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C.S. Lewis, Chesterton and Chaucer on the Forgotten Meaning of Christmas
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-12-14 07:08:09
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   In one of his letters, C. S. Lewis recounts the time his brother ‘. . . heard a woman on a ’bus say, as the   

  ’bus passed a church with a Crib [Manger] outside it, _‘Oh Lor’!  They bring religion into everything.   

   Look -- they’re dragging it even into Christmas now!’

                                               --C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady, 29 December, 1958

The above anecdote by C.S. Lewis illustrates how the celebration of Christmas has been commercialized and trivialized to the point that its original meaning and its very raison d’être has all but been forgotten. A contemporary of Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, like Lewis, far from forgetting the meaning of the Christmas celebration, brought it to its readers’ attention every Christmas with essays and books which are still being read and commemorated today by his devoted admirers.  

This admiration can be found in the Western World and beyond. For example, The Midwest Chesterton News is a newsletter published by John Peterson of Barrington, Illinois. Their society has an annual conference in Milwaukee. This is a very lively newsletter, the inspiration for another newsletter from St. Paul, Minnesota, called Generally Speaking, as well as of The Defendant from Western Australia and All Things Considered from Ottawa, Canada. In the Fall of 1997, the Midwest Chesterton News, Generally Speaking, and All Things Considered combined to form a new journal entitled, Gilbert!

Indeed, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton was without any doubt a very wise man. Those who read him reflectively are often struck by the sanity and insight, even foresight, that he displayed. Though he died in 1936, he remains one of the most quoted writers in the English language even today. He seems to have been a man whom everyone loved, yet also a man who had an uncanny knack of seeing reality, of putting things just right. He wrote more things than most of us could ever read, all of which are interesting, amusing, profound.

Chesterton's column in the Illustrated London News for December 26, 1931, was entitled, "Chaucer and Christmas" (Collected Works, V. 35, pp. 645-50). Normally, we associate Chesterton's Christmas with Dickens, as he does himself in this essay. But he still "finds Chaucer very appropriate for Christmas." Why? Chaucer had the two great Christmas qualities that Chesterton saw in Dickens, perhaps even more than Dickens. These two great Christmas qualities were: 1) that he (Chaucer) was an "extraordinary man who could make friends with ordinary men." And 2) he was an extraordinary man who could be an ordinary man, who "could even look like an ordinary man." Needless to say, to be and look like an ordinary man was high praise for Chesterton, even more than being an extraordinary man. Contrary to what we might expect, we even have the impression that it is, in fact, more difficult to be ordinary than extraordinary.

 Men of almost any trade can be poets, Chesterton pointed out -- Goethe was a German professor and Scott was an "acquisitive gentleman farmer." Chaucer seems to have been a man very useful to others. He oversaw the construction of buildings, knew heraldry, traded in wine. He knew the world and had travelled in it. During all his regular life, however, many a poem and song burst out of him. Chaucer did not seem to have quarreled with others, even with himself. Chaucer seems to have been mostly "merry" about life and things. He could write about sober and tragic things but this was not his primary atmosphere. Chesterton thought it was very difficult to describe the mood, the merry mood, that ran through all the works of Chaucer. He could only suggest it by comparing it with how "the greatest of the modern English writers have praised Christmas."

Chesterton describes this atmosphere of Chaucer in this way: "Chaucer was wide enough to be narrow; that is, he could bring a broad experience of life to the enjoyment of local or even accidental things." This passage touches a theme that recalls Chesterton's remarks on Thomas Aquinas, about the great Dominican's love for the vast multiplicity of created things. Chaucer's tales were full of all sorts of characters with many and varied experiences. Notice that Chesterton specifically remarked that Chaucer had "a broad experience of life". What did he do with this broad experience? He brought it to the "enjoyment of local or even accidental things."

Are we prepared, I wonder, to grasp the profundity of this seemingly off-handed remark? We are inclined to think that the great dramas of the world are at least national if not international, necessary, not accidental. And yet there may be more drama and excitement in very ordinary things, in the events lived by very ordinary men. We suspect that the Christian revelation, with its local and particular dimensions, has something to do with this emphasis on the ordinary.

The chief defect of current literature, Chesterton thought, was "that it always talks as if local things could only be limiting, not to say strangling." Accidents would only be unpleasant glitches in the great drama of the world. In other words, Chesterton implies by contrast, we should expect that local things will be exciting and accidents extraordinary. And this is how we get to Christmas Dinner.

