Last night, I dreamed there was no Christmas.
I was walking along a wide street which seemed all the wider for being so empty. A steady snow had been falling for some time and there was about an inch of snow on everything. The snow gave the scene a strange sense of silence and desolation. There was no footsteps marked in the snow beside my own, and one could almost have believed it was simply the dust which countless ages had allowed to settle unmolested. There was no sound anywhere, the snow dampening whatever little sound might have been there otherwise. So far as I could tell, I might have been the only living being in all that white vastness.
If the sun had been out, the snow would have been blinding with its crystalized glory. But the clouds were so heavy above the city that there was no direct light. I had been walking for hours, it seemed, but the weather had changed at all. It was as if time had gotten stuck at the moment of twilight, as if day and night had been balanced out and reached their eternal equilibrium.
The cold was hard and penetrating, but without wind endurable. I walked on, my feet making no sound in the soft snow, and my mind filled with a strange sadness. It seemed almost obscene that such a scene should be enacted with no one to take an interest in it--that such a rich snowfall should come without anyone to praise it. I felt a pang in my heart to realize that no one would see this wintery magic and begin singing “In the Bleak Midwinter,” or about how old Wenceslas looked out “When the snow lay all about,/Deep and crisp and even” or how “It came, a floweret bright,/Amid the cold of winter,/When half spent was the night.” For, after all, it was Christmas Eve.
At least, it was December 24, though it had been decades since anyone had paid any special attention to that date or any date. As I walked through the endless snow, I couldn't help thinking how in another time and place the whole city might have been aglow with brightly colored lights; how the white wilderness might have been broken by friendly snowmen and boughs of greenery on the lampposts and carols playing over loudspeakers. It would not have been a perfect celebration--very few things in this world are perfect--but it would have been something, something more than the dark twilight and the cold, silent snow, something more than this empty world where in a deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars went by. I glanced up at the tall buildings that surrounded me. Some where dark but from a faint light trickled out, but that only served to make the dusk without seem sharper and more distinct. I knew that in all this vast city, I was the only one who knew or cared that tonight was Christmas Eve or, at any rate, should have been Christmas Eve.
It hadn't always been this way, of course. Once the night would have been broken just as I imagined it, by lights of red and green, by glowing evergreens and people bustling on Christmas errands. But that was all long ago and there was now no more Christmas. If the world had changed by violence, that would have been one thing--if the trees and lights had been turn down by cruel invaders, if Christmas had died in fire and blood it might have been better, for fire and blood are terrible things but at least they are bright and abrupt, as bright and abrupt as Christmas lights and crucifixion and angels singing in the desert. Such things are worth remembering, if only in horror. There might then have been memorials and remembrances, instead of this trackless, snowy wilderness, blanketing the past with forgetfulness and ignorance.
There had always been those who sought to abolish Christmas. Atheists had disapproved of it (for obvious reasons) with an honorable if slightly irritating consistency. But the blank negative of pure atheism is not something that very many people will ever get excited about. When the presidency of Donald Trump was not enough to rouse a popular rebellion against conventional religion, the atheists gave it up as a bad business and went back to writing depressing poetry and TV documentaries, human if not exactly healthy occupations.
The real danger had come more softly, with a sinister silence like the gradual torrent of the falling snow, as rational and obvious as the first step to madness always is. It was urged that certain elements in Christmas celebrations were not suited for all people; and if people did not enjoy a celebration, it could hardly be called a celebration. Some people didn't like the smell of pine, so should we really use Christmas trees? Christmas carols became suspect because some people have no ear for music and some people only like heavy metal music (which could hardly be converted to Christmas Music). Christmas is a time for families, but some people have no families and still others do not like their families. Christmas, so it seemed, would have to change if it were to be celebrated. The same objections were urged against other holidays. People objected to Thanksgiving (or “Turkey Day” as it had then come to be called) on the grounds that many people did not especially like turkey and those who could were quite capable of cooking a turkey any time of the year if they wanted it. (How the Pilgrim Fathers turned in their graves at that. They were not perfect men but they were never as silly as that. Also, they didn't have turkey at their Thanksgiving, anyway. The charges against Christmas might have caused Christ to turn in His grave as well, except, of course, He wasn't in His grave.)
