C.S. Lewis on Christmas (and Xmas)

santadead400.jpgThis is a classic, and it’s just about time for it (at least in my life).

“Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus,” by C.S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Chrissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.


19 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on Christmas (and Xmas)”

  1. Thanks Bryan. This helps me deal with the X-mas ick I’ve been experiencing. I’ve often seen and enjoyed The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but I decided to study it this year. What I found was a story about X-mas where the Niatirbs, apparently sickened by commercial nature of X-mas, attempted to peal away materialism and expose the core of “what the season is all about” through a morality tale. What they found at the core is some ambiguous sense of “holiday spirit.” And this is supposed to reinvigorate my faith in X-mas. I have no idea why I should be happy for the Grinch or the Whos.

  2. “I have no idea why I should be happy for the Grinch or the Whos.” Come on Kyle, where’s the harm in finding joy in the community of your fellow Whos? After all, God loves people and asks us to do the same. And anyway, a moral about how fulfillment and peace don’t come from money, belongings, and purchases is certainly closer to the spirit of Christ than “Happy Honda-days”. Maybe the Whos prime the pump and God is expecting us to do the hard work of sharing the Jesus-y goodness with our actual communities.
    I mean, just because WE know the earth-shattering/life-changing/misty-eyed truth is no reason to go all grinchy-scroogey on the least secular bits of the non-Christian’s holiday. The Who’s Christmas isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete (no nativity scene, no scripture reading). Christmas is a time when people almost know that they too are incomplete, we have an opportunity to show people the next step and we shouldn’t squander it with scroogey-grinchy disdain.

  3. Wow! A 2009 response to a 2007 comment. Let me try to adjust.

    Eleven, your question is, “Where’s the harm?” I would say the harm is precisely found in the establishment of meaning. I’m not sure how my love for “my fellow Who’s” is any less by thinking that holiday spirit fluff is dangerous when it is assigned as the meaning of Christmas, so I’ll leave the “God loves people and asks us to do the same” comment aside.

    I enjoy Santa, Christmas trees, presents, classic Christmas cartoons and stop motion animation, candy canes, lights, and all of the rest of that stuff just like most people. But I would argue that these celebration items are meaningless when detached from Christ. They are fun fluff, but I would not say they are dangerous.

    They become spiritually dangerous when they are given meaning that has nothing to do with Christ. If the Who’s ended the story “incomplete,” then no problem. Your point makes perfect sense. But they don’t. They’ve never been more complete in their lives! They’re singing Dabu Dore and welcoming Christmas cheer. Their complete and utter satisfaction changes the heart of the Grinch, no less. That’s some powerful joy. The Who’s haven’t primed the pump; they have tapped the well and it is flowing with exactly what they want.

    So exactly where does the Gospel make sense in the story? How is the Who ready to hear about Christ?

  4. Thanks for posting this excellent piece about Christmas. I’m going to snag it for my blog but link it to you. Hope you don’t mind, especially since it’s C.S. Lewis’s own words.

  5. Thank-you very much for this post. I just discovered this essay when reading “God in the Dock” ~a collection Lewis’s essays and interviews. I wanted to find a digital copy so I could post it in my Facebook notes after Thanksgiving. Google brought this up right away and I’m grateful. I will–with your permission–acknowledge you and you blog as the electronic source for Lewis’s essay. I am a college student and this has saved me an enormous amount of time. Thank-you once again.

  6. Pale & weary uttering curses, I relate to this only too well. For even though I keep Chrissmas (or Messiahmas), my family keeps only Exmas & woe to the one who criticizes materialism. But my face does shine on that glorious day!

  7. One of my readers pointed me over here, suggesting this piece. I’m glad he did. Thanks for posting it. I’ll probably make a habit of pointing people to it around this time of year hereafter.

  8. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d
    like to shoot you an e-mail. I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great site and I look forward to seeing it grow over time.

  9. Can’t say I’ve ever been a C.S. Lewis fan but this is good. My thanks to Phil Roberts who posted a link on a comment thread about Christmas (or Xmas) cards at the Archbishop Cranmer blog.

    And a Merry Christmas to all here. It’s now AD 2013, by the way.

  10. Got into a scuffle on facebook over the world’s and church’s versions of Christmas. Had to box up my copy of “God in the Dock” a while back so your post was a nice surprise. Thanks!

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