Christmas and Resurrection

Just as best kind of gifts are surprise gifts and not the ones we were expecting, the best kind of truth comes by surprise.

We don’t often associate Christmas with resurrection. But we should.

So let’s start by talking about Santa Claus. Christmas is openly under attack in contemporary society where the word has essentially been banned in favor of “holiday” and traditional Christmas carols have been replaced by music that does not even jingle anymore but rather rattles. However, the “reason for the season” cannot be completely erased even if it is deliberately ignored. The apparently innocuous word “holiday” cannot hide its original meaning of “holy day.”

And even though the offensive baby lying in a lowly manger has been removed, the figure that has come instead to represent the holiday is still thoroughly Christian and even more problematically Catholic. He is a fat fellow who magically comes down chimneys and then sneaks away having left all sorts of gifts. But as G.K. Chesterton, another fat fellow, reminds us:  “The Santa Claus who commits a sort of saintly burglary at this time of the year is, of course, the St. Nicholas who was the patron saint of children.”

This ancient Turkish saint drew a devotion that spread across the continents and the centuries. He  became so beloved in Germany that his Germanized name is used by English-speaking people. And while we’re at it, we should point out that the German Christmas carols are among the best, and they’re not about Santa Claus.

But before we talk about the miracle that St. Nicholas is most famous for, we should talk about magic.

Magic has a bum rap among Catholics. They avoid the word as much as their secularist counterparts avoid the word “Christmas.” And yet the word catches up with them, just as “holiday” catches up with the people trying avoid the Holy Day. Consider that those three mysterious figures we now generically call The Wise Men were originally known as The Magi, and it’s not hard to figure what the word is connected to. They were seekers of signs and wonders. They were wise because they were looking for a miracle, something supernatural.

Magic, that much abused word, has to do with forces that are beyond the natural. If we associate magic with witchcraft, we are referring to the powers that witches derive from demons. But saints make use of supernatural forces, too, we call their works miracles because they are wonders, which is what the word miracle means. But we could also call them magic simply because they cannot be explained by any natural laws. In fact, they defy natural laws. The difference between bad magic (or black magic) and good magic (or miracles) is that bad magic changes something good into something bad, puts it under a spell or a curse, deforms and destroys. Good magic restores and heals, takes a bad thing and makes it good again.

The legendary Santa Claus magically breaks into houses not to steal things but to give presents (mostly to children). The real St. Nicholas was generous (especially to young people) but he also performed the miracle of resurrecting the dead, in this case restoring life (and limb) to some children who had been killed by an evil butcher and tossed bit by bit into a pickling tub. Hence he is the patron saint of children.

Contrast this with Medea, “the great type of the ancient and modern witch,” who promised to make an old man into young man by boiling him in a pot. “But the old gentleman,” says Chesterton,

like many old gentleman who have attempted to renew their youth like the eagles, found that the experiment began and ended with getting into hot water. But St. Nicholas… found two children literally gone to pot (like modern society), and miraculously raised them unconsumed. He not only renewed their youth like the eagles, he also renewed their childhood—as if two live chickens had walked out of the pot…This notion of restoration and resurrection marks the whole difference between good magic and bad. In the first the supernatural is a strong engine for restoring the natural. The only answer to the death of the body is the resurrection of the body. But in all the traditions of black magic there is the opposite idea—the idea of captivity, and not of deliverance. A lame man cured by a miracle merely drops a fetter from his free human leg. The children cured by St. Nicholas merely escape from the ogre’s prison of a pot. But in the opposite and evil tales of enchantment there is always the clank of chains. The princess is imprisoned in a white hind, as if in an ivory turret. The prince is locked up in a green frog, as if in an emerald casket. But from the awful experiment of Eden to the last Trumpet that makes dead men alive again, the light that lights up every Christian conception is the idea of liberty.

Did you see the surprising way in which Chesterton connected Christmas to resurrection? He did it using Santa Claus and magic. A saint and the miracle of restoration. We probably expected him to tie the Christ child, whose birth we celebrate, to the Christ who had to die on the cross and then became the Christ who rose from the dead. That works, too. But we were expecting that. Chesterton uses the unexpected to make his point. Just as best kind of gifts are surprise gifts and not the ones we were expecting, the best kind of truth comes by surprise.

The adventurous route that Chesterton has been taking us on has not even reached its destination yet. He has told the story of Santa Claus and magic to make a further point, an even more unexpected one that could not be more pertinent to the present state of the Catholic Church.

Bad magic, worked by witches and demons, enslaves us. Good magic, worked by God and his saints, sets us free. Freedom is an idea “that lights up every Christian idea.”

But what is the one of the best things we can do with our freedom? Brace yourself. You’re going to be surprised.

Chesterton says, “The most living of all liberties is the liberty to repent.”

Yes, that’s what Chesterton the prophet, like all the prophets before him, is telling us now. To use the great gift of freedom, given by a supernatural act of grace, to do something that will point the world to the God that we all seem to have forgotten. We have forgotten him because we have sinned. We need to get on our knees. As a Church. And repent.


