Why, you ask, is celebrating Christmas an act of defiance?

Don’t be surprised that the word “Christmas” is controversial. As G.K. Chesterton says…

“Actually,” you say, after reading the above title, “I never thought of celebrating Christmas as an act of defiance.”

But I suggest that perhaps you should.

“Why?” you ask.

Why what?

“Why is celebrating Christmas an act of defiance?”

So you have asked the question, after all.

But now you object that I have merely tricked you into asking it. And yet you are curious, if still skeptical. “Is this just about saying ‘Merry Christmas’ when most people say ‘Happy Holiday’?”

I ask back: You mean you think that saying “Merry Christmas” is an act of defiance?

“I didn’t say that,” you say, moving from merely being on your guard to being naturally defensive.

But, I insist, it is an act of defiance. But that is not what I’m talking about.

“Wait,” you interrupt, “How is saying ‘Merry Christmas’ an act of defiance?”

Well, I answer, why have commercial and educational institutions adopted a policy of not saying it?

“Because they don’t want to offend…”

So saying “Merry Christmas” is offensive?

“Maybe. Sure. It probably is to some people…”

So, I respond, if I know it is probably offensive to some people, and if it is officially not acceptable to say it, then saying it is an act of defiance.

You feel like you’ve been tricked again.

But I try to offer some comfort and joy.  Don’t be surprised that the word “Christmas” is controversial. As G.K. Chesterton says…

You bristle. “I was wondering when you were going to bring up Chesterton…”

Ignoring that remark, I continue. Chesterton says that the two syllable that form the word have, of course, done more to tear the world apart than any other two words.

“Christ and Mass,” you say, figuring it out.

Think about it: for 2,000 years the Church has been engaged in battling heretics from within and heathens from without regarding the person of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that he is God in the flesh, that he is fully God and fully Man, and the reactions to that claim have either been to insist on his humanity at the expense of divinity, or vice versa. The main point of Christmas is the Incarnation. It is a doctrine that is affirmed in the very gifts of the Wise Men to the Christ: gold, so that he would be crowned as a king; frankincense, so that he would be worshipped as a God; myrrh, so that he would buried as a man. But the Incarnation is only half of the Christmas controversy. In the tragic break up of Christianity, the Protestant reformers wanted to do away with not only the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, but with the priesthood and the Mass. And, that meant, by logical extension, doing away with Christ’s Mass: Christmas. When we say “Merry Christmas” we are affirming a creed that sets Christianity apart from all other religions, but we are also affirming a sacrament that sets the Catholic Church apart from other Christian denominations. We are celebrating Christ’s Mass.

“But…” you say.

Exactly. But. What I was trying to say earlier is that this is not what I was talking about when I suggested that celebrating Christmas is an act of defiance. Even though we are publicly professing a Catholic doctrine in a culture that hates the Catholic Church, proclaiming the Virgin Birth to a culture that scoffs at chastity and praises contraception, and singing “For Unto Us a Child is Born” to a culture that kills babies, we are not celebrating Christmas to be counter-cultural. We celebrate because we are happy. We commemorate a joyful event, and we commemorate it joyfully. We will sing and pray and worship. We will also eat and drink and laugh.

“And how,” you ask almost sheepishly, “is that defiant?”

The defiance, I say, goes back to pagan times.

“Why, of course!” you exclaim, almost with relief. “The pagans didn’t like Christianity, and so naturally, celebrating Christmas was an act of defiance against the ancient pagan culture.”

No, that’s not it. In fact, Christmas is not an act against the pagan culture, it is an act very much in keeping with the pagan culture.

“What?” you ask, slightly startled.

You heard me. Chesterton says it is the one celebration that survives out of all the ancient festivals that once covered the whole earth: “Christmas remains to remind us of those ages, whether pagan or Christian, when the many acted poetry instead of the few writing it.”

“What?” you ask again, because you have no idea what that means.

And I quote Chesterton again, not to annoy you, even though you act annoyed. He says there is in this old festival something that is both pagan and Christian: “that trinity of eating, drinking, and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, the holy day which is really a holiday.”

You are more puzzled than annoyed, so you ask: “Are you saying Christmas is a pagan celebration?”

I respond: There are people who try to dismiss Christmas as a pagan celebration, in order to suggest that the Christians simply borrowed it. But that would be to miss the point. What Christians claim about Christmas is not borrowed. It is unique. We believe that a virgin gave birth to God Incarnate, that the divine babe was worshipped by angels and shepherds and eastern kings, that he came into the world to save the world from the eternal self-destruction of sin. It was this good news that changed the pagan world forever.

“How did it change?” you ask.

It became Christian, I answer.

“So it was in defiance of the pagan world…”

Again, you miss the point. The pagans had their altars and their sacrifices. They also had their feasts, including their winter feast. Then they became Christians. The pagan gods were gone. But altars remained, sacrificial rites remained, and feasts remained—all now christened. Chesterton says we eat, drink, and pray as our fathers did. “Omit the praying, and you have spiritual dullness. Omit the eating and drinking, and you will have spiritual pride.”

“But what about the act of defiance?” you ask, almost weary at this point.

The winter feast, I answer, became the Christmas feast.

You brace yourself, and sure enough, I quote Chesterton again: “Christmas occurs in the winter. It is the element not merely of contrast, but actually of antagonism. It preserves everything that was best in the merely primitive or pagan view of such ceremonies or such banquets. If we are carousing, at least we are warriors carousing. We hang above us, as it were, the shields and battle-axes with which we must do battle with the giants of the snow and hail. All comfort must be based on discomfort. Man chooses when he wishes to be most joyful the very moment when the whole material universe is most sad. It is this contradiction and mystical defiance which gives a quality of manliness and reality to the old winter feasts which is not characteristic of the sunny felicities of the Earthly Paradise.”

You simply scratch your head.

I, on the other hand, am still completely animated. Don’t you see? A feast in the middle of winter is defiant of the winter. A fire blazing indoors is defiant of the cold world outside. It is a bold act of faith to have such a celebration when the circumstances are completely against it. It represented hope on the part of pagans. It represents fulfillment on the part of the Christians, for Christ has come. And it is fitting that Christ should come in our “bleak midwinter.” He is the light that comes into a dark world. He is the hope that comes in the middle of despair. The lonely world has been crying out for him. And he has come. His name is Emmanuel. God is with us. The darkness has not overcome the light. The brute cold has not overwhelmed us. The snow and rain have not quenched the flame. So of course we celebrate. And the celebration itself has warmed the whole world. Even the newly-polished pagans and the half-hearted heathens of the modern world, who avoid Christ, cannot help celebrating with the Christians at Christ’s birth. They want to join the winter feast rather than pretend to prefer the cold. Christmas is lovable, and they know it.

 But suddenly you quote Chesterton: “Everything that is really lovable can be hated; and there are undoubtedly people who hate Christmas.”

 I stop, stunned. Recovering from my shock, I mumble something about love and joy come to you, and to you a wassail, too, even though I’m not really sure what a wassail is, and I hope you won’t ask me about it.

But you let me off the hook, and thrill me with another Chesterton quote to boot: “The wise man will follow a star, low and large and fierce in the heavens; but the nearer he comes to it the smaller and smaller it will grow, till he finds it the humble lantern over some little inn or stable.”

I could not have said it better myself.

About Dale Ahlquist 22 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.