Thursday, January 23, 2014

Silent Night, Unholy Night

When Christianity was heavily bombarded in the last century, upon no point was it more persistently and brilliantly attacked than upon that of its alleged enmity to human joy. Shelley and Swinburne and all their armies have passed again and again over the ground, but they have not altered it.

They have not set up a single new trophy or ensign for the world’s merriment to rally to. They have not given a name or a new occasion of gaiety. Mr. Swinburne does not hang up his stocking on the eve of the birthday of Victor Hugo. Mr. William Archer does not sing carols descriptive of the birthday of Ibsen outside people’s doors in the snow.

In the round of our rational and mournful year one festival remains out of all those ancient gaieties that once covered the whole earth. Christmas remains to remind us of those ages, whether Pagan or Christian, when the many acted poetry instead of the few writing it. In all the winter in our woods there is no tree in glow but the holly.

The strange truth about the matter is told in the very word ‘holiday.’ A bank holiday means presumably a day which bankers regard as holy. A half-holiday mean, I suppose, a day on which a schoolboy is only partially holy. It is hard to see at first sight why so human a thing as leisure and larkiness should always have a religious origin.

Rationally there appears no reason why we should not sing and give each other presents in honor of anything—the birth of Michelangelo or the opening of Euston Station. But it does not work. As a fact, men only become greedily and gloriously material about something spiritualistic. Take away the Nicene Creed and similar things, and you do some strange wrong to the sellers of sausages.

Take away the strange beauty of the saints and what has remained to us is the far stranger ugliness of Wandsworth. Take away the supernatural and what remains is the unnatural.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – Such lovely turns of phrase in this passage—‘those ages when the many acted poetry instead of the few writing it… in all the winter in our woods there is no tree in glow but the holly… you do some strange wrong to the sellers of sausages… take away the supernatural and what remains is the unnatural.’

Also notice that GKC has no problem whatsoever with the fact that a great deal of our way of celebrating Christmas has strong pagan roots. This is so often thrown in the face of Christians—see! It’s a pagan holiday! You people stole it! But GKC (and truth be told, Christians) has no great quarrel with paganism as such. The real pagans have no great quarrel with Christianity. That’s why they all became Christians.

Paganism, I think, is simply humanity in its natural state. And of course this natural state of humanity is deeply religious—religion is not some alien importation into the ‘real’ human condition. Religion is as natural and normal to us as breathing. And out of religion, festivity, holiday, celebration.

So if people celebrated their gods by lighting giant bonfires or dancing around trees, singing loudly and off key or (as always) eating and drinking far too much for their own good—well, we ‘Christians’ (who are just a bunch of reformed pagans, anyhow) are quite happy to ‘steal’ all that. Stealing from ourselves, truth be told, as the plain fact is we just kept all our normal modes of fun and frolic and applied to them the new theology of Jesus.

So real pagans and Christians are firmly allied on this point: a holiday needs a holy object. And indeed GKC’s point is well taken—where are the atheist holidays? Where is the subtle serpentine dance of the year of the secularist, from feast to fast, from ferial to festive days, from ordinary time to extraordinary and solemn celebration?

It doesn’t exist, does it? Secular atheism, which is supposed to liberate all the potentialities of man, instead delivers him over to a drab featureless landscape, a endless clockwork cycle of days turning into weeks, weeks into years, years into a lifetime, without variation or rhythm. Just work, or lack of work, without even a half-holiday to spice it up a bit. A Silent Night, indeed but alas, not a holy one.

It is the plain fact of humanity that celebration has always had a religious motivation. It is the plain fact of our times that secularism has made the world a sadder, drearier place - the whole ugly spiritual landscape of Wandsworth. And so it is a plain duty of Christians, certainly, to evangelize the world by the joyful celebration of our liturgical calendar, to show forth that religion is, actually, quite a lot of fun, and that the surest guarantee of a life filled with sausages, so to speak, is a life filled with saints and solemnities, a life of celebration, a life of ceremony and liturgical service.


  1. What an interesting point. I just found an article a while ago about a group of non-religious people that get together in an auditorium every Sunday for a motivational speech, to sing some songs and to get to know new people with like mind. It's DEFINITELY not church….but it sort of sounds like a church to me. We can't ever get away from our very selves, no matter how hard we try. And thank God for that.

    1. Thank you. Yes, the context of this quote from Chesterton is that Auguste Comte, the French atheist philosopher, actually tried to create a whole atheist version of Catholicism complete with feast days and liturgies. Needless to say, it never got off the ground... but Chesterton commended the good effort!


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