The Winter Feast

THESE modern men, who are less anxious to be men than to be moderns, have one little habit that has not been spotted as it should be. They are very fond of first painting the lily, and then proving from the painted surface that it was always a paper flower. Nothing delights these intelligent little creatures more than gilding refined gold, and then scraping it furiously, on the plea of taking the gilt off the gingerbread. I mean that they will first take a natural thing, then daub it and disguise it and deface it with artificial things, and then complain that it is an unnatural thing and throw it away. At the beginning, such alteration must be accepted as an improvement. By the end, each improvement is used to show that the thing should be not so much altered as abolished.

Thus the seed of Democracy, the assembly of the village or the tribe, is as old as the world, and may perhaps go back to the similar assemblies of rooks or wolves. It still exists in many peasant communities, especially in the mountains, and when it is reasonably civilised, that is humanised, and above all when it is Christian, it is still about as just and decent and dignified a government as any, in a world whose governments are hardly its happiest products. Now we men of the modern and Western world took this ancient thing, and proceeded to improve it. We improved democracy by demagogy, that is by professional politicians; we improved election by electioneering, that is by organised lying; we improved announcement by advertisement; that is, we substituted for the horn blown to assemble men round the village tree the megaphone through which a statesman could speak like a salesman; facilitating every exchange in which the voters could sell their votes or the statesmen could sell his soul. We have been positively proud of it as a technical dexterity; that we could turn an act of representation into an art of misrepresentation. And then, when the whole idea has been improved out of recognition in this cynical fashion, we generally find that the cynics have become sceptics; and sceptics about the democratic idea itself. These men, with their wonderful progressive improvements, have themselves turned popular government into unpopular government. But since they also have probably become rather unpopular, they will now often turn round with a fine fastidious aristocratic pride, and express their contempt for popular opinion.

The same sort of ironic injustice is applied to any old popular festival like Christmas. Moving step by step, in the majestic march of Progress, we have first vulgarised Christmas and then denounced it as vulgar. Christmas has become too commercial; so many of these thinkers would destroy the Christmas that has been spoiled, and preserve the commercialism that has spoiled it. They will think me but a belated and bemused being, if I here am found roaming or drifting backwards to consider what Christmas is when it is defined, or what it was before it was spoiled. And it is not surprising that the same modern gentlemen, who have performed this peculiar feat of first pelting a thing with mud and then complaining that it is muddy, have also made a similar muddle about the actual history of the thing which they bury with insults, because they have killed it with improvements.

Thus, the first thing that such people will probably tell you today is that Christmas is really a Pagan festival; because many traditional features of it were taken from Pagans. What they do not seem to see is that, in so far as this is in any sense true, it only proves that the ancient Pagans were much more sensible than the modern Pagans. There are many psychological truths about such a human habit, which are hidden from those who talk day and night about psychology; but who do not really care about any psychology except what they call the psychology of salesmanship. The old Pagans knew that such a ritual must be old, that it must be religious, that it must be concerned fundamentally with simple elements like wood or water or fire, but that it must also be, in a queer way of its own, revolutionary: exalting the humble or putting down the mighty from their seat. That was expressed in a hundred ways, both among heathens and Christians. The Saturnalia was made for a society of slaves; but it gave one wild holiday to those slaves. The medieval Christmas had to exist in a feudal society; but all its carols and legends told again and again a story in which angels spoke to shepherds and a devil inspired a king. An ancient revolt is enshrined in an ancient ritual. Now the reason why Christianity found it quite easy to absorb these Pagan customs is that they were in this way almost Christian customs. The man who does not see that the Saturnalia was almost Christian is a man who has never read the Magnificat.

