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Chesterton's Reflections on Modernity and Christmas Chesterton's Reflections on Modernity and Christmas
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-12-23 11:56:25
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Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s views on the continuing dehumanization of man, idealistic movements, social sciences, totalitarian fanatical ideologies, and the intellectual fashions of the day (nowadays called “political correctness”) are timeless. One of his fellow journalists in the New York Times wrote this in 1986, fifty years after his death: “Chesterton was one of those indispensable writers whose job it was to keep modern art and life honest.”

Chesterton’s favorite season was Christmas. He could easily pass as Father Christmas. He also wrote extensively about the birth of the Christ child. I’d like to share some of these selected Chestertonian Christmas nuggets with the Ovi readership for Christmas 2012.

On Christmas in general: “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.

Christmas and Modernity: This is combining insolence and superstition; and the modern world is full of the strange combination. 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 disrespectfully? Why take something which you could easily abolish as a superstition and carefully perpetuate it as a bore?

There have been many instances of this half-witted compromise. Was it not true, for instance, that the other day some mad American was trying to buy Glastonbury Abbey and transfer it stone by stone to America? Such things are not only illogical, but idiotic. There is no particular reason why a pushing American financier should pay respect to Glastonbury Abbey at all. But if he is to pay respect to Glastonbury Abbey, he must pay respect to Glastonbury. If it is a matter of sentiment, why should he spoil the scene? If it is not a matter of sentiment, why should he ever have visited the scene? To call this kind of thing Vandalism is a very inadequate and unfair description. The Vandals were very sensible people. They did not believe in a religion, and so they insulted it; they did not see any use for certain buildings, and so they knocked them down. But they were not such fools as to encumber their march with the fragments of the edifice they had themselves spoilt. They were at least superior to the modern mode of reasoning. They did not desecrate the stones because they held them sacred.

Let us be consistent, therefore, about Christmas, and either keep customs or not keep them. If you do not like sentiment and symbolism, you do not like Christmas; go away and celebrate something else. No doubt you could have a sort of scientific Christmas with a hygienic pudding and highly instructive presents stuffed into a Jaeger stocking; go and have it then. If you like those things, doubtless you are a good sort of fellow, and your intentions are excellent. I have no doubt that you are really interested in humanity; but I cannot think that humanity will ever be much interested in you.”

Perhaps Chesterton has a valid point here: if we are going to call it Christmas (the birth of Christ) and not The Winter Solstice Celebrations, then it behooves us to ponder the meaning of what we say we are celebrating. In any case, Merry Christmas to All!

 


      
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