In another era, the charges would have never been made and never would have survived if they had been made, but two things were clear about this particular era. One was that it was, though not an especially happy time, a very thoroughly comfortable time. People were not necessarily satisfied or content--they might grumble about what they did not have, but they always took what they did have entirely for granted as a simple, foundational thing. Those who were well-fed (not all of them were, but many were, many more than in other times) took being well-fed as the normal state of man and so the word “feast” was quite meaningless to them. The second thing to understand about that era was that it was mad on exceptions; the exception was always treated as something more solid and foundational than the rule; the fact that one leave blew west was always considered far more relevant than the fact that ten thousand blew east. The authority and dignity of all parents were considered suspect because some parents abused their authority. The fact that some people were confused about their sexuality was taken to prove that sexuality did not exist. The obvious truth that a nation sometimes acted foolishly and even wickedly was seen as a clear indication that nationality was an exploded myth. All this, considered philosophically, is the same as saying that if you find one dog who has had two legs cut off this prove that canines are bipedal. But that was an era which had no time for philosophy. They had a quite human (if rather morbid) sense of compassion, and an honest passion for consistency, but without philosophy, they could seek for consistency only in flat terms of black and white, in a system where the abnormal could disprove the normal and the exception had to be taken as typical.
All Christmas trees were swaying dangerously at this, but the attack was too mild and respectable to pull them down completely. Still, it had created a doubt and doubt is like faith in this, that though it be as small as a mustard seed at first yet, at the end, it can cast mountains into the sea. The boughs of greenery had been like dikes, holding back floods of ancient madness, and as they rocked in momentary doubt, the old questions rushed in and reclaimed the world.
But even this seemed, at the beginning, mild and respectable and even rational--especially rational. It was urged that Christmas was, after all, a purely arbitrary and irrational symbol. Some mild-mannered and punctilious souls pointed out that Christmas was celebrated with snow and reindeer, both of which were rather rare in first century Palestine. Others, with no less originality, pointed out that we have no definitive evidence that Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth of December. (A few obdurate people replied that we also have no definitive evidence that He wasn't. But no one paid much attention to them.) However, as the movement grew in momentum, it quickly outgrew such pedantry. The issue became more fundamental. The issue was that there was something arbitrary and irrational about Christmas celebrations in principle--something which would have remained if the celebrants had observed the most careful historical accuracy in their celebration. Why, asked the objectors, should we take such trouble to remember that Christ was born on one particular day of the year? If we really believe in the significance of His life, should we not remember it every day of the year? And if we were going to celebrate it at all, why with things which do not have and do not pretend to have any direct relation to His birth or life?
The objection, as it grew, was not specifically even against Christmas but against all holidays. The same objections were also brought against Thanksgiving--surely we should be thankful all the time, not just on the fourth Thursday of November--against Easter, against Valentine's Day, against Independence Day, but the strongest cases were made against New Years Day and Birthdays. Obviously, these were the most arbitrary and irrational of all. There is no reason in the world why any day of the year should not be considered the beginning of the New Year. What real difference was there between December 31 and January 1 that the change might be celebrated like a change from death to life? In the same way, was a child who was five years and one day old really that much changed from a child who was four years and three hundred and sixty four days old? And if there was a real difference, it would be there with or without birthday cake and presents. Indeed, the movement was, seemingly, unanswerable. If the holidays did not represent something real, there was no point in celebrating them, for they were illusory. If the holidays did represent something real, there was also no point in celebrating them, for the real thing would exist whether it was celebrated or not.
This movement attacking Christmas and all holidays developed into a fairly set pattern. Its proponents were Christians of a rigid, rationalist tendency (nearly all of them American, since Americans are the only people in the world old-fashioned enough to be rigid or rationalist) and a number of atheists who had rechristened themselves as worshippers of the Life-Force (which usually meant worshippers of George Bernard Shaw.) Their arguments seemed unanswerable but also a little repelling, and the world in that era was not a world to be swayed by mere logic. There was something cold and inhuman about the movement which won the respect and support only of cold and inhuman people (of whom there were many in that time.) But it still might not have succeeded if it hadn't received surprising support in the fact of being attacked.
All extremes in social movements created counterextremes, but it is a dark day for the human race when extremes and counterextremes meet in the middle (or anywhere else, for that matter.) The cold rationalism of the anti-Christmas movement caused a new movement to appear--it was a pattern of belief which had existed for some time but which coalesced into a definite movement with the appearance of the anti-Christmas movement. This movement objected to the attempt to understand the world in terms of strict reason, the refusal to acknowledge feelings or emotions as significant. They said, in fact, that feelings and emotions were the really important things and it was the cold rationalism of their opponents which was insignificant. For the religious members of this movement, the battle cry was the words of E. M. Bounds: “The world by wisdom can never receive nor understand God, because God reveals himself to men's hearts, not to their heads... God is not grasped by thought but by feeling.” Those who were less religious nonetheless agreed that the really important things in life were not the things that could be written down on paper, but the feelings and emotions of human beings. The rationalist were rigid and exact, they said, because they were dead. Their precision was simply rigor mortis. Living things cannot be tied down to neat, careful definitions; livings things cannot (without some struggle) be put into a box--not even a Christmas Box.