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About Dale Ahlquist 34 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.

14 Comments

  1. The light that lights up every Christian conception is the idea of liberty (GKC). The man knew the essence of the birth of Jesus. No small intuition [Aquinas’ deeper apprehension of things called intellect or intellection]. This I elaborated this Christmas Mass, the theme of a recent comment on the Infant Child destined to crush the Serpent’s head. What frees us from penalty of sin [Ahlquist provides the proviso repentance] is Christ’s turning the tables on Satan by rising from the dead.

  2. I object to this little article for a couple of reasons. Magic, either black or white, is against what our Lord taught and what God told Moses. Broken down to its bottom line it is man attempting through preternatural means of altering Gods will. We put ourselves in charge of Destiny, throw obedience to God down the toilet and arrogantly assume we know better than our Creator. No real Christian would ever dream of practicing magic in any form. Ever. And unless I am mistaken no human being can resurrect the dead. If one does, that power came from God and was done by His will for whatever reason God had in mind. To God goes the glory. I’m not acquainted with this author other than what shows PBS has made of his written works of fiction. To me he isn’t a prophet. He is simply stating a fact that has been handed down from the mouth of Christ all that time ago. I get you dig on the author, but stay biblical and truthful. Magic is dangerous in any form. Next I’ll be reading it’s okay to use Ouija boards to speak to the Holy Ghost.

  3. “Bad magic, worked by witches and demons, enslaves us. Good magic, worked by God and his saints, sets us free.” Mr. Ahlquist gets this very wrong by gravely confusing the supernatural with the preternatural, the divine with the angelic orders. All that is created spirit exists in the the order of the preternatural which includes both angels devoted to God and fallen angels (e.g. the devil, demons etc.) All witchcraft or magic is either based in the preternatural, the worship or influence of evil spirits or in the natural, alleged forces in certain objects with have protective or dangerous properties such as charms and crystals. The supernatural is the exclusive realm of God (the Holy Trinity). It is the realm of grace through which all miracles occur. I much prefer to Chesterton’s position, Tolkien’s take on this, say, in the created order of the high elves. Any “magic” they possessed was in special preternatural gifts given to them bu Eru (God) such as extremely long life. This would be same case for Santa Claus (sort of like Tolkien’s Beorn or Tom Bombadil), but not for the true St. Nicholas whose miracle came through the power of grace (supernatural). From what I remember it was C.S. Lewis’ use of “magic” in the Chronicles of Narnia (i.e. in this Chesteronian way) that Tolkien disliked and protested against. Tolkien wins over Chesterton in this arena.

  4. I say Happy Holidays not to offend my many Jewish and Buddist and other nonChristian friends. It doesn’t have anything to do with being “politically correct” or something other than living in a pluralistic society. It has to do with the idea that we “should love others as we love ourself” and not say things which might be offensive. Why not avoid doing those things as our mothers taught us? It is just plain politeness. As for St. Nicholas and the commercialization of Christmas, it is very difficult to hear about taking care of others from the Pope at midnight mass when he is speaking from an altar adorned with golden treasures any one of which would feed many people for many days or even longer. I am a lifelong Catholic and worked the last 9 years of my career for a Catholic university. Now I am retired and think there is way too much hypocrisy in the world!

    • When has there not been too much hypocrisy to the world? Did you work at a real Catholic University or a Catholic in Name Only University. If it is the latter, not surprised Happy Holidays is your standard greeting.

  5. As Catholics, we believe in God’s Providence. When we look at Easter, it is a Christian feast that has been completely eclipsed by the daily routine for the most part. Christmas instead continues to thrive in the popular mindset. It seems to me that there was a divine slight of hand at work here. By allowing St. Nicholas and gift giving to become part of our Christmas tradition, God has assured that his Son’s birth is not ignored the way his resurrection is. It is not a complete victory, but Christ is still an essential part of Christ-mas and he cannot be completely forgotten or ignored.

  6. The paradoxical G.K. Chesterton reminds us that the original St. Nicholas was a real person from the fourth century. He uses the playful literary poetic of “magic” to rejoice that the saint “found two children literally gone to pot (like modern society), and miraculously raised them unconsumed.”

    The more graphic legend to which Chesterton refers is more sobering. It holds that he resuscitated some children who had been murdered by an inn keeper and preserved in brine…

    Brine? Is the updated Chestertonian message for today not about white magic, but about the contradiction of so-called modernity? The paradoxical contradiction is that the early legend and today’s reality are identical.

    It was brine in legendary yesteryear; and it is formaldehyde today. We have the progress of sixteen centuries displayed still in a jar, but on an abortion clinic display shelf: a pre-born child marinating in brine that is now transubstantiated into formaldehyde. But wait, there’s more—an abortion technique of choice today is a brine-like saline “solution”. And this solution is on a scale even greater than the 1940s “ultimate solution.”

