One hundred years ago—on December 27, 1919—G.K. Chesterton wrote about “the new attack on Christmas.” We should probably discuss the old attack on Christmas before we talk about the new attack. The old attack on Christmas came from the Protestants. After all, Christmas is a Catholic solemnity: Christ’s Mass. The “high church” Protestants (e.g. Anglicans) kept many of the forms of Catholicism (the Mass, the vestments, etc.) while leaving out the theology and the authority of the Church, but the “low church” Protestants (especially the Puritans), threw out the form as well as most of the content.
Not only was beauty in worship and architecture rejected as a distraction, physical pleasure was regarded as an evil, and the Great Winter Feast was shut down. But you cannot kill a culture or even a custom with a mere proscription. Christmas was not just the Church’s thing, it was the people’s thing, too, and such things do not go away quickly and quietly. While Christmas was suppressed from above, it bubbled back up from below. In England, it was a popular Protestant novelist who helped restore Christmas from the street level: Charles Dickens. With the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Christmas goose flew back onto everyone’s table. The feast returned, and so did the reason for the good cheer, which had never gone away. Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.
So what happened next? What was the new attack on Christmas?
Chesterton says, “The old Puritans attacked Christmas in its totality; the new Puritans attack it in detail, and bit by bit.”
One hundred years ago that was new. But it is still the case, even if it’s getting tiresome. The enemies of Christmas have not been able to smother it, but they continue to try to pick it apart.
The old Puritans were at least Christian, even if they hated the Catholic Church. The new Puritans hate Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. They have replaced a religious bigotry with an irreligious bigotry:
Moderns have not the moral courage, as a rule, to avow the sincere spiritual bias behind their fads; they become insincere even about their sincerity. Most modern liberality consists of finding irreligious excuses for religious bigotry. The earlier type of bigot pretended to be more religious than he really was. The later type pretends to be less religious than he really is. He does not wear a mask of piety, but rather a mask of impiety – or, at any rate, of indifference. He is in a double sense in masquerade, for his mummery follows a fashion of merriment.
Thus, the new bigot in his mask does not prohibit Christmas, but prohibits public displays of Christmas. He replaces lovely and listenable Christmas carols with loud, grating assaults on the ears. Jingle hells. He finds excuses to be offended by Christian words but not by the crass commercials milking our traditions. He even invents alternative festivals to coincide – that is, compete – with Christmas. His pretense of impiety – his secular masquerade – hides a piety that is not solemn but merely sullen. He pretends he doesn’t enjoy what everyone enjoys. He substitutes something different because he really wants the same thing. He talks like a materialist and an atheist, but he longs for a spiritual truth to fill the void in his life, and he can’t stop thinking about God. He will not say out loud that Christ is born, but he hopes to God it is true. He knows that babies are good and the Herods who kill them are bad, but he still bows to the Herods. But he also knows in his heart that kings and wisemen – that is, those in the seat of power and those in the seat of knowledge – should also be on their knees to something greater than themselves.
In Christ’s birth, everyone finds what they are truly looking for: kings find their king, shepherds find their shepherd, mothers find their mother, fathers find their family, children find their joy, angels find their God.
But the masquerade muzzles this tremendous truth.
In the new attack on Christmas, says Chesterton,
all the arguments are alike in avoiding the old direct religious challenge of right and wrong; and falling back on certain particular and practical objections, which vary with the various cases. They are all alike in waging with secular weapons what is still really a spiritual war. For its motive is still as moral and religious as in that earlier century when the iconoclasts led what we may almost call a crusade against the Cross.
What a perfect phrase to describe the movement of the modern world: A crusade against the Cross.
Chesterton says that he can understand the occasional rebellion “against the dogmas and disciplines of mankind.” There are any number of reasons for that, even if most of them are misdirected. People fall out of touch because they fall out of practice, or they become arrogant and think they know better, or become wicked and collapse into corruption. They rebel against the rules and the restrictions of the religion.
But surely there is something wrong when they rebel against its liberties and relaxations. These Christmas customs were created and combined by men not to defend ideal doctrines or necessary distinctions, but to express their broadest brotherhood and their most boisterous exultation. Something is wrong with a trend of thought that hates even the holidays of man.
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