Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Shop of Ghosts

Rather a paradoxical title for a post around Christmas, it might seem, but Christmas is rife with paradoxes. The Burning Babe comes in the frost of winter, to thaw the chilled hearts of men; the All-Powerful becomes a defenseless infant; there is no room for the King of Kings at the inn; the Lord of Lords is born in a stable; God becomes Man. There is another paradox to Christmas, however, that Chesterton touched on in one of his "Tremendous Trifles" called "The Shop of

In this trifle, GKC wanders into a toy shop in the poorer end of Battersea. There, he encounters a dying old man who refuses to accept money for the toys GKC tries to buy--and who turns out to be Father Christmas. In one of those supernatural twists to Chesterton's fiction, other literary figures--Dickens, Richard Steele, Ben Jonson, even Robin Hood--suddenly make an appearance in the toy shop, all questioning why, since he was dying in their time, Father Christmas is still alive. Finally, it is Dickens who discovers the answer to the riddle: Father Christmas has been dying since he was born; but he will never die.

This paradox of Christmas extends to everything about it, including it's traditions. For something so earth-shatteringly powerful, universal, and stirring, Christmas is surprisingly intangible; we experience it almost solely through the richness of living tradition. And the startling fact--the paradox-- is that when we focus too strongly on the traditions, that vivid richness is lost. We can be glad of giving and receiving gifts, but if we forget the reason we are doing so--because the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us--the traditions suddenly become empty, they become blurry, losing shape and form because they have lost purpose. No tradition, no sentiment has any value when separated from priceless Child in the manger. Nostalgia is not a satisfying feeling; it is a hunger and a thirst for something. Memories do not satisfy; they remind.

That is why, as in "The Shop of Ghosts," Christmas is dying, yet cannot die. It's source is eternal, it's traditions temporal--meaning those external traditions, such as Christmas trees and carols and family gatherings. The temporal outward signs are always dying, like a tree dying in winter; yet because the roots are eternal, it is always living again.

In our time, and as Chesterton suggests, always, Christmas is under attack. Nativity scenes are banned in public places; "holiday" and "season" have edged "Christmas" out of the vernacular; anti-Christians struggle to hold on to the external branches of celebration while rejecting the roots, by having "Winter Solstice Celebrations." As Father Christmas says in "The Shop of Ghosts":

"All the new people have left my shop. I cannot understand it. They seem to object to me on such curious and inconsistent sort of grounds, these scientific men, these innovators. They say that I give people superstitions and make them too visionary; they say I give people sausages and make them too coarse. They say my heavenly parts are too heavenly; they say my earthly parts are too earthly; I don't know what they want, I'm sure. How can heavenly things be too heavenly, or earthly things too earthly? How can one be too good, or too jolly?"

He is speaking, of course, of Christmas Traditions. Father Christmas himself is a tradition, indeed, the embodiment of all the traditions; and like all the other traditions, he is dying as the world constantly attempts to cut him off from his roots, his source of life.

All "Christmasses past" are bound into one poignant and powerful memory by the golden thread of tradition; though the externals have sometimes changed, the celebration of Christmas has been much the same since the time of...Robin Hood. The reason for this communion of Christmas traditions, spanning centuries and continents, is that at Christmas, all the earth is drawn round the creche, knowingly or no. That constancy of eternal truth, ever ancient, ever new, is what makes all Christmasses one, for their center is One: the Holy Christ Child. And that is why Christmas cannot die.

Merry Christmas to all!

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