In one of his letters to an American acquaintance, Lewis relates a story that sums up his attitude toward the version of Christmas that we now take for granted.
Just a hurried line . . . to tell a story which puts the contrast between our Feast of the Nativity and all this ghastly “Xmas” racket at its lowest. My brother heard a woman on a bus say, as the bus passed a church with a crib outside it . . . “They bring religion into everything. Look, they’re dragging it even into Christmas now.”
It can’t have escaped everyone’s notice that Christmas has become increasingly secular. But it takes a contrarian of Lewis’s standing to bring this so sharply into focus. You’d imagine that the Oxford don, who wrote one of the all-time favorite children’s series, might have been a bit more sympathetic toward the holiday, at least for the sake of the youngsters. But he was having none of it. Indeed, he couldn’t help himself from repeatedly returning to the vexed question of Christmas. “Lewis thought there was a bold theological reality behind Christmas that was being obscured—that we were missing something important,” Alister McGrath, Professor at Oxford University and the author of C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013), told me in a recent conversation.
Lewis’s 1955 essay “Xmas and Christmas” sets the tone and content of his main critique of the holiday. In it, he imagines a strange barbarian place called “Niatirb” (that’s Britain spelled backwards). In this oddly familiar parallel universe, the Niatirbians celebrate a winter festival called Exmas. It takes fifty days of exhausting preparations, which the natives call the “Exmas Rush.” On the big day itself, they struggle to get up before noon and then spend their waking hours gorging themselves on food and feeling dissatisfied. Thankfully, there are a few locals who hold a different festival on the same day—“Chrissmas.” These folk rise early, go to certain temples for a sacred feast, and understand what it is really all about.
In “What Christmas Means for Me,” written in 1957, Lewis returns to the subject of the unholy commercial racket that Christmas has become, but without the blunted allegory. This time, the knives are out and sharpened:
The idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers.
Lewis despairs of the unnecessary extravagance and wastefulness of Christmas—the presents bought that people don’t want or need, or the guilt felt when we don’t have time to send a reciprocal card to a mere acquaintance who sends us one at the last minute. I’m with Lewis on this. I long to be brave enough to send one simple present to the people I love and not create the typical present pile that builds up in anticipation of the big day. Why? Because I too wonder if we have lost our way.
Lewis is right when he observes that the extravagance of Christmas is a very recent development. Where did it come from, and how can we move away from it? Lewis’s writing might hold an answer.
In another personal letter, Lewis tells us that “I send no cards and give no presents except to children.” It would be easy to write Lewis off as a grouch or a latter-day Scrooge. Of course, it is his God-given right to be both. But if we do this, we miss Lewis’s sharp theological insights. Lewis wants to claim the oddness, wonder, and awe (in its truest sense) of Christmas and the miracle of the Incarnation. As he wrote:
We find in our Prayer Book that Psalm 110 is one of those appointed for Christmas Day. We may at first be surprised by this. There is nothing in it about peace and goodwill, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem. . . . The note is not “Peace and goodwill” but “Beware. He’s coming.”
Also from the Christmas season of 1957 was Lewis’s essay “Delinquents in the Snow.” He sounds old and weary, and the local carol singers do little to improve his mood.
At my front door they are, once every year, the voices of the local choir; on the forty-five other annual occasions they are those of boys or children who have not even tried to learn to sing, or to memorize the words of the piece they are murdering. The instruments they play with real conviction are the doorbell and the knocker; and money is what they are after. I am pretty sure that some of them are the very same hooligans who trespass in my garden, rob my orchard, and scream outside my windows.
It is at this point that I begin to feel sorry for Lewis—in poorish health, with worries on his mind and a feeling that the country (and Christmas) were going to the dogs. “There! They’re at it again. ‘Ark, the errol hyngel sings.’ They’re knocking louder. Well they come but fifty times a year. Boxing Day is only two and a half weeks ahead; then perhaps we shall have a little quiet in which to remember the birth of Christ.’”
Lewis the grumpy old academic may not seem the most attractive spokesperson for doing Christmas differently, but with a bit of empathy we might give him the benefit of the doubt. As Alister McGrath tells me:
By 1957 he was feeling embattled. He was suffering the indignities of age. But just to paint him as a grump is to miss that here was a deeply thoughtful and imaginative individual. He may not have fully grasped the emotional pull of the secular Christmas, perhaps because he didn’t have a big family or children. He didn’t need to be so critical, but there is something in there that’s worth listening to.
And perhaps that’s it. Behind some of the bile was a sadder reality. Lewis may have looked down on the secular Christmas, but he did so because he felt he was an outsider, condemned to observe others enjoying themselves. Don’t forget that Father Christmas does make a surprise appearance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Not only this, but Narnia’s miserable, eternal winter is caused by the White Witch’s magical prevention of Christmas. As Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy, “Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”
I don’t think that C. S. Lewis ever quite gave up on Christmas, and neither should we.