Thursday, December 03, 2009

Happy New Year!

Yes, that's what I said: Happy New Year!


Well, if I mean the Church's new year, I'm late - that was Sunday. If I mean as measured by the usual "civil" calendar, I'm almost a month early. So too if I mean the Dwarves' New Year, which begins on Durin's Day - which "as all should know" (so Thorin said to Elrond) is the day of the last new moon before the winter solstice, which is Thursday December 17 this year. (Hmm, Durin's Day is a Thursday - so expect something interesting that day, hee hee!) And if I mean the new year of the founding of this ACS blogg, I am still early - that is next Tueday.

So what did I mean? Actually, I meant all of them. It's a kind of shorthand trick we software guys use, sort of like what the Red Queen told Alice: "Curtsey while you're thinking what to say, it saves time." I think it a priceless gift for software development, ranking up there with GKC's dictum about 13th-century metaphysics - yes, "Curtsey while you're thinking what to say, it saves time" - those words are one of the greatest pieces of wisdom in that brilliant mathematical work. Ahem. But we are not doing math today, and I am sure you are grateful.

Though it is really as silly to say we are not doing math today as it would be to say we are not doing English today. Truth is one, and the work of the pursuit of truth comes in many forms - but in this life we almost never get those forms in their pure form. We find science mixed with our philosophy, mathematics mixed with our literature - but then we Chestertonians know better - we know that (let us say it all together) There is no such thing as a different subject. [See GKC ILN Feb 17 1906 CW27:126] And people as distant from GKC as Cardinal Newman (writing in 1850) or Hugh of St. Victor (writing about 1120) would agree. (But we cannot explore that fascinating topic today either - perhaps some other time.)

And so, since we have come to the beginning of the Church's New Year, it is now the season of Advent, and I wondered what GKC had to say about Advent. The simple search I attempted found over a thousand "hits" - but then I stared in shock at the file I had collected. Almost every "advent" was part of GKC's "adventure"!!! Wow, talk about fortuitousness. Advent is an adventure, and how fitting that as Bilbo reported for us, the Dwarves' New Year almost always comes in Advent! Hee hee. As one who has gone with Bilbo on his "There And Back Again" adventure in The Hobbit many times, I delight in reporting that I have also travelled another adventure many times: the adventure called "Salvation History". Certainly you know its chapters as well as I do - the Creation and its grand high tech conclusion of the Perfect Systems Engineer: "He saw the system - the All - which He had made and it was indeed very good!" The Fall - and the promise of the Woman whose son would crush the serpent's head... Abraham climbing the hill of sacrifice with wood piled on his son's back... Noah and Moses and David and the prophets.... And finally, "in the fullness of time" Gabriel was sent to a town of Judah called Nazareth to a virgin..." and - even funnier - the word from the Roman IRS of a census (Say: why don't we Americans celebrate Christmas on April 15? Hmm.) Then came another There And Back Again journey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem (with a detour into Egypt).

Yes... now if you want Chesterton on any of this, please go very quickly to your book shelf and get The Everlasting Man and read it. The whole first half of the book is about the "rest of the story" - not Gandalf and 13 dwarves and a hobbit, I mean the Israelites - but the rest of the action, what we should call the Pagan view. Full of big names from history: the cave man (and what he really did in the cave; Egypt, Troy, Rome - and Carthage. (Oh yes, there was a Dark Lord in the picture, quite evil... but you'll need to read it for yourself, it's scary. Witches, too, all very modern.)

It's very healthy to get the non-biblical perspective to the "B.C." side of history, it will help us keep the main thread of the Israelite adventure in focus. It even begins to suggest that the Israelites were not the only people "chosen" - clearly God was also at work with tools like Troy and Rome, but I must not give away the adventure if you have not yet read it. Here let me just mention one curious fact: the ancient Roman calendar of course did not run with a decreasing series of years, as our dates which we label "B.C." do. No, their years were counted from A.U.C. = anno urbis conditae = "the year of the founding of the city" [of Roma] - their years advanced from smaller to larger numbers just as ours do.


