Several years ago, I was given a very handsome Platinum Press edition of Stories for Christmas by Charles Dickens. This book has 478 pages, so Dickens had much to say about this wonderful, wonder-filled feast. I recall Chesterton saying somewhere that the ceremony surrounding the English-speaking Christmas is practically invented by Dickens.
We Americans, in addition to Dickens and Yule logs, also have elements of the Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, Slavic, Irish, and other traditions in our Christmas. We hear a lot about the decline of Christmas, the substitution of all sorts of things for the centrality of the Christ child and what He means and is. We wonder, nonetheless, about the heart of Christmas, about its essence.
It does not take much reading in Dickens to arouse a Christmas mood in our souls. I have read somewhere, and have often experienced it myself, that simply reading the first lines of a novel or short story is enough to set us off, to make us want to know what happens next. The "once upon a time" is often enough. We are beings who want to know the whole story.
So I found in this collection a Dickens tale called "The Poor Relation’s Story." It is a Christmas scene, a 19th-century family gathering. The story begins: "He was very reluctant to take precedence of so many respected members of the family, by beginning the round of stories they were to relate as they sat in a goodly circle by the Christmas fire . . . ." The "he" in that passage is, of course, the poor relation of the title.
On Christmas, I suppose, not a few "Christmas fires" still burn among us. But I rather doubt that many a "round of stories" before "goodly circles" can still be found in the land. Yet, the mere reading of such a sentence keeps alive in our souls a tradition that we may not directly know. Belloc indeed said that, often, writing about what happened in our home county is almost the only way to preserve it as we knew it. We would be better off, I suspect, if, instead of watching television we told one another "goodly stories" at Christmastide. I recall that one of the charms about the Tolkien yarns was precisely when, after a wonderful supper, all gathered in the great hall to hear the stories.
Is Christmas a "story," then? Certainly, much of the "once upon a time" element hovers about it. Most of us can narrate its central drama — the Decree of Caesar Augustus, the manger in Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels on high, peace on earth, good will to men, Joseph, Mary, the Child.
Two kinds of story exist, those about something that never happened and those about something that did. There is truth in both kinds. We are told by not a few exegetes that Christmas is but a story. What we read never "happened" — the donkey and all that. The story, as it stands, is intelligible enough to us. We know there was a Roman census. Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Egypt were real places. Every detail of the Nativity narrative has been doubted by someone.
At Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in 2006, Benedict said: "The Child lying in the manger is truly God’s Son. God is not eternal solitude but rather a circle of love and mutual self-giving. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit." He is "true God and true man."
"Why is this important?" we might ask, about who Christ is. Actually, not very many people really do ask this question. We have developed a protective habit of not asking important questions. We are pretty sure that the answers to the questions will not be to our liking. So we figure out other explanations — more comforting ones, as we like to think, though it is difficult to imagine anything more comforting than the Nativity, in its truth.
If we think about it, it is not too difficult to believe in or understand the arguments that suggest that God exists. The real dividing line, even today (especially today), comes with the "Who" of this Child in Bethlehem. The last lines of Romano Guradini’s book, The Humanity of Christ, read:
In the midst of creation in its sinful state, a centre was born which the Son of God drew into his own being. It is there now — the starting-point of new life. This starting-point cannot be explained in terms of this world, but its rays light up the whole world. From this point the Logos reaches out and takes hold of the world, bit by bit — or else the world shuts itself up against him, is thereby judged and falls back into darkness.
These are solemn words among "men of good will."
The Christmas fire, the circle gathered around it, the tales, the rays of light. God is not eternal solitude. The Logos reaches out bit by bit. The world shuts itself against Him to create a solitude of its own that is not found in the Godhead. "The Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not." We are beings who want to know the whole story.
Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., teaches political science at Georgetown University. His latest book, The Mind That Is Catholic, is published by Catholic University of America Press.