Amid Roars of Happy Christmas Laughter

JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J.

One of Chesterton's Illustrated London News articles for Christmas, 1908 was entitled "The Wrong Books at Christmas." The first paragraph of the essay contains these most prophetic words: "The nation that has no gods at all not only dies, but what is more, is bored to death."

No doubt, Chesterton considered the latter fate to be worse than the former, though he postulated a causal relationship between the "no gods" and the "boredom." For without the gods, there is really nothing to call us out of ourselves. Humanity itself, whatever its nobility, is not enough and quickly learns this when it has only itself to worship.

Chesterton's article came out of his reading an advertisement, "in a weekly paper to which I am strongly attached," about "Books Suitable For Christmas." We can just see Chesterton chuckling over these recommended books. The first was a volume called Sexual Ethics. Chesterton had previously reviewed the book and had called it both an "unreasonable" book and "in parts an absurd book." In this article, he adds, "But I really do not think it so frightfully funny that it is especially suitable to be read aloud amid roars of happy Christmas laughter by the family who gathered around the Yule log." Even if it were a good book, Chesterton remarks, he never would have thought that it was a good one for Christmas.

Among the other recommended books were Our Criminal Fellow-Citizens, The Scientific Basis of Socialism and books on Shaw and Tolstoy. "But surely nobody could possibly want to hear about Tolstoy on Christmas Day.” Chesterton quips, "I would as soon hear about Mrs. [Mary Baker] Eddy," whom, of course, Chesterton did not like to hear about at all.

After he had time to reflect on these and other books recommended for Christmas reading, Chesterton decided that the problem was not so much that they "do not fit in with Christmas." Rather, the problem is that the modern world itself does not fit in with Christmas. Chesterton's conclusion is therefore not, "chuck Christmas," but rather "chuck the modern world" since "the modern world will have to fit in with Christmas or die."

Why does Christmas seem "ludicrously soiled" by the mere mention of such books? The reason is that on every issue brought up in these books, their philosophical inspiration is "inferior to the philosophy of Christmas." What is wrong with the Sexual Ethics book, Chesterton thinks, in a memorable phrase, is that such modern sexual theories "are not tall enough to reach up to the mistletoe." Chesterton explains his point in this way: "The two first facts which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: first that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous." The common sense of mankind, Chesterton thinks, is wiser than the author of Sexual Ethics.

"Mankind declares this with one deafening voice: that sex may be ecstatic so long as it is also restricted." Once we realize the connection between these two elements of restriction and beauty, it is "the beginning of purity; and purity is the beginning of passion." This is why Chesterton thought that there was more "serious philosophy in a sprig of mistletoe" than in any book of sexual ethics, especially those that suggested sex was unrestricted. "The creation of conditions for love, or even for flirting, is the first common-sense of Society." One cannot help but think that the denial of the restriction is, ultimately, what leads to the boredom, to the lack of seriousness in love that connects purity and passion.

Chesterton commented on a second Christmas recommendation, Our Criminal Fellow-Citizens. Evidently the author of this book tried to relate crime to the shape of one’s skull, a view that Chesterton called "ultimately crazy." And on The Scientific Basis of Socialism, Chesterton remarked that the real basis of life is not scientific at all, but sentimental. "People are not economically obliged to live. Anybody can die for nothing. People romantically desire to live ó especially at Christmas." And since it is Christmas when we are often most alive, we desire least at that time to read such books of Shaw or Tolstoy, even though they are great men in a way. There is something more, the "roar of laughter," the realization of the mistletoe and its philosophy, the truths that we learn of what is beautiful and what is dangerous, that can only be put together in purity and passion.

The people with no gods are bored. They are bored because they have no passion, nothing really worthwhile or transcendent to live for or die for. They have no passion because they are not pure. They are not pure because they know no restrictions. They know no restrictions because they do not know what they are. It is Christmas, the Incarnation, that tells us what we are. Without it, we cannot be prepared for the "deafening glory," that sings of what we are, for the carols, for the Adeste Fideles.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

James V. Schall, S.J. "Amid Roars of Happy Christmas Laughter." The American Chesterton Society, 1997.

Reprinted with permission of Rev. James V. Schall.

THE AUTHOR

James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 2002 The American Chesterton Society




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