But the days of their months counted down - their days were paid out, one by one, with eyes fixed on something Yet To Come - just as we count for the launching of a rocket. (I must here note, with some humour, that the very first of all rocket launches was preceded by a count-UP. It was the launch of the famous "Columbiad" of Barbicane in Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, which counted up to a very biblical 40, dictated by the mathematics of celestial mechanics. Curiously enough, that launch was on December 1 at 22:46:40, though the year does not seem to be specified - however December 1 often falls within Advent, so it is fitting to think of this too.)

Now that I have completely made a stew of my thoughts - and yours - let us hear Chesterton on Advent. As I tried to indicate earlier, there are only a couple of places where he mentions it in the precise sense of the season of preparation for Christmas. But this first one is so wonderful, so very "Everlasting Man" in tone, and so relevant to us today, perhaps you will read it slowly and with attention:
The forms of Christian festivity are often said to have begun in the old pagan world, and heaven knows they have survived into a new pagan world. But anybody, whether he is a new pagan or an old pagan or even conceivably (for you never know your luck) a Christian, is in fact observing this sort of significant mummery in observing any form of Christmas celebration at all. The professor of ethnological ethics may attribute the tradition of the mistletoe to Baldur or to the Druids. But he must recognise that certain ceremonies were performed under the mistletoe, even if ethnological ethics have permitted other professors to perform them in many places elsewhere. The musical critic, or student of the stages of harmonic development, may distinguish between the quality of a good ancient carol or a bad modern one. But he knows that, even in this timeless time, it is only somewhere about the beginning of Advent that little boys in the street begin to sing the carols attached to Christmas. Like all little boys, they are in advance of the age; but at least they do not begin to sing Christmas carols on Midsummer Day. In short, wherever anybody observes Christmas forms at all, they are still to some extent limited by the idea of a Christmas ritual, and the recurrence of times and seasons. The thing is done at a particular time so that people may be conscious of a particular truth; as is the case with all ceremonial observances, such as the Silence on Armistice Day or the signal of a salute with the guns or the sudden noise of bells for the New Year. They are all meant to fix the mind upon the fact of the feast or memorial, and suggest that a passing moment has a meaning when it would otherwise be meaningless. Behind the opposite notion of emancipation there is really the notion that we should be more normal if all moments were meaningless. The old way of liberating human life was to lift it into more intense consciousness; the new way of liberating it is to let it lapse into a sort of absence of mind. That is what is meant by saying, as many journalists actually do say, that a civilisation of robots would be more efficient and peaceful. One of the advantages of a robot is the complete absence of his mind.
[GKC ILN Dec 21 1935. A special thanks to Frank Petta and my mother for this.]
The following is from the very next essay, and has a rather different tone and topic, but is still worth pondering:
I take a grim and gloomy pleasure in reminding my fellow hacks and hired drudges in the dreadful trade of journalism that the Christmas which is now over ought to go on for the remainder of the twelve days. It ought to end only on Twelfth Night, on which occasion Shakespeare has himself assured us that we ought to be doing What we Will. But one of the queerest things about our own topsy-turvy time is that we all hear such a vast amount about Christmas just before it comes, and suddenly hear nothing at all about it afterwards. My own trade, the tragic guild to which I have already alluded, is trained to begin prophesying Christmas somewhere about the beginning of autumn; and the prophecies about it are like prophecies about the Golden Age and the Day of Judgment combined. Everybody writes about what a glorious Christmas we are going to have. Nobody, or next to nobody, ever writes about the Christmas we have just had. I am going to make myself an exasperating exception in this matter. I am going to plead for a longer period in which to find out what was really meant by Christmas; and a fuller consideration of what we have really found. There are any number of legends, even of modern legends, about what happens before Christmas; whether it is the preparation of the Christmas tree, which is said to date only from the time of the German husband of Queen Victoria, or the vast population of Father Christmases who now throng the shops almost as thickly as the customers. But there is no modern legend of what happens just after Christmas; except a dismal joke about indigestion and the arrival of the doctor. I am the more moved to send everybody an after-Christmas greeting, or, if I had the industry, an after-Christmas card; and in truth there is a craven crowd who escape by falling back upon New Year cards. But I should like to examine this problem of after-Christmas custom and festivity a little more closely.