In the work of a modern minor-poet, who would condescend to describe Christmas Dinner, Chesterton observed, the scene would be one of extreme agony. Uncle George would be deadly dull and Aunt Adelaide's voice shrill and piercing. If we take a look at Chaucer, however, he happened to know the Miller and the Pardoner, ordinary folks. Chaucer would have had no difficulty sitting down to Christmas Dinner with Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide, "with the heaviest uncle or the shrillest aunt". They might well have amused Chaucer, but never would they have angered him.

Why not? What makes Chaucer different from the modern poet bored to death at Christmas Dinner? The reason was "partly spiritual and partly practical." Chaucer had the order of spiritual things rightly set forth in his mind. This meant that Christmas was "more important than Uncle George's anecdotes." You did not throw away its meaning by your boredom. It is quite possible that heavy Uncle George may have told the same stories last years. It is quite likely that Aunt Adelaide's voice has not changed in forty years. Christmas is not about Uncle George's stories or Aunt Adelaide's voice, but about the family gathered there, the family that includes Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide, however heavy or piercing they may be.

Practically, Chaucer had seen "the great world of human beings." He has been around, as they say. What happens to a man who has seen this "great world"? He knows that "wherever a man wanders among men, in Flanders, or in France or Italy, he will find that the world largely consists of Uncle Georges." Recall that this observation is written against the background both of the minor poet hopelessly bored at the Uncle Georges of this world and of the extraordinary man who could make friends with ordinary men. The broad experience of life, the awareness of spiritual order, alone enables us to enjoy the local and accidental things.

What is Chesterton's conclusion from these premises? That "this imaginative patience is the thing most men want in the modern Christmas." We want to have Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide there. But we need deep patience to make us realize that no matter how extraordinary we think ourselves to be, to those who love us, we will be mainly Uncle George and Aunt Adelaide, with our own version of the shrill voiced or preposterous anecdote. If we want to find this "imaginative patience", we could do no better than to read Chaucer, or Dickens, or Chesterton himself.

Patience is called "imaginative" because to see the wonder of local and accidental things, the world full of Uncle Georges and Aunt Adelaides, we have to have enough imagination to see before us a scheme of spiritual things that enables us to look around the Christmas Dinner table to see what is really there. What is there is always a familiar face or a local reality with which most of the world is familiar.

What is there, in most local, accidental places, is not the extraordinary man, but the ordinary man celebrating the Incarnation and Nativity of the Lord. These events too happened in a local, seemingly accidental place, that the great world rejected because, so it thought, what is important and dramatic among men could not have taken place in such a quiet and out-of-the-way locality as Nazareth or Bethlehem. The mystery of the Nativity is that it affirms, each year at Christmas Dinner, that those whom Christ was sent to redeem are the Uncle Georges, with their anecdotes, and the Aunt Adelaides with their shrill voices, whom, be it in Flanders, or France or Italy or at our own Christmas Dinner, largely compose the whole of the human race.

--Source: The Midwest Chesterton News.

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Jack2009-12-16 03:03:43

Friend, you have chosen most remarkable and admirable people here to proclaim that you can take the holiday out of Christmas and you will still have Christ. C.S. Lewis has a way of cutting to the quick, heh?

Our ever growing secular society wants to make it simply "Happy Holidays" or schools call it a Winter Holiday or Winter Break now. But why isn't there a Summer Holiday or Spring Holiday or Fall Holiday then?

How very, very well you have put it Emanuel, saying,"The mystery of the Nativity is that it affirms, each year at Christmas Dinner, that those whom Christ was sent to redeem are the Uncle Georges, with their anecdotes, and the Aunt Adelaides". Amen and amen to that! That is the reason to celebrate this season. And what a reason to celebrate indeed, that we two have been redeemed. Even your very names meaning [Emanuel] reflects what comes out of your heart. Oh, how rightly named you were my friend. Your passion and writings do inded say, "God With Us". In your case, it is written for us all to see! For me, I am most blessed and well pleased sir and wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my (sometimes shrill) heart! : - )

Jack2009-12-16 03:05:11

To add a note as a question:
If you would be most gracious, may I post this on my blog website sir at http://www.jackwellman.blogspot.com? With and only with your permission of course.

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