There are two, and only two, rational attitudes towards the Christmas season. One is P.G. Wodehouse’s: “It was December, and another Christmas was at our throats.” (I quote, accurately I hope, from memory). Whether it is the forced fellowship of most Christmas parties or just a sign of descent into premature curmudgeondom, each year I find myself more and more of this persuasion, as soon as Thanksgiving disappears and the real shopping craze begins.
The other attitude, which I wish I could say is more my own, may be best represented by a man criticized sometimes from the Jansenist/”Sourpuss” chorus (to invoke a sharp category of Pope Francis’s) within the Christian persuasion:
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).
G.K. Chesterton may have smoked, drank, laughed, and enjoyed himself more than a certain type of Catholic thinks seemly. At least he was enough of a Catholic that he never tried to argue that his own religious practice should become a universal rule for the whole Church: that we should, say, try to draw out particularly uncommunicative Trappists or tell abstemious Franciscans to lighten up a little. He performed the useful service of reminding us – us weary, adult Catholics – that joy and repose either are the very heart of our faith or we may have no true faith at all.
He also reminds us that joy is a true gift, not a brutally sentimental assault at brotherhood once every twelve months or something we earn during the rest of the year by exercise programs, self-improvement schemes, political reforms, or even religious practices. The various princes of this world – and especially the scheming politicians and other demagogues in it – have a lot at stake in making us believe that they can devise policies and promote technologies for putting real happiness within the reach of human hands. They know that even when such illusions fail, they can always offer a new tonic, charge twice as much, and get an even bigger market share of the pursuit of happiness.
The Christian faith is quite different:
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.)
True hearts! Who even talks about such things anymore? Even in the Church? We have gone back to an ancient pre-Christian refrain: What is truth? And what are hearts, for that matter? Give us psychology, sociology, Prozac, and neuroscience. Above all, let us “take charge of our own lives.” We already know what we want. The heart wants what it wants.
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.)
Many Christians profess this belief, but how many are willing to practice it? St. Thomas More is reported to have said to his judges after they sentenced him to death, “I verily trust, and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now here in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation.” Any man who can think about future merriment and hope for his executioners’ salvation in the shadow of the executioner’s axe can truly claim the name Christian. He knows what the world desires, whether the world knows it or not.
The faith is such an odd turning of everything we might have expected upside-down, bringing down the high, raising the lowly, filling up the hungry and sending the full away empty, that it remains hard to take in, even after years of familiarity. Yet it draws the attention of the whole Creation:
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.
There are many different settings of this poem to music, worth seeking out as an oasis of sanity in the holiday onslaught to come. One of the most popular is this one by Julian Savory, which has a kind of medieval feel to it. My personal favorite is the version by the English composer Enid Richardson, which is only available in a hard-to-find Christmas collection. But TCT readers need never fear. If you can bear my handwritten musical notation, I transcribed it (and transposed it into an easier key to sing) some years ago. Gather some friends or family to sit around the piano and sing it together; it will lead you to a deeper appreciation of why the Christ-child came among us.
*Image: The Holy Night by Carlo Maratta, c. 1655 [Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Gallery), Dresden, Germany]