For some years, I have set aside time during Advent to read Hilaire Belloc’s short essay, “A Remaining Christmas.” First published 80 years ago next year, it has been worth my annual rereading. It is an extended reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation and of each person’s earthly journey.
Even now, Belloc (1870-1953) arouses strong opinions. Conventionally paired with his lifelong friend G. K. Chesterton, Belloc was the more combative and sour part of that creature Bernard Shaw called the Chesterbelloc. The two of them fought a rearguard action against the evils of the age with rhetorical skill. Belloc was the Catholic apologist without apology. Famous for declaring that “the Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith,” Belloc combined a keen historical sense with a sharp analytic mind. He was convinced that the Reformation had ruptured the continuity of Europe in general and of England in particular. In particular, the religious break, compounded with the dramatic changes brought about by industrialism, had separated Europeans from their full history. While some of his writing errs on the cantankerous side, at his best Belloc is a graceful and wide-hearted stylist.
The son of a French father and English mother, Belloc was educated at the famous Oratory, where when still a student he met the aged John Henry Cardinal Newman. After serving a tour in the French military (he was a French citizen), Belloc went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he served as president of the Oxford Union. Angered at not receiving a prestigious appointment as a Fellow to All Souls College (which he attributed, not entirely incorrectly, to anti-Catholic bigotry), Belloc turned to writing and journalism, finding time also for standing a few years as a Liberal member of Parliament for Salford South. Among his more than 100 books and thousands of shorter pieces, he is perhaps best known for his travelogue, Path to Rome; his critique of capitalism, The Servile State; his sailing book The Cruise of the Nona; and his books of children’s poetry. He was also a biographer of note, writing — for example — lives of major figures of the Reformation.
Charles Taylor has written in his book A Secular Age that among its other effects, modernity has shattered the religious sense of time, which is not horizontal — one thing following another, but non-linear — connecting the sacred with the mundane, where the eternal can touch the temporal. Belloc’s Christmas essay is a throwback to this traditional Christian way of thinking. The essay recounts the traditions of Christmastide as observed in Belloc’s home in Sussex, King’s Land. The essay opens with Belloc declaring the problem and the purpose of the essay:
The world is splitting more and more into two camps, and what was common to the whole of it is being restricted to the Christian, and soon will be to the Catholic half.
What was “common” are the traditions and customs of the Christian world.
One cannot avoid those traditions in a house such as King’s Land, the older part of which “grew up gradually” over the past five centuries. When Belloc speaks of the great dining room table in his house, for example, he connects the centuries with the stuff of history, which are infused into this common object: The table
came out of one of the Oxford colleges when Puritans looted them three hundred years ago . . . . It passed from one family to another until at last it was purchased [in his youth and upon his marriage] by the man who now owns this house. . . . It was made, then, while Shakespeare was still living, and while the faith in England still hung in the balance.
History is not, in other words, something that is past. History is something we live with now. With the Incarnation, Christianity has infused history with a sacred meaning. Tradition binds us to our beginnings and enables us to weather the changes of fortune and the losses in human existence. Some might dismiss this kind of language as needlessly florid or triumphalist. As it happens, although discredited at the time, Belloc’s interpretation of the hold of Catholicism on England after the Reformation has been confirmed by historians such as Eamon Duffy. Belloc’s point here, however, is to remind us that every physical object can be charged with meaning and can remind us of the larger traditions of which we are a part.
After describing his house and the surroundings, Belloc details how he and his family celebrate Christmas and the full season through Epiphany, with an account of the old custom of opening doors and windows shortly before midnight New Year’s Eve to let out the old year and its troubles, and bring in the new one with hope. The language on occasion rises to the lyrical, and is in any event hard to summarize other than directly quoting large chunks of the essay. We read of the game-songs played by the village children, Midnight Mass being said in the house, the tree brought in with proper ceremony; in short, “everything conventional, and therefore satisfactory, is done.” And the power of Belloc’s language is such that, whatever your own Christmas traditions, they too begin to seem like his; that is, we can begin to see the commonality in the different ways of celebrating the birth of Jesus in the very physicality of existence, sacralized by this one Birth.
In the conclusion, Belloc summarizes the importance of these traditions in the life of his house, and their connections with the wider world. For these customs are not just for children, and not just for indulging in nostalgia; they form something larger altogether:
This house where such good things are done year by year has suffered all the things that every age has suffered. It has known the sudden separation of wife and husband, the sudden fall of young men under arms who will never more come home, the scattering of the living, and their precarious return, the increase and the loss of fortune, all those terrors and all those lessenings and haltings and failures of hope which make up the life of man. But its Christmas binds it to its own past and promises its future; making the house an undying thing of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival.
That undying house, of course, is meant to remind us not only of the Church but of that other, more spacious House in whose rooms we are promised rest and in which our past and our future will be one. Best wishes for a blessed Christmas.