    Chesterton is innocently paradoxical, but his St. Nicholas story now is a reminder that “the hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering worship to God” (John 16:2).

    • Peter – I appreciate your defense of Chesterton: that his notion of magic is playful and literary. Chesterton as a literary master should be allowed some leeway in his artistic apologetics. However, those who write about him need to be leery about expanding this literary device in regard to Church teaching. If the New Evangelization intends on accepting “white magic” as a legitimate term in its instruction on grace then it had better be willing to take credit for the winds of confusion it will cause among the faithful; and I already know more than a few Catholics who think that Harry Potter is a practitioner of “white magic” (I don’t think Chesterton would agree).

  7. There are some interesting interpretations of magic in Ahlquist’s article. Outright condemnation of a Satanic evil, benevolent metaphor Tolkien, dabbling bordering on heresy CS Lewis. I think I got them all and they all seem to have a dimension of truth. I favor Tolkien though I’ve wondered too if he dabbled like Lewis to an extent with Nordic mythology, the wizard Gandalf [Gandalf convincingly threatens to turn Samwise into a toad at least to the reader as well as Samwise]. What’s the difference then of Tolkien to Lewis? Or from either to Harry Potter. The magic in Potter is arguably designed by the author to draw kids into serous dabbling. Witchcraft. Whereas Tolkien uses magic as metaphor of a transcendent good. Bombadil more ancient than the hills and forests is thought by some as a metaphor of God. Dale Ahlquist seems to speak of white magic bad magic metaphorically as well.

    • Dear Father Peter: In order to interpret Tolkien one needs go deeper than the Hobbit and the Lord of Rings; one needs to go to The Silmarillion where it is clear that Tolkien’s thought posits Gandalf as part of the angelic race (the Maia) and as a preternatural messenger sent to embolden men in their fight against evil. Nordic mythology certainly influences the naming of some characters, but his “myth” is thoroughly Catholic even to the Eucharistic “lembas” (while the race of Aragorn arises just as much from the myth of Atlantis found in Plato). And Samwise was never in any risk of danger from “magic” while it was actually Frodo who threatened Sam with Gandalf’s power not Gandalf himself, a threat made in jest and which played more upon Sam’s superstition in order to admonish him for eavesdropping and to keep him true to his word. I do not agree that it is that simple that Tolkien uses magic as a metaphor for the transcendent good, for what of Melchor (Morgoth) and Sauron, who have more powerful “magic” and who are transcendentally evil. I think we fail Tolkien if we can’t see that his saga begins with Iluvatar (God the Father) who creates the Ainur (the angelic order) then next the elves (rational bodies with all the preternatural gifts of Eden) and finally man (representing rational being in the purely natural order). For Tolkien, magic of any sort is rather that battle of the preternatural powers for the rule of the earth and he was not keen on the question as to whether his was a “fairy story”. (I also fail to see the (married) symbol of nature – Bombadil – as a symbol of God). It is not a slur against C.S. Lewis to say that he is not so intentional in his Narnia as could be Tolkien regarding the proper Catholic understanding of the three orders of being (supernatural, preternatural and natural); and I am glad that you admit that Harry Potter is about witchcraft. In fact, J.K. Rowling’s use of the preternatural is totally unauthentic in that while creating a battle between supposed good and evil, it has no real concern for the natural order which it mostly looks down upon as a drudgery and a boredom, but which in truth is of primary interest to the angelic order. For Tolkien the natural order could be great if it accepted its limitations with grace and humility while being hopeful for the gift (divinization) of man to come, as alluded to in the Silmarillion.

  8. A very comprehensive review and appreciated. Unfortunately I haven’t read beyond the trilogy [and The Hobbit] although my brother in law an English Lit major read the Silmarillion and other Tolkien works recommending the same. Just a note on Bombadil yes he was married to a lovely creature representative of nature, and by command creatures [Old Willow, the monsters at Weather Top] obeyed. At any rate I perceive a fluidity in Tolkien’s poetic mythology. The story of the ring has root in Plato’s Republic and the myth of Gyges who finds a magic ring causing disappearance. Gyges kills the king takes his wife and assumes the kingdom. Socrates then argues with Glaucon and Adimantes whether one would be happy if he had total freedom with no fear of retribution [from God]. They argue they would choose the freedom acquired by Gyges. Socrates counters that happiness can only be found in the moral life. It’s the ultimate test that Tolkien incorporates in the Ring saga. All the possessors of the ring fail the test except Samwise. “For Tolkien the natural order would be great if it accepted its limitations”. That is Tolkien’s thesis. Only God by nature is compatible with absolute power. Man’s tragedy is the assumption that his intellect is limitless and his will pristine. The human will [and reason] is ordained by God toward truth nonetheless without grace it errs. Thanks for the remarks invoking my interest. I’ll likely start reading the Silmarillion.

    • Thank you – just a note as another form of enjoying The Silmarillion. You can listen to it as an audio book read by Martin Shaw – I find it an easier pill to swallow and Shaw does it justice with an excellent dramatic reading.

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