For that was the ironic thing about this movement--even though it opposed the inhuman rationalism of the anti-Christmas movement, it was also equally opposed to Christmas. Christmas, they felt, was something too cold and formal. Those of the movement who were historians started ranting about ritualism and the dregs of popery; those who were theologians talked for hours about love abolishing the law. The rest of the movement were content with simpler arguments. The central ideas of Christmas were joy and love. What could be more absurd than trying to tie down joy and love to arbitrary symbols like evergreens and snowmen? If we had joy and love without them they were unnecessary; and if joy and love were caused solely by them, they were illusory. If we had to stop and think in order to rouse an emotion, it couldn't be a very real emotion. If we needed Christmas to make us remember that we loved our family or our God, then we really didn't love them in the first place.
It was this weird collision which brought an end to Christmas. The world was filled with two movements which disagreed on nearly every point except in their opposition to Christmas, to all holidays--in short, to specificity. The fact that they disagreed on everything else seemed to make it all but certain that they must be right about the one thing on which they agreed. One side said that Christmas was too emotional; the other side it was not emotional enough; one side that Christmas trees were too arbitrary; the other side said they were too rigid and formal. Out of this collision came a clear conclusion: everything that was formal and arbitrary should be abolished; Christmas had to go. Whether we were look at every day as special or look away from every day, we could not mark one day as holy. Whether we were to love the world or hate the world, we could not separate one part of the world as sacred.
And so Christmas came to an end. The last Christmas tree was carted away and burned. The last of the wrapping paper found its congenial home in the depths of landfills. The last lights were turned out. (There was some movement to abolish snow, too, but this came to nothing.) December 25 became a day exactly like every other day.
Of course, Christmas was not alone in this destruction. Every other holiday from New Year's Day to Boxing Day was subjected to the same treatment. Hallowe'en and Independence Day outlasted the others by a few years--Hallowe'en, because it was seen to be more of an attack on traditional celebrations than a traditional celebration, and Independence Day because it had political importance--but they obviously could not be saved in the end. (A few people argued that April Fool's Day should remain as the one sacred, national holiday, but those in the anti-holiday movement did not have enough sense of humor even to be angered by the suggestion.) Nor did the movement end there; the days of the week were also abolished, for obviously considering one day as “Monday” and another day as “Thursday” was every whit as arbitrary at Christmas. The week itself was a thing as superstitious and superfluous as New Year's Day. Practical concerns prevented the attempt to do away with the calendar completely, but the destroyers were able to push it to the sidelines.
With this done, they turned their attention to other things. Funerals and weddings were also abolished, since they were also ritual and arbitrary affairs. People were puzzled that the abolition of weddings should cause considerable weakening of the family but then some went on to argue that the family should also be abolished as being too arbitrary and ritualistic. The rationalists said a man should not love his wife and children because we should love everyone. The emotionalists said that if he loved his wife and children because they were his, it was not true love.
Then, of course, there was the religious side of the matter. With the abolition of the holidays, hymnals had to be rewritten to remove all reference to them. One exceptionally clear thinker also pointed out they had better remove Robert Robinson's line: “Here I raise my Ebenezer,/Hither by Thy help I've come” which is, after all, only a religious coloring on the idea of a holiday, a remembrance, an arbitrary stone set up to remind us of something we should know without being reminded. This caused people to think the matter through more seriously and led to the abolition of hymnals all together. The rationalists claimed that nothing could be added to the truth by setting it to poetry and music. The emotionalists claimed that the hymns with their exact words and ideas were far too rationalistic (except for a handful of modern songs which survived in chorus books which were obviously harmless to the most rigid hater of intellectualism.) But, for the matter of that, religious observances themselves decayed almost to nothing. The abolition of “Sunday” had started it--somehow the idea that church services could be held any day led to their not being held very often at all--but it was really the logical conclusion for both the logicians and anti-logicians. If we love God, we shouldn't need to go a particular place and engage in His worship. And if our love for God arose out of going to a particular place and engaging in His worship, it wasn't really love. (The Eucharist and Baptism, I need hardly mention, had been abolished almost at the beginning of the movement, even before Christmas.)
And so it was that I was walking this empty streets this night, this night which should have been Christmas eve, but which was, for all the people in the sleepy city, exactly the same as every other day of the year. It seemed as if with the end of Christmas, the snow should have refused to fall, as if the whole world should have grown brown and dry. But Mother Nature was the only one in the world who seemed to have any sense of humor left--and so the snow came down as rich and pure as Irving Berlin could have wished. Nature, at any rate, refused to treat December as being exactly like July.
I could not escape the weird sense of loneliness and desolation in this snowy wilderness. Perhaps it was all coincidence and sentiment, but I couldn't help but wonder if the destroyers had really fulfilled their promises. Was the world really filled constantly and consistently with an awareness of the reality of Christ's birth? Had every single mental state which had been called up by the old holidays--had they all reigned steadily without diminution through out the mind of every person, every day throughout the entire past year? Somehow, I knew they had not. I didn't fully know why but I knew that they had failed and they had been doomed to fail. I knew it was with good reason that God had beseeched and commanded men to do things in order to remember, to raise memorials, to stir up their pure minds by way of remembrance. I knew there was a reason why God had given to man a love of specific things and people and not a general love for all good things.
