C.S. Lewis and Christmas
Jonal entry 1031 | December 19 2007
I find it a sad irony that Charles Dickens, who most likely did not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, is the English writer most identified with Christmas, while C.S. Lewis who, along with George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton, is the most articulate literary proponent of the orthodox faith, has left behind almost no contribution to the literature of Christmas.
Lewis's main literary nod to Christmas is the leitmotif in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which introduces Narnia as a land where it was always winter but never Christmas. After the children from England enter Narnia through the magical wardrobe, beginning events that culminate in the thaw of Narnia's century-long winter, Father Christmas (as the English call Santa Claus) appears in his raindeer-powered "sledge" and delivers presents to all the good creatures, including the Pevensey children. But this is treated as something that could have taken place at any time or season, more because Father Christmas has been unable to visit for a hundred years than because it was Christmas.
Despite the strong themes of death and resurrection and the depiction of the divine savior as a lion (a metaphor for the "Lion of Judah" which is one of the prophetic names of the messiah), the books never mention attending church or doing right or being good because children have an obligation to God to do so. The ethics (practice of right in the light of knowledge of what is not right) in the novels never rise above what Lewis elsewhere refers to as "the Tao" or "the way" that all human civilizations have discovered and taught from the earliest records of history. This is because Lewis's understanding of children is that they have no sense of godliness beyond the joy and expectation of the fun aspects of Christmas in the giving and receiving of gifts and of Easter through the baskets full of treats borne by magic bunnies. This reflects his professed personal memories of childhood in which he and his brother were taken to church every Sunday but were not specifically taught or expected to follow Christian doctrine, as he says in Surprised By Joy.
My guess is that the devastating loss of his mother at age nine undermined the joy and observance of Christmas for Jack as well as for his brother (three years older) and his father. Though in the Lewis letters there are scores of mentions of Christmas vacations from school and work and travelling back and forth between England and Ireland for the holidays, and there is at least one mention by Jack that this, like his birthday, was a time when he could expect especially generous gifts from his father, I've seen in his correspondence no descriptions of how the holidays were kept. One letter in his adult life (thus far; he is now past 40 in the correspondence I am reading) describes an especially warm Christmas eve get-together in the Magdalen college faculty residence among people who were there at that time, concluding by calling it an almost "perfect day" (see the accompanying Thought for Today).
And the late Kathryn Lindskoog recounted in a 1999 Christianity Today essay an entry in a C.S. Lewis diary that she calls his earliest account of a Christmas. Jack was only a "sporadic" diary keeper, but even so it seems strange that he waited until he was 24 years old before recounting one of his Christmases. And that account was far from joy-filled as he describes walking at dawn from their house in the Belfast suburb to St. Mark's church for the early Christmas service. Their father argued with the boys en route and forbade Warnie to wear his jacket up to the front of the bitterly cold church for communion (which both boys took despite both of them professing privately not to be Christians at the time). Their father was always jealous of their time with him when they came for visits, but in the afternoon they were relieved when he suggested they go for a walk, only to be disappointed to meet some relatives coming to their house by car for a visit, necessitating their return to the uncordial environment.
In a letter to his brother Warnie years later, after they had both come back to Christian faith, Jack decried the over-commercialization of Christmas and lamented its having become a time for chaotic buying and giving and sending impersonal cards bearing no relation to the birth of Christ to people on a list made up primarily on feelings of obligation instead of genuine generosity. This thinking is further developed in a humorous essay, "Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus," that Jack contributed to Time and Tide, 1954, reprinted in God In the Dock, 1979, and part of which is now available online, here. In another short extract from the same article, here, Lewis elaborates on three ways Christmas is observed in modern times: the Christian festival, a secular day for merry-making, and what he calls the commercial racket. The second, which might be called the Charles Dickens Christmas, has evolved for perhaps the majority of people into the modern orgy of buying, giving, and receiving gifts that he refers to as the business racket.
In a sense it saddens me that Jack's writings on Christmas, apart from the brief references in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, are negative, because my own thinking is that I'd rather see the secular order play the fool over Christmas than something else. Christmas even in that sense bears testimony to the incarnation, even if most people miss the message after hearing it for thousands of times (through its presentation in carols like "What Child Is This," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and "Joy to the World" over loudspeakers in the malls, in coffee shops, over commercial radio and television, and even in bars and fitness clubs). Christmas cards with snow birds and holly twigs still extol the incarnation, because they are part of the deliverance from the curse of death that the incarnation began reversing.
Though I completely agree personally with Jack on not indiscriminately giving or giving back because I want a gift or someone else gave something to me first, I find myself more inclined to see the cup as half-full than half-empty, and that even those who give because it's the thing to do are doing something better than putting their dollars in slot machines, tattoos, and make-overs. In their secular way, they are continuing something that began in traditioneven in the tradition of Ebenezer Scroogeas giving alms to people in need. Perhaps we have to have the business racket in order to have the overflow of the season of the greatest giving to worthy causes of the year throughout the Western World.
I've often thought, through these months (over a year, now) of immersion in the works of C.S. Lewis, that what Christmas means for me may be comparable to what myth and what he called fairytales and "Northerness" meant to Lewis. It may even be that, if he had experienced the wonder and transcendent joy I felt every Christmas through the first half of my life, he might not have felt the need to pursue that discovery of joy through the literary avenues as he did, and having lost that need, he might have never developed the powers to transport the rest of us into such realms as he does. His loss of Christmas, in the sense that I've always known Christmas, may have been meant for the great gain of the rest of us.
Finally, it's worth noting that, once he decided to commit himself to Jesus Christ, Lewis went public with that decision by taking his first real communion...on Christmas.
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