Of course it is a mark of a commercial community that it thus advertises in Advent. The whole object of such a system is to deliver the goods. When once they are delivered there is a deadly silence; at least an absence of any burst of joy over the creation of new things; a comparative silence about morning stars singing together or the shouting of the sons of God. [See Job 38:7] In other words, when we have delivered the goods, it is not now quite certain that anybody has looked upon them and seen that they are good. [See Genesis 1:31] And the immense importance of announcement everywhere diminishes the corresponding importance of appreciation.
[GKC ILN Dec 28 1935. A special thanks to Frank Petta and my mother for this.]
There is only one more:
For the Futurist fashion of our time has led nearly everybody to look for happiness to-morrow rather than to-day. Thus, while there is an incessant and perhaps even increasing fuss about the approach of the festivities of Christmas, there is rather less fuss than there ought to be about really making Christmas festive. Modern men have a vague feeling that when they have come to the feast, they have come to the finish. By modern commercial customs, the preparations for it have been so very long and the practice of it seems so very short. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the older traditional customs, in the days when it was a sacred festival for a simpler people. Then the preparation took the form of the more austere season of Advent and the fast of Christmas Eve. But when men passed on to the feast of Christmas it went on for a long time after the feast of Christmas Day. It always went on for a continuous holiday of rejoicing for at least twelve days, and only ended in that wild culmination which Shakespeare described as "Twelfth Night: or What You Will." That is to say, it was a sort of Saturnalia which ended in anybody doing whatever he would: and in William Shakespeare writing some very beautiful and rather irrelevant poetry round a perfectly impossible story about a brother and sister who looked exactly alike. in our more enlightened times, the perfectly impossible stories are printed in magazines a month or two before Christmas has begun at all; and in the hustle and hurry of this early publication, the beautiful poetry is, somehow or other, left out.

It were vain to conceal my own reactionary prejudice: which deludes me into thinking there is something to be said for the older manner. I am so daring as darkly to suspect that it would be better if people could enjoy Christmas when it came, instead of being bored with the news that it was coming. I even think it might be better to be the naughty little boy who falls sick through eating too much Christmas pudding, than to be the more negative and nihilistic little boy who is sick of seeing pictures of Christmas pudding in popular periodicals or coloured hoardings, for months before he gets any pudding at all.

At any rate, the proof of the Christmas pudding is in the eating. And it stands as a symbol of a whole series of things, which too many people nowadays have forgotten how to enjoy in themselves, and for themselves, and at the time when they are actually consumed. Far too much space is taken up with the names of things rather than the things themselves; with designs and plans and pictorial announcements of certain objects, rather than with the real objects when they are really objective. The world we know is far too full of rumours and reports and reflected reputations, instead of the direct appreciation by appetite and actual experience.
[GKC ILN Dec 23 1933, reprinted in Avowals and Denials. A special thanks to Frank Petta and my mother for this.]
I would like to add some comments to this but I am out of time, and must leave them for another day. Let us prepare, and be sure to have our Christmas Pudding on Christmas... let us try to understand Christmas as the Whos of Whoville did - they if anyone were Chestertonian. So, I am glad to say, was the Grinch - whose heart grew three sizes when he heard Christmas songs at dawn. Maybe that's why the Romans like children counted down the days... Hee hee!


  1. Buddhists ring bells at New Year's too, oddly enough—108 times, since it's a sacred number in India (it's the first three numbers raised to themselves, times each other).

    One wonders why modern people feel the need to shorten feasts, since we've got so much more free time—maybe that's it, that our lives are so much easier that holidays are irrelevant—just like we get fat because we can have feast portions whenever we want. Which, oddly, reminds me of how A Nightmare Before Christmas is a very Chestertonian little film, properly understood—the whole thing essentially explores why holidays exist.

