Where I grew on a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania, the winters could sometimes be very harsh. But with the cold and snow came sleds, toboggans, ice skates and, in some more mountainous areas, skiing. When the snow came, we knew it was almost time for Christmas. My brother and I would find a tree, my mother would make wreathes, we would put up a few decorations, and we would buy and exchange presents. With no electricity until I was in 8th grade, I don’t remember any fancy lights.
Our small country church would have the children from Sunday School enact some scenes about shepherds, Mary, perhaps a donkey, and baby Jesus. That is about all I remember. I’m not sure that is really what the Christmas story was meant to tell me.
C.S. Lewis wrote a short essay by the title “Xmas and Christmas: A lost chapter from Herodotus,” which was published originally in Time and Tide Vol. XXXV in December 1954. A later essay building on similar thoughts was published as “What Christmas Means to Me” and published in the Twentieth Century, vol. CLXII, December 1957. What Lewis reflects upon is a serious dichotomy: the commercial aspect of Christmas and the sacred aspect.
Walter Hooper, the inveterate perpetrator of Lewis’s vast storehouse of works, republished the work in other collections, where it was called by the original title “Xmas and Christmas.”
In his original essay, Lewis contrasts two occasions, which he fist called Crissmas and Exmas, attributing the latter to a pagan group who lived on the island of Niatirb. Their great traditions of Exmas included sending out “a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture” with men in garments that the Niatirbians believed their ancestor wore some 200 years earlier. If a person was unlucky enough to get a card from someone he had not acknowledged, he was obliged to “go out into the fog and rain” and buy a card for that person as well.
A further custom was to send gifts to one another, and this was considered a worse fate than the exchanging cards because “every citizen has to guess the value of the gift” he had received and reciprocate with something of equal value. The sellers understand the Niatirbian custom and “put forth all kinds of trumpery…being useless and ridiculous, [that] they have been unable to sell throughout the year.” The citizens of this island become exhausted form the Rush [like Black Friday?] on Exmas and stay in bed until noon, then eating supper with “five times as much” as other days and become intoxicated.
There was, however, a small group of people living on the island who kept Crissmas. They took part in a sacred feast and some had images in their temples of “a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child.” An observer (Hecatacus) converses with a priest to suggest that Exmas and Crissmas should occur on different days, reflecting their completely opposite views. But he is told that they are the same, involving “merriment.” However, Lewis concludes, even barbarians should not have to suffer things, such as gifts and cards, “in honour of a god they do not believe in.”
There is nothing “wrong” with sending out Christmas cards, which is becoming a lost “art” due to the Internet, or buying gifts for people. The problem arises when we create in our children and loved ones a desire for gifts that have nothing to do with the meaning of Christmas. We want to show love and appreciation for children, family, friends and others with gifts, but how do we relate our actions to the gift of Jesus to the world?
Lewis also wrote on the Incarnation and in his Introduction to St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (1944) he states that “[Athanasius] stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended to-day and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away” (p.9).
Lewis reminds us that Christmas is about the Incarnation—Jesus as God, born into a world of sinners to offer eternal life. Gifts were offered to Him but not in any sense and equal or reciprocal repayment for His gift to us.
It is now Christmas 2020 and we have reflected on lockdowns, quarantines, disease and death. We now need to think of how Christmas relates to our life through Jesus Christ. Do we think mainly about Santa or the Savior? About Christmas trees or the cross? Is Covid more on our mind than calvary? Is it Netflix or the Nativity?; the Salvation Army or the God of Heaven’s Army? How we think about Christmas and Xmas could make a difference in our attitudes and how we celebrate this year.
Karl and Joice Franklin
Unwrapping the tinsel