The Tyranny of ‘Christmas’

Advent Warnings from C.S. Lewis

Careful readers of the Narnian Chronicles have often wondered about the presence of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Though his appearance is brief, it is highly significant for the plot, signaling the end of the Witch’s wintry reign in Narnia as he lays a feast for the beasts and gives gifts to the future kings and queens. He is a symbol of resistance to the evil that enslaves Narnia and, as such, may instruct us today.

But to understand Father Christmas, we must first grasp Lewis’s conflicted view of the Christmas holiday as it was celebrated in Great Britain in his day. He expressed his view of Christmas in two essays. Lewis writes the first, “What Christmas Means to Me,” in basic prose, and the second, “Xmas and Christmas,” as a fictional lost chapter from Herodotus, written in the style of the ancient Greek historian and discussing the customs on the island of “Niatirb” (Britain backwards). Both of them highlight the same tensions in the Christmas holiday season.

Meanings of ‘Christmas’

Lewis distinguishes three things that go by the name of Christmas in his day. The first is a religious festival observed by a minority of Christians in Britain, which involves a sacred feast celebrating a sacred story, featuring a mother, a child, angels, animals, and shepherds. This is what sincere Christians celebrate every December 25 with hymns, carols, and joy.

The second is a “popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality,” loosely related to the first meaning of Christmas in English history. Lewis likely intends to include the broader Christmas season, perhaps the immediate run-up to Christmas Day, as well as the season immediately following (often celebrated as the Twelve Days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany). Lewis quite clearly approves of both the religious festival and the season of merry-making.

However, the third sense of Christmas draws both his ire and wit. He expends much of his energy in the two essays lamenting and excoriating this third season, which he calls Xmas (or Exmas in the chapter from Herodotus).

Eclipse of Exmas

Exmas is a great festival in the middle of winter that includes fifty days of preparation known as the Exmas Rush. During this season of preparation, every citizen sends cards to each other with pictures of birds and branches and pine trees and snow and carriages.

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. (God in the Dock, 335)

Additionally, citizens exchange gifts with each other, but in a peculiar fashion. Everyone seeks to anticipate the value of the gifts his friends will send him so that he may send one of equal value. And many of the gifts are quite useless, the sort of items no man would ever buy for himself — “gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before” (339).

Lewis particularly emphasizes the crushing effect the card-buying and gift-giving have on all involved. It is a “great labour and weariness.” Everyone becomes “pale and weary” because of the crowds and fog (335). The entire ordeal gives “more pain than pleasure,” degrading almost into a form of blackmail since the rule is that anyone can force you to buy him a gift simply by sending you an unprovoked one (339).

Lewis attributes the rise of Exmas to consumeristic capitalism. “The whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade.” It has “been forced upon us by the shopkeepers” (339). Anticipating the words of the great sage Lucy Van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Lewis describes the whole thing as a “commercial racket” (338), a symptom of the lunatic condition of a country that is enthralled to buying and selling.

The result is that, by the time Christmas Day arrives, “everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them” (339). They arrive at Christmas Day exhausted, sleep in till noon, get drunk and overeat, and then fall into the post-Christmas blues, reckoning up all the money they’ve spent on gifts and wine.

Thus, those who sincerely try to keep Exmas are unable to celebrate either the religious festival or the popular holiday. They are “in no trim for merry-making,” nor are they prepared to participate in a sacred feast (339). All of the hustle and bustle distracts from anything holy or reverent. In this way, Exmas effectively eclipses and overcomes Christmas.

Commercial Racket

Such was Lewis’s assessment of the holiday season in mid-century Britain. If we turn to twenty-first-century America, the situation is perhaps even more bleak.

The American Christmas season is bookended by football on Thanksgiving Day and College Football Bowl Week after Christmas. Our own American “Holy” Week kicks off the whole affair: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday, each complete with its own hashtag. And this is only the beginning. The next few weeks is a season of incessant bustle, frenetic activity, endless buying and selling, all building up to the big binge at Christmas. America fully embraces the commercial racket.

So, if we share Lewis’s lament over the confusion of Christmas and Exmas, if we see the effect of this confusion in our own emotions (excitement for Christmas but worry and dread over the coming chaos, crowds, and cost), then what should we do? How should we live?

Resist the White Witch

We begin by rejecting one particular dead end. In our desire to resist the tyranny of the commercial racket and the trivialization of all that is good and holy, we do well to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Merry-making, hospitality, and gift-giving are still good, even if Big Business seeks to exploit them. Abuse does not abolish right use.

This means that we still feast and celebrate, even as we seek to avoid conformity to the world. In resisting worldly excess, we also beware of worldly asceticism. Never forget that Father Christmas laid the feast for the Narnians, while the White Witch responded with, “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 163).

Practically, this means that we still feast (both at Thanksgiving and at Christmas) and that our gratitude should be as piled high as our plates. Giving gifts to our children and friends is still a grand and glorious thing. After all, Jesus insisted that even evil parents know how to give good gifts to their children.

Advent Jollification

Perhaps, however, we can reorient our feasting by pairing it with expectation and waiting. In other words, perhaps the way to resist the tyranny of Exmas is through a celebration of Advent, the season of waiting that leads up to Christmas. Rather than the harried anxiety of the Exmas Rush, we can stir our hearts to hopeful expectation, reminding ourselves that we dwell in a land of deep darkness, longing for the light to shine on us. Advent chastens us in the midst of the Exmas season, reminding us that Christ has come and Christ will come again.

And then, having built expectation for the month of December, we are freed to rejoice with great joy on Christmas morning as we celebrate what Lewis called the Grand Miracle — when God became Man, descending from the heights of glory into this broken, rebellious, and enslaved world in order to reascend, carrying human nature (and indeed all of Nature) back up with him.

You might even celebrate this Grand Miracle for the full twelve days, filling it with merry-making and hospitality, since we do indeed have good news of great joy for all the people, and Christ has welcomed us back to the Father. This is why Father Christmas is in Narnia, as the herald and forerunner of Aslan, as the one who brings joviality and jollification in the midst of winter, as the glad-hearted giver who points to his namesake — Christ who gives himself for his people.