I knew that the destroyers were wrong and the orthodox had been right--I knew that specificity could not be evil. For Christians, of all people in the world, believe that specificity is divine--Christians alone believe that God became a specific man who was born at a specific place and walked specific places. And because it was all specific, all specifics (not in generally, but still in glorious specificity) had been glorified by His presence. Snow could be a sacred thing because, though Jesus probably never saw it, He might have seen it. He saw other conditions of nature, just as natural. He might have been wrapped in a cloak of rabbit's fur as in the Huron Carol. He might have walked “upon England's mountains green”--He walked other places just as natural. The brute facts of life could rise up as something beautiful and riotous because God had walked among them.
And then I knew that Christmas--like Christ--existed to the heal the very schism which had ended Christmas. The only place where pure intellect and pure emotion can meet is in pure volition. The Word and the Glory must become Flesh. In Christ, the reason of God and the depth of divine energy we call emotion because united in a single person (without mixture, without confusion) who learned obedience by the things He suffered. Christ did not tell men to think well of Him or to feel good about Him--but to follow Him. That central act of the will was expressed in the sacrament, the union of intellect and emotion in the simple act of eating. It was also expressed in putting up Christmas trees. It was arbitrary, but then so is everything else man does. It is all expressed in the tradition that Christ was a carpenter, and a carpenter is a thing every bit and mystical and arbitrary as a poet--a carpenter is a man who sends his life turning trees into chairs and tables, which is not different in principle from turning them into Christmas Trees.
I had been walking for hours it seemed and still had seen no sign of another human being in all the vast city. It began to strike me as unnatural. I wondered what the net result of all this would be. The destroyers had been wrong in what they took away, but what had they left? And after I moment, I knew what was left. Take from man volition and specificity and he will not retain intellect or emotion very long. Start with the abolition of holidays and, somehow, in the end, you will come to “the abolition of man.” Only one thing remains, and that is pleasure, the thing which man shares in common with the beasts that perish. There is all the difference in the world between celebration, even revelry, even sinful revelry, and mere pleasure.
Glancing around at the dark buildings in the night, I remembered vividly those words of Auden: “Each in his little bed conceived of islands/Where every day was dancing in the valleys.” In my mind I saw the dark apotheosis to which all this would lead. Man had been cut off from holidays, from specificity--therefore, in the end, from one another and therefore from God, for if we do not recognize existence of the brother we have seen, how shall we acknowledge the existence of God whom we have not seen? The worst part was that it was possible--for whatever else the destroyers had destroyed, they had not destroyed science. The possibility of science producing constant and unceasing pleasure was certainly real. I imagined a future in which the streets would really be as dead and silent as they seemed this night; where in each of these dark buildings would be a lost soul, lying in an endless dream of pleasure without reason, without diminution. Perhaps the human race would come to a point of stagnation, or perhaps the propagation of the rate could be carried on via machine. (Shaw would have liked that.) I imagined babies be born in incubators and reared in VR chambers, only to join the great host of sleeping, dreaming men--the great grace of human animals who knew nothing of holidays.
In that cold, piercing night, I felt as if that dark conclusion had already been reached. And I felt, then, that I was in Hell. For nowhere in Heaven or Earth could there be pleasure without happiness, could there be existence without life. Only in Hell could humans come so close and yet not quite manage to not exist.
But then, just as I thought this, I heard it--I heard it like a sharp cold wind from the other side of the universe, like a shiver of awe across the spine of truth. Somewhere near me, a low treble voice was singing: “Good Christians, fear: for sinners here/The silent Word is pleading.”
I rushed forward and around a corner and for the first time that night saw another human being. A young man, hardly more than a boy, was kneeling on one knee in the snow before a very shoddy and makeshift Nativity Scene he had constructed out of the snow and a few pieces of garbage. It looked as rough and and uninviting as St. Francis's had probably looked--as that first stable had probably looked to Mary and Joseph. Without a word, I knelt beside him in the snow with a thrill as of something strange and almost unnatural. That must have been how the disciple felt when for the first time after the Crucifixion they drink the wine and ate the bread and knew they were eating the flesh and blood of God. I knew then that I had been wrong, that my fears were unfounded, that sanity was, in the end, a thing deeper and more fundamental to the universe than madness--I knew that there was a true light shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot understand it.
And then my dream was torn away and I was awake and it was Christmas morning. But as the dream left, my ears were ringing with a sound, with the sound of angels' wings, of the turning of a great wheel, of old things born a new, of man and God walking strong upon the earth.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,
Praises voicing, greet the morrow.
Christ the Lord is born for you.