Chestertonian nuggets with readers of The Catholic Thing:

On Christmas:
Christmas is an obstacle to modern progress. Rooted in the past, and even the remote past, it cannot assist a world in which the ignorance of history is the only clear evidence of the knowledge of science. Born among miracles reported from two thousand years ago, it cannot expect to impress that sturdy common sense which can withstand the plainest and most palpable evidence for miracles happening at this moment. . . .Christmas is not modern; Christmas is not Marxian; Christmas is not made on the pattern of that great age of the Machine, which promises to the masses an epoch of even greater happiness and prosperity than that to which it has brought the masses at this moment. Christmas is medieval; having arisen in the earlier days of the Roman Empire. Christmas is a superstition. Christmas is a survival of the past.

On Christmas Carols:

It is in the old Christmas carols, the carols which date from the Middle Ages, that we find not only what makes Christmas poetic and soothing and stately, but first and foremost what makes Christmas exciting. The exciting quality of Christmas rests, as do all the other examples I have mentioned, on an ancient and admitted paradox. It rests upon the great paradox that the power and centre of the whole universe may be found in some seemingly small matter that the stars in their courses may move like a moving wheel round the neglected outhouse of an inn. And it is extraordinary to notice how completely this feeling of the paradox of the manger was lost by the brilliant and ingenious theologians, and how completely it was kept in the Christmas carols. They, at least, never forgot that the main business of the story they had to tell was that the absolute once ruled the universe from a cattle stall.
On Christmas Cards:
A Christmas card that affects a Christian man as intrinsically cold, heathen, and remote, is not a Christmas card. It is not a message from the Christ-child or St. Nicholas if it strikes us with that bleak paganism which existed before Christianity – or with that very much bleaker paganism which in many places is coming after it.

On Christmas Presents:

Christ Himself was a Christmas present. The note of material Christmas presents is struck even before He is born in the first movements of the sages and the star. The Three Kings came to Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. If they had only brought Truth and Purity and Love there would have been no Christian art and no Christian Civilization.

The Three Gifts:

There were three things prefigured and promised by the gifts in the cave in Bethlehem concerning the Child who received them; that He would be crowned like a King; that He should be worshipped like a God; and that He should die like a man. And these things would sound like Eastern flattery, were it not for the third.

Pretty good stuff. That’s why Chesterton’s publisher at Sheed and Ward (and later his biographer), Maisie Ward, described his essays as going “to the heart of his thought. Some men, it may be, are best moved to reform by hate, but Chesterton was best moved by love and nowhere does that love shine more clearly than in all he wrote about Christmas.”

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.