“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article.” Thus wrote, or confessed, G. K. Chesterton in an essay entitled “Christmas that is Coming”, published in the Illustrated London News in 1906. Now, on the eleventy-first anniversary of Chesterton having indulged the “dangerous or disgusting habit”, I am following his ignoble example.
To be fair to myself, and to Chesterton, I don’t really think that getting into the Christmas spirit in the days and weeks before the Feast is exactly synonymous with celebrating the Feast itself. Isn’t such a spirit part of the necessary preparation? Aren’t we supposed to have a childlike glow as we do the Christmas shopping? Shouldn’t there be a Dickensian decorum to our preparation? Aren’t we meant to be full of the expectant joy of Bob Cratchit or Tiny Tim or Mr. Fezziwig? Isn’t a failure to get into the spirit in preparedness for the joyful Season a sign of Scroogish tendencies?
Having defended myself, and Chesterton, from any pharisaical guardians of the Feast, I’m going to risk the ire of lovers of Christmas by confessing that I prefer good old Father Christmas to that new-fangled Santa Claus fellow, the latter of whom strikes me as something of an interloper. Chesterton never wrote about Santa Claus, nor, for that matter, did Tolkien or C. S. Lewis; they wrote about Father Christmas. Nor is this a question of mere semantics. There is a real difference between Santa Claus and Father Christmas which should not be overlooked, even if they have been melded in our modern minds into something or someone akin to a synonym.
For one thing, Father Christmas is English whereas Santa Claus is American – and heaven forbid that anyone should suggest that Englishmen and Americans are in any way synonymous!
Father Christmas has his roots in the personification of the Spirit of Christmas in the Merrie England of mediaeval times, though he really came of age in the seventeenth century as a spirit of resistance to the efforts of the Puritans to ban Christmas after their victory in the English Civil War. Believe it or not, the Puritan-controlled English government actually legislated to abolish Christmas, considering, reasonably enough, that the celebration of “Christ-Mass” was papist. Since the celebration of the Mass had been outlawed, it was natural that the celebration of “Christ-Mass” should be outlawed also. Traditional Christmas customs were banned and the Purityrannical rulers of England declared, in league with a certain White Witch, that it would be always winter but never Christmas.
As resistance to the tyranny grew, Old Father Christmas became the symbol of “the good old days”, a personification of Merrie England, with its feasting and good cheer, and its celebration of the liturgical year.
It is this Father Christmas that is celebrated with appropriate rumbustiousness by Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis.
In a wonderful short story, “The Shop of Ghosts,” Chesterton writes of a mysterious toyshop and its equally mysterious proprietor, who was “very old and broken, with confused white hair covering his head and half his face, hair so startlingly white that it looked almost artificial”. Refusing to take any money for some wooden soldiers, he explains that he never has taken money. “I’ve always given presents,” he explains. “I’m too old to stop.”
“Good heavens!” his would-be customer exclaims. “What can you mean? Why, you might be Father Christmas.”
“I am Father Christmas,” the man responds apologetically.
Father Christmas then says that he is dying and offers an explanation for his imminent demise: “All the new people have left my shop. I cannot understand it. They seem to object to me on such curious and inconsistent sort of grounds, these scientific men, and these innovators…. I don’t understand. But I understand one thing well enough. These modern people are living and I am dead.”
“You may be dead,” his interlocutor replies. “You ought to know. But as for what they are doing – do not call it living.”
This would have been a good place for the story to end, the somewhat sullen point having been made, but such a lacklustre defeatist conclusion, all whimper and no whimsy, is hardly satisfactory from a Chestertonian perspective. As such, we are not surprised that the best is yet to come. The silence is broken by the entry of several ghosts from Christmases Past: Charles Dickens, Sir Richard Steele, Ben Jonson, and finally Robin Hood. All of these ghosts remark that Father Christmas looks much the same now as he had looked in their day. As for Robin Hood, he doesn’t understand how Father Christmas could still be alive because he had seen him dying seven hundred years earlier.
“I have felt like this a long time,” Father Christmas concedes.
“Since when?” asks the ghost of Dickens. “Since you were born?”
“Yes,” the old man says, sinking into a chair. “I have been always dying.”
“I understand it now,” Dickens cries, “you will never die.”
The paradox is that each generation believes that Father Christmas is dying, but he never dies. It is each generation that dies while Father Christmas lives on. And since Father Christmas is a personification of Christmas itself, Chesterton is reminding us that this unchristian and anti-Christian generation will pass away – indeed it is dying – but that Christmas will live forever, as the One who was born on Christmas Day will live forever.
“Christianity has died many times and risen again,” Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top.”
Father Christmas will never die because Christ has risen from the dead. He is immortal because he personifies the spirit of the birth of the Everlasting Man. And as for the rest of us, we can rejoice, in the words of a popular song, that man will live forever more because of Christmas Day.
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Bishop Barron is an author, theologian, and evangelist. Known for his World on Fire ministry. He has served as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 8 September 2015. Article reprinted from World on Fire, www.worldonfire.org