Wednesday, December 12, 2012
G.K. Chesterton and How to Celebrate Christmas
G.K. Chesterton wrote a lot about Christmas. Mostly in the form of essays but also in his journalistic endeavours, as well as poems and stories, and a book was published solely composed of his opinions and tales on Christmas in 1984 entitled The Spirit of Christmas. He's got a lot to say about it, and he's got a crazy ability to compare and draw similarities between things that no one else would ever think of, and his infectious wonder and appreciation of the important things in life is contagious.
I've just read the essay "Christmas", from his book of essays All Things Considered, and its been rolling through my mind for the last few days especially in light of reading posts and articles about the joys of Advent and trying to reemphasize Advent in our lives in order to better celebrate Christmas itself. Here's how he opens the essay:
"There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is."
What immediately springs to my mind when reading is the marvellous feeling of Christmas morning when we were children. Waking up full of excitement over a day that is unlike any other all year. Its a momentous feeling, really. I know my children are young enough that they're pretty impervious to time, days of the week, and months even. They only know what we tell them to prepare for and live blissfully in the moment, enjoying the security of routine yet finding the joy of the everyday. Chesterton reemphasizes the importance on saving all the presents, and secretly purchasing the needs of Christmas to make things special.To wake up and have a day so filled with magic, lights, and yes, presents must seem amazingly out of the blue to them. What a great way of expressing the goal of our Advent preparation, even for us cynical adults who are inundated with Christmas "music" blaring in every store from the middle of November on.
Of course, Chesterton wasn't exactly in charge of the daily chores of his household. He most definitely didn't plan his Christmas turkey, the trimmings, the decorations, the simple gifts. His wife Frances handled most of his everyday needs and in working with his personal secretary scheduled his work life as well. Chesterton famously got on the wrong train when trying to return home, he was so absent-minded. In other words, although this advice is completely apt and insightful, it seems pretty far from reality to today's mom who has a huge list of preparations for the big day in order to make a magical Christmas for everyone. I don't really have any answers to this problem. I think its a challenging part of life to be a mother and still cultivate an atmosphere in oneself that accommodates the true excitement and celebration of Christmas. But I think it requires tough decisions. Saying no to too many Christmas parties before Christmas, too much shopping, too much noise, too many toys for the kids. Maybe simplifying travel, cooking, decorating. To wake up on Christmas day as a mom surprised that it has sprung out of ordinary days would be a modern day miracle for sure, but cultivating a quiet during Advent in an effort to acknowledge the joy of Christmas is a little more attainable in small steps and brings us closer to that moment of amazement.
Another reason I love Chesterton is that we share the same annoying habit of having opinions on everything and being willing to share them. I love this line a few more paragraaphs into the essay:
"Of course, all this secrecy about Christmas is merely sentimental and ceremonial; if you do not life what is sentimental and ceremonial, do not celebrate Christmas at all"
Now I don't believe Chesterton is saying that Christmas itself, the birth of Christ and the celebration of the Incarnation, is in any way sentimental, but the festivities and how we celebrate the occasion is, when you boil it down, sentimental and ceremonial. I think today, many people think the practice of Advent to be needless, a little sentimental in a religious type of way, but really in shunning Advent they really are shunning the practices of Christmas. Chesterton is also giving a smackdown to those Scrooge's who say Christmas is just a time of needless tradtion and sentimentality that these people shouldn't celebrate Christmas at all, in other words no Christmas presents for them!
Chesterton furthers this line of thinking by commenting upon how modern society, while eschewing Christianity, Christ, and the real reason for Christmas itself, but still keeping up the pageantry of the party in essence makes Christmas boring by taking away its true meaning:
"There is no mark of the immense weak-mindedness of modernity that is more striking than this general disposition to keep up old forms, but to keep them up informally and feebly. Why take something which was only meant to be respectful and preserve it disresepctfully? Why take something which you could easily abolish as a superstition and carefully perpetuate it as a bore?"
This was written about 100 years ago yet is completely visible in today's society. Isn't society without Christ, without faith, perpetuating Christmas to only make it boring? Does our culture make Christmas just another excuse to shop, consume, entertain ourselves?
Chesterton furthers his point by connecting Christmas to the rise of humanitarianism of his day that much resembles the extreme enviormental movement of today. Chesterton defends the eating of turkey, how it fits the custom and celebration of Christmas and how it is in no way inhumane for the turkey. But in a curious twist Chesterton introduces the strange and odd example of animal vivisection which at the time was a popular scientific endeavour. He says that vivsection is an "ugly action done in cold blood", which of course is true. And it all seems like a very strange example to be giving in an essay on Christmas. But then as I was thinking about Chesterton's point on vivisection being an extreme that serves no use or purpose, I thought it a disordered and extreme thing done out of human curiosity. Just as the extreme modern obsession with consumerism has become associated with Christmas. We've taken the good human inclination towards sentimentality and ceremony that should be properly placed at Christmas to a completely disordered place of needless buying, endless noise, and constant entertainment. All of which is done by a society that shuns Christ, the real reason for the season. In this sense Chesterton's use of the argument against extreme humanitarianism and the practice of vivisection suddenly hits a little too close to home, and seems to ring true in more ways than one.
Chesterton is never dire though when issuing these warnings about modern thinking, never leaves the mind hopeless. He is imploring us to simply not be indifferent to the Christmas season, to Advent. We simply need to take a position, to have faith. A proper faith in Christmas, and maybe a little more thoughtfulness towards its preparation to make it a true festival.
G.K. goes on to say so much more in the essay so I really recommend reading the whole thing here, because as with any piece of Chesterton writing every individual will discover new hits of truth. So in hopes we will all have a little more wonder this Advent and Christmas here's Chesterton's own conclusion to his essay which I find hilarious:
"A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished."
I'm linking up to the lovely Little Holy Days link-up hosted by Carrots for Michaelmas, MollyMakesDo, and Dualing Moms. Head over to read a lot more great ideas for Advent!