Baker Academic

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmastime vs. Xmas Entitlement

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Near Christianity. These paragraphs are taken from chapter 2: 

"On the Border of Always Winter and Always Christmas" 

In this chapter I quote C. S. Lewis's view on "Xmas." He writes, "Christmas cards in general and the whole vast commercial drive called “Xmas” are one of my pet abominations. . . . If it were my business to have a “view” on this, I should say that I much approve of merrymaking. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business." In the following, I contextualize this idea by using a passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.


Unexpected Grace

Peter, Susan, and Lucy are on the run. Edmond has chased the White Witch in search of Turkish Delight and so he is not with the rest of the children. The reader will remember, however, Edmond’s peril and the sound of the Witch’s sleigh. She is the one who rides on a sledge drawn by two reindeer. The sound of jingling announces her arrival because her reindeer have harnesses of scarlet leather covered in bells. She has turned Mr. Tumnus to stone and she holds Narnia under a curse: always winter and never Christmas. It is then only natural for the young reader to feel Lucy’s fear at the sound of bells:
It seemed to Lucy only the next minute (though really it was hours and hours later) when she woke up feeling a little cold and dreadfully stiff and thinking how she would like a hot bath. Then she felt a set of long whiskers tickling her cheek and saw the cold daylight coming in through the mouth of the cave. But immediately after that she was very wide awake indeed, and so was everyone else. In fact they were all sitting up with their mouths and eyes wide open listening to a sound which was the very sound they’d all been thinking of (and sometimes imagining they heard) during their walk last night. It was a sound of jingling bells. 
Lucy—and the reader with her—expects the sound of bells to mean doom. Instead the children meet the person they least expect: Father Christmas. When my children were reading this book with me, I asked, “Do you know who Father Christmas is?” Even though we never called St. Nicholas by this name in our house they were both certain that it was Santa. True to form, Father Christmas brings gifts. Unexpectedly, and true only within The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas signals an end to the Witch’s magic. Or (if you are like me and read this story for merging mythologies) Father Christmas anticipates the end of exile and oppression. “Locks and bolts make no difference to me,’ said Father Christmas.”[1] His arrival marks the liberation from Narnia’s long winter.

This story, like every good Christmas story, contains an unexpected gift. The children, of course, receive gifts. But the greater gift is a literary irony: when almost certain doom is anticipated by jingling bells, an equally grandiose but opposite character arrives. The reader is taken from dread to hope in the process.[2] This unexpected turn is the gift. Moreover, it is only a gift if it is unexpected.

Now I come to my point. The children in this story are not asking for presents. They have written no letters to Santa. They—along with the young reader—are entirely unaware that Father Christmas is even in this story. Lucy is a refugee hoping to escape and survive. She is stranger in a strange land and under no illusion of entitlement. The gift (charis means both gift and grace in Greek) is not an entitlement. Doesn’t this make the arrival of Christmas all the sweeter?

The trouble with what Lewis called “Xmas” is that too many of us feel entitled to it. And if we feel entitled to Christmas, don’t we rob it of its most gracious virtue? Isn’t a sense of entitlement fundamentally opposite to a sense of grace? I am of the opinion that the appreciation of grace requires the experience of an unexpected turn.

Of course, those who celebrate Advent (and I would recommend this over a “culture war”) can hardly meet Christmas unexpectedly. Advent is about remembering and anticipating, after all. We can, however, anticipate without a sense of entitlement. My guess is that this will make Christmas time more enjoyable for our neighbors and for us.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperTrophy, 1978), 114-117.
[2] To play up further the contrast between Father Christmas and the Witch, consider this: the Witch offers a false gift, Turkish Delight. This is a “gift” that takes more from Edmond than it promises. On the other hand, the historical St. Nicholas (upon whom Father Christmas is based) was the Bishop of Myra, which is located in modern-day Turkey. So in contrast to the Witch who promises Turkish Delight, Father Christmas is himself from Turkey. Given the Turkish connection, it may also be relevant that Lewis names the White Witch “Jadis.” The word for “witch” in Turkish is cadı pronounced, jah-duh. “Aslan,” in Turkish, means lion. (My thanks to folklorist and friend, Nathan Young for his help.)

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