  2. So much of Chesterton's wisdom seems to boil down to "art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere". (I'm thinking here of the idea aired in the first quotation..."the thing is done at a particular time so that people may be conscious of a particular truth".) Personally, I am coming more and more to believe that the Church has fulfilled a whole host of human needs which, outside the Church, flail about in the void for fulfilment. Humans need role models and heroes; the Church gives us saints. Human beings need special occasions, contrasts, cycles; the Church gives us the liturgical year, feasts and fasts, Saints' Days. Human beings need ritual. The Church gives us the Mass, the rosary, sacraments. Without those things, we look for our heroes in showbiz or politics, special occasions in must-see TV shows, and so on. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that I so often hear people attacking the ritualism, "formalism", cobwebs of tradition etc. etc. etc. of the Catholic Church when it's quite plain that such things are a psychological and spiritual need.

  3. I enjoyed your post on Christmas. I too have found that Chesterton wrote quite a bit about Christmas. Here are some more Chesterton Christmas Quotes!

    “I myself am of the physical type that greatly prefers cold weather to hot; and I could more easily believe that Eden was at the North Pole than anywhere in the Tropics.”
    From Essay Thoughts on Christmas in The Uses of Diversity, p. 219.

    “I have always held that Peter Pan was wrong. He was a charming boy, and sincere in his adventurousness; but though he was brave like a boy, he was also a coward – like a boy. He admitted it would be a great adventure to die; but it did not seem to occur to him that it would be a great adventure to live. If he had consented to march with the fraternity of his fellow-creatures, he would have found that there were solid experiences and important revelations even in growing up. They are realities which could not possibly have been made real to him without wrecking the real good in his own juvenile point of view. But that is exactly why he ought to have done as he was told. That is the only argument for parental authority. In dealing with childhood, we have a right to command it – because we should kill the childhood if we convinced it.
    Now the mistake of Peter Pan is the mistake of the new theory of life. I might call it Peter Pantheism. It is the notion that there is no advantage in striking root. Yet, if you talk intelligently to the nearest tree, the tree will tell you that you are an unobservant ass. There is an advantage in root; and the name of it is fruit. It is not true that the nomad is even freer than the peasant. The Bedouin may rush past on his camel, leaving a swirl of dust; but dust is not free because it flies. Neither is the nomad free because he flies. You cannot grow cabbages on a camel, any more than in a condemned cell.”
    From Essay Thoughts on Christmas in The Uses of Diversity, p. 223.


  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Dan: I appreciate your posts. I'm sensitive about swear words and even offensive movie titles, sorry.

    But, in addition to that, your point started out that Chesterton defended that adults could appreciate Christmas MORE than children, but the movie reference seemed to be saying how sad it was that adults COULDN"T appreciate things as much as children.

    Or perhaps just one thing reminded you of the other.

    Anyway, welcome, keep posting, but mindful of the sensitive souls who read here. Thanks!

  6. Nancy,
    Please accept my most sincere apologies. I should have been much more aware of my audience. I placed the asterisks to avoid actually spelling the curse words in the quotation, but I didn’t consider that this would still be offensive to some readers and would certainly be inappropriate for younger readers. In fact, I guess I am pretty oblivious to who the audience of this website is. That is one of the curses of the anonymous nature of the internet.

    You are partially correct about that particular movie quotation. The characters were expressing that it was very difficult for them to appreciate things as much as children, but I think the point is that they recognized the problem and wanted to be like the children again. And, in the next scene (if I remember correctly) they proceed to play with the bubbles themselves. Chesterton knew that most adults were too “serious” the exalt in repetition, but showed that the preferable way to be is to be like the child who enjoys doing the same trick over and over. Somewhere Chesterton writes about God possibly being like a child who says to the sun “do it again” every morning.

    The movie I referenced is a crass, rude movie that I do not generally recommend it to my Christian friends. With that said it, like several other such movies in recent years – such as Juno for example – the overall message was of hope for people choosing life over abortion; responsibility over self. The movie was probably written by non-Christians, the script was filthy, and the title was questionable at best – but even still the overall message was a positive one.

    Regardless, I wish I wouldn’t have made the comment. Please feel free to delete this one as well as your last response if you’d rather just erase the subject from your blog altogether.


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