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C S Lewis:’Christmas and what it means to me’

What CHRISTMAS means to me…

Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. If it were my business too have a ‘view’ on this, I should say that I much approve of merry-making. But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends. It is highly probable that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business. I mean of course the commercial racket. The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th 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. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself — gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. for after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it. We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

So, what do you think? Was C S Lewis right? Or should we welcome the fact that at heart Christmas is a Christian festival?

From ‘God in the dock—Essays on Theology and Ethics’ by C. S. Lewis, published by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. © 1970 The Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis,  first appearing December, 1957. Reprinted from here.

The illustration is from the first edition of the Pickwick Papers, and depicts Mr Fezziwig’s Ball.

13 comments on this post:

drbexl said...

Really enjoying getting to look at CS Lewis in preparation for #bigread13, and I love this idea that we should all mind our own business and not judge what others do … it’s how I try and live my life. It may mean there are some people I don’t want engage with as they drag me down too much.. Our family has always done Christmas in a pretty small way so not as stressful… and I think that’s a good way to be 🙂

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you so much, Bex, for commenting. I love C S Lewis – my father read the Narnia stories – and the science fiction trilogy – to us when we were children and really brought them alive in the way that good reading aloud can.

I found that every year my list of things to do at Christmas was getting longer and longer until it reached ridiculous proportions (and was only incidentally to do with the birth of Christ). I have simplified and simplified in the last few years, and as a result enjoy it all much more. And I have more space and time to think about the message instead.

21 December 2012 22:29
Rev Felicity O'Brien said...

It can be hard to rein in the monster that Christmas can be. We do the $5 challenge in our family, for all excpet my own children. We buy our Christmas food slowly over the weeks beforehand and we have lots of fun with no post-Christmas debt or hangover. Church ans carols and helping people ion our community is the most important part of our Christmas – see my recent post on for more on the topic.

28 December 2012 20:16
21 December 2012 22:24
UKViewer said...

I love Advent and the Nativity, but am not comfortable with the concept of Christmas when it is celebrated as an occasion for gluttony, drunkenness and debauchery.

If it is family centred, involving the nativity with some thanks giving for the birth of the Christ Child, than fine, a few modest celebrations and gift exchanging are understandable, but the excesses of some just make it a no-go for us.

The idea of a Christmas without the actual nativity is not for me.

Being a curmudgeon seems to be in my blood tonight.

Lay Anglicana said...

I was feeling the same, rather curmudgeonly, until it dawned on me that Bex and C S Lewis are right, you don’t have to jump through every Christmas hoop in sight just because other people expect it of you. I have finally narrowed it down so that it no longer feels like an obstacle race and my social observations are now minimal and my religious observations are maximised. Goodness, that does sound pompous, but you know what I mean!

22 December 2012 07:30
Joyce Hackney said...

Ernest,your dislike of “Christmas when it is celebrated as an occasion for gluttony, drunkenness and debauchery” and your being a Londoner, reminds me of one story told me years ago by an elderly neighbour, Minnie.
She had been born and brought up a late-Victorian/Edwardian Eastender and to a child full of hiraeth hardly comprehending the ways and language of an English Midlands industrial suburb,her tales of childhood and young housewifehood in London,her later evacuation with her family and her still-current homesickness were comforting as well as fascinating.She began by telling me about her own children’s experiences at the local school e.g. ‘It’s not the new girl’s fault, Miss,her can’t talk proper.’That anecdote was meant both to ease my pain and to convey that any of my classmates who thought I was Irish were idiots anyway.Thereafter I hung on Minnie’s every word.
Between the wars in London, when Minnie had four children and a wounded husband to look after, she used to clean for a rich lady to earn seven-and-six.
Her employer once asked her about the amount of shopping being done by apparently poor Londoners just before Christmas. The rich lady was stunned by the quantities of expensive food,toys and treats they were carrying home. She was disgusted to see such indulgence,merely because it was Christmas, on the part of so many whose every appearance suggested they couldn’t afford it. Knowing nothing about Christmas clubs she must have assumed they were going into unrepayable debt.She couldn’t understand it.
My neighbour’s answer was, ‘That’s because it’s Christmas every week for you.’
The significance of that conversation Minnie related to me didn’t hit me until many years later.
By the way, I know you’re not a spoilsport Ernest and I know you wouldn’t dream of comparing the poor with those drunken destructive louts whom Douglas Hurd said had ‘…. too much money in their pockets, too many pints inside them and too little respect.’

UKViewer said...


Thank you – you have the knack of defusing my hum bug, and of course of sharing memories.