It is thoroughly bad history to suppose that it was the Paganism that absorbed the Christianity; when there are a thousand things to show that it was the Christianity that absorbed the Paganism. For instance, anything that the Early Church really regarded as horrible among the heathens did completely disappear. The butchery of human beings in amphitheatres, which had been the huge uproarious popular sport of all the vast populace of antiquity, completely disappeared. Doubtless, it disappeared partly because Christian martyrs had suffered there; partly because St Telemachus, the heroic hermit, had hurled himself into the arena to cry aloud to God and the human conscience, against human blood being poured out in festivity like wine. But anyhow, and for whatever reason, it did disappear. If various old Pagan popular customs, like the Winter Feast, did not disappear, it was quite certainly because they did not so insult the innocence and indignation of Christianity in its youth. When Constantine had made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, that religion could have suppressed any heathen thing it really wanted to suppress. The interesting point to note is how very few heathen things it really did want to suppress. There is, for instance, the whole great glorious mass of the Pagan literature, in which there are hardly ten pages without something that a Christian might be excused for wanting to suppress. The mere fact that that mass of culture has come down to us at all, is to me much more remarkable than a few random examples of alleged suppression. For instance, the first generations of the saints might surely be excused for drawing the line at Sappho if she did really preach Sapphism. But in fact, there is hardly a rag of historical evidence either that she did preach it or that they did suppress her. To anybody with a general view of history, the really remarkable and interesting thing is the toleration of the last Pagans by the first Christians. The Church certainly never swept away all record of the ancient gods as Mahomet swept away the ancient idols. It never merely burned books as the Iconoclasts destroyed statues. The attitude of Augustine towards Plato, as of Aquinas towards Aristotle, is really much more respectful and understanding than the attitude of Hobbes or Hume towards Aquinas. In short, Christians have always committed countless crimes; but these Christians did not commit this one crime. They were not unhistorical. Christianity failed in practice in many ways; but this was one thing it did not fail to do; to preserve continuity. The Christians were often criminals; but they were not Vandals. Platonists like St Augustine, living in besieged cities, knew too much about Vandals.

It is, therefore, the greatest glory of the Christian tradition that it has incorporated so many Pagan traditions. But it is most glorious of all, to my mind, when they are popular traditions. And the best and most obvious example is the way in which Christianity did incorporate, in so far as it did incorporate, the old human and heathen conception of the Winter Feast. There are, indeed, two profound and mysterious truths to be balanced here. The first is that what was then heathen was still human; that is, it was both mystical and material; it expressed itself in sacred substances and sacramental acts; it understood the mystery of trees and waters and the holy flame. And the other, which will be a much more tactless and irritating assertion, is that while a thing is heathen it is not yet completely human. But the point here is that the Pagan element in Christmas came quite natural to Christians, because it was not in fact very far from Christianity.

Take, for example, the whole fundamental idea of a Winter Feast. There is a perfectly natural parallel between a religion that defies the world and a ritual that defies the weather. Heathenism in the sense of hedonism, the concentration of the mind on pure pleasure as such, would chiefly concentrate on the conception of a Summer Feast. But in winter even a rich man receives some faint hint of the problem of a poor man; he may avoid being hungry, but he cannot always avoid being cold. To choose that moment of common freezing for the assertion of common fraternity is, in its own intrinsic nature, a foreshadowing of what we call the Christian idea. It involves the suggestion that joy comes from within and not from without. It involves the suggestion that peril and the potentiality of pain are themselves a ground of gratitude and rejoicing. It involves the suggestion that even when we are merely Pagans we are not merely Pantheists. We are not merely Nature-worshippers; because Man smiles when Nature frowns. It has always involved, under varying limitations in varying societies, the idea of hospitality; especially hospitality to the stranger and generally to the poor. Of course, there are perfectly natural reasons for wanting to drink wine or warm ourselves at the fire in winter; but that is not an answer, except to those who already have the ill-informed prejudice that Christianity must be opposed to things merely because they are natural. The point is in making a point of it; the special interest is in the special occasion; in the fact that during the Winter Feast, whether Pagan or Christian, there always was, in some degree, the idea of extending the enjoyment to others; of passing round the wine or seating the wanderer by the hearth. It is no controversial point against the Christians that they felt they could take up and continue such traditions among the Pagans; it only shows that the Christians knew a Christian thing when they saw it.

