Sense and Nonsense: Christmas Numbers of Magazines

Over the years, I have enjoyed doing a Christmas column in this Sense and Nonsense series. But since columns usually need to be submitted a couple of months before publication, I find I am writing something about Christmas not on the Night Before Christmas, but sometime in September or October, not very Christmas-like months.

Having acquired a copy of Chesterton’s All Things Considered, I noticed that the last essay in this delightful book is appropriately titled “Christ-mas,” a piece on the morality of vivisection and whether one can, in clear conscience, eat a turkey for Christmas dinner. Chesterton confronts the argument of those who, out of sympathy for the turkey, do not want him served for Christmas dinner. This anthropomorphizing of the turkey, so that we deal with him according to the very same ethical principles that we employ with regard to our Uncle Harry, has, in Chesterton’s view, something sinister about it. God, Chesterton observed, has told us something of what the angelic world is about, but He has left precious little information for us to go on when dealing with animals.

Chesterton adds these memorable lines: “But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.” One can just imagine Chesterton, in a fit of scientific ardor, spending a couple of hours before a live turkey gazing into its dull eyes to see what it can tell him. Why, indeed, did God invent the turkey except for Christmas dinner?

Chesterton begins this essay, to return to Christmas writing before Christmas, in this manner: “There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article.” Schall is doing the same thing. But why dangerous or disgusting? “It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment that great day is not and the next moment the great day is.” This observation gets to the heart of things. If we stretch out things too much, they lose their identity. This is pretty much what happens to commercial Christmases that begin somewhere near the beginning of November.

As I recall, it was a rule in our family that no present be opened before the assigned time on Christmas morn. I still remember as a kid the wonder at this prohibition on which much of the glory of Christmas rested. “And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day.” This is right. Chesterton thought, then, that Christmas editions of magazines should not appear long before our desire for a “Christmas turkey dinner” is even thought of. “Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day.” Of course, Advent was also designed to prepare us for the surprise of Christmas without being itself Christmas. How the modern postal services could deliver with Santa on Christmas Eve, I am sure Chesterton never worried—though today with online journals, it seems quite possible.

“Of course,” Chesterton admit-ted, “all this secrecy about Christmas is merely sentimental and ceremonial, if you do not like what is sentimental and ceremonial, do not celebrate Christmas at If a thing only exists in order to be graceful, do it gracefully or do not do it. If a thing only exists as something professing to be solemn, do it solemnly or do not do it.” This touches the heart of how we should look at Christmas, the annual moment of the celebration of the birth of the Incarnate God. We should again experience gracefully, joyously, solemnly the wonder of the great day that breaks in on us.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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