We were one of those poor families in the fifties and sixties. We children were in care from 54 to 3 Dec 60 (I will remember the day we were released until I die). When our father got us home, we were faced with a Council flat, with very little furniture, only a Kerosine Heater in the living room, and fold up, army surplus beds for us to sleep on.

Our father had been unemployed due to an industrial injury and was on National Assistance. He struggled to pay rent and feed us, let alone buy furniture and the Christmas stuff that he wanted to get for us.

He had been lodging before getting the flat and living sporadically with a girl friend, who kicked him out just before we came home.

That was a strange experience. In care, we’d been fed and clothed and Christmas included church in multiples, carols and stocking with Oranges and apples at the bottom of our beds in the dormitory. At home, it consisted of us sitting around the heater, dressed in all of our clothes on the floor. Just before Christmas, a social worker visited, probably the only time one got in. She rushed off and within hours we had a dining table, chairs, one arm chair and some mats for the floor. We also had a whole heap of pots and pans and a kettle.

We came back to London, with Kent accents – we have the mickey taken at school and I got into numerous fights due to being called specy-4eyes.

Our whole childhood from than on, seemed to be up when dad was working, but mainly down when he was out of work. He eventually got a steady driving job, which allowed us to have a few luxuries. But Christmas remained spartan even up until I left home to join the Army.

So, perhaps, having so little when young, does hang over. You got used to deprivation and hunger, but you never got used to the shame of being on free school meals.

As an adult, I swore that if I had any children, they’d not suffer my upbringing. I was fairly successful, but they did suffer a broken home. But have both come out of it as responsible adults.

23 December 2012 20:54
23 December 2012 01:44
21 December 2012 22:35
Barbara Hart said...

Call me Scrooge but I really get annoyed with involuntary gifts. For the last four years an acquaintance, a friend of a close relative, has given me £20 a head for each member of my family at Christmas on the pretext that she really appreciates what I have done for said relative. It really irks me. I resent being given money by a relative stranger for looking after somebody I love very much, to say nothing of having to trudge to the shops to buy the gifts. I would very much rather she visited my relative or wrote her a letter from time to time.
In the past I have felt obliged to buy something for her in return but this year I forgot about it because the relative died just before the holidays began. I have decided not to reciprocate and hang the consequences.
My husband and I give something to each member of our immediate family. Other than that, I send lots of cards to family and friends whom we shall not see over Christmas. I feel we are pitching it about right. It leaves me with energy left to do what I love at Christmas, sing carols, decorate the tree, go to church on Christmas Day, eat nice things, go to the races on Boxing Day and relax with the people I love.

Lay Anglicana said...

‘Hang the consequences’, that’s the spirit! I love the way you have worked out what is important to you in the celebrations, mixing religious and social observations. I too was beginning to feel rather pressured on all sides to do more. For some years I gave in to this and got through it all with a sort of grim determination but I did a 180 degree turn and am much happier for it ( and suspect those around me are much happier too!). I hope you and yours have a very happy few days 🙂

22 December 2012 07:34
21 December 2012 23:03
Joyce said...

I gave up saying ‘Bah Humbug’ three or four years ago.I used to find the pressure of time to get cards sent,the house decorated, the gifts bought and wrapped etc somewhat distressing as I _felt_ it took attention away from ‘what Christmas was all about’. However,it dawned on me that a feeling was all it was. I changed my viewpoint and now think differently. What I found helpful in the end was seriously to absorb the fact that there are two celebrations, entirely separate,that happen to overlap here and there. Ever since schooldays we’ve all known why the date of Nativity was chosen but it’s only thoroughly sunk in to my brain over the last few years. It’s a good job teachers are not paid by results. I no longer pay attention to the old saw that Jesus’ birth is being more and more commercialised every year. The penny finally dropped that there is no real or necessary connection between the two activities,merely an intersection now and again such as sending and receiving religious Christmas cards or having mulled wine and mince pies served after carol services. That Nativity should coincide with historic pagan feasts in this part of the planet was decided centuries before shops as we know them existed. Making a Bank Holiday out of Christmas and St Stephen’s Days was a relatively recent parliamentary decision but nevertheless also before my time and nothing for me to get worked up about.
Now that there is a Posada on Second Life, a Jesse tree on i-church,podcasts of BBC Advent services, Songs of Praise available on TV On Demand, and services to be found somewhere in the world on the net at almost any time of day or night, there is much more opportunity than there was to take part in both celebrations and enjoy them.

22 December 2012 14:53
Chris Fewings said...

Splendid! I’d forgotten C.S.Lewis could write so well.

22 December 2012 22:37
Rob Stroud said...

That’s an easy question to answer, since Lewis was almost always “right!” Merry Christmas!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Rob!

29 December 2012 20:28
29 December 2012 19:09

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