It may seem a gloomy sentiment for the festive season; but the plain truth is that the old original Christians would have more reasons to quarrel with the new Christian Christmas than they had to quarrel with the old Pagan Christmas. In the congested commerce of our time, it has come to stand rather for goods being sold than for gifts being given. But if any revolutionary critic complains of it on this score, he must complain of his own revolutionary criticism; or at least of the previous revolutionary critics. I remember that Mr Bernard Shaw, the chief spokesman of the Socialism of the later nineteenth century, declared that Christmas is now only kept up for the sake of the tradesmen. I think he would find it hard to prove that every little boy or girl has hung up a stocking, or slept with one eye open on Christmas Eve, solely because they calculated that Santa Claus going his round would be Good for Trade. But if the complaint contains any truth, it is not to the disadvantage of the old tradition; but rather to the disadvantage of the recent revolutions. It is strangely forgotten that it was radicals and reformers who set up the Capitalism they now desire to pull down. It was done, if not by Socialists, certainly by revolutionists; in the sense of extreme pioneers of progress. For instance, it was precisely the progressive prophet of new things who brought Christmas, and everything else, out of the country into the town. It was he who told the young man that the streets of London were paved with gold; and that in great cities like Chicago and Philadelphia there was work for all. It was he who said that life on the farm was not life but death; that the rustics were all turnips and that their creeds were all turnip ghosts. Hence it was he who was responsible for making the old Christmas mysteries and mummeries relatively unmeaning; by taking them away from the fields where they grew to the markets where they could only be bought and sold. He took away the Yule Log from the place where it had really been part of a tree, to the place where it was only a lump of dead wood; he took away the mistletoe from where it was really gathered from the oak, to the store where it was only stacked like dead sticks; he would have brought in the Boar's Head (supposing that he dealt at all in that delicacy) under conditions that made it highly improbable that he had himself slain the boar with a boar-spear in the forest, in the old heroic style of hunting, when men slew beasts stronger than themselves. All this genuine and even generous savour in the old Christmas symbols did undoubtedly suffer by being half-digested by the industrial town; but it was the same sort of reformer who built the town. True, he then called himself an Individualist and not a Socialist; and by this time he probably calls himself something else. But under all names, he is always exactly what the old Pagans and Christians would have called a profane person. He does not understand Christmas; he does not even understand the Saturnalia. Mr Scrooge hated Christmas because he was a Utilitarian; that is, he thought that economics only meant being economical. Mr Gradgrind of the Manchester School began by hating Christmas; but his partner Mr Bounderby soon perceived that he could make money by selling turkeys and toys, as well as coal or cotton. But these men in their day were all Reformers; they all called themselves Radicals. Perhaps it is time we ceased to concentrate on the Reform and went back again to the Form.

This real history of Christmas is very relevant to the real crisis of Christendom. We live in a terrible time of war and rumour of war; with a barbaric danger of the real reaction, that goes back not to the old form but to the old formlessness. International idealism in its effort to hold the world together, in a peace that can resist wars and revolutions, is admittedly weakened and often disappointed. I should say simply that it does not go deep enough. Christianity could draw life out of the depths of Paganism; but mere Modernism cannot draw on the depths of either.Charity is too much of a manufactured article; and too little of a natural product. The League of Nations is too new to be natural. The modern materialistic humanitarianism is too young to be vigorous. If we really wish to make vivid the horrors of destruction and mere disciplined murder, we must see them more simply as attacks on the hearth and the human family; and feel about Hitler as men felt about Herod. If we want to talk about poverty, we must talk about it as the hunger of a human being, a pain as positive as toothache; and not as the fall in wages or the failure of imports, or even the lowering of the economic standard of living. We must say first of the beggar, not that there is insufficient housing accommodation, but that he has nowhere to lay his head. We must say first of the human family, not that there are no jobs for them in the factory, but that there is no room for them in the inn. That is, we must talk of the human family in language as plain and practical and positive as that in which mystics used to talk of the Holy Family. We must learn again to use the naked words that describe a natural thing; and dispense for a moment with all those sociological polysyllables, with which an artificial society has learned to talk of it as an artificial thing. Then we shall draw on the driving force of many thousand years; and call up a real humanitarianism out of the depths of humanity.

~G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle and the Wild Ducks and Other Essays.

Children Expecting the Christmas Feast,
by Ferdinand Theodor Hildebrandt. 
Oil on canvas, 1840; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.


  1. Chesterton's wisdom gifts with a breath of ancient fresh air.

  2. Chesterton's wisdom gifts with a breath of ancient fresh air.

  3. Get daily suggestions and methods for earning $1,000s per day FROM HOME for FREE.