Getting Particular About Christmas

You cannot select a particular day without selecting a particular subject. You cannot have a day devoted to everything; it is contradicted by the very word devotion. You cannot have a festival dedicated to things in general; it is contradicted by the very idea of dedication. No religion, so far as I know, has ever had a Feast of the Universe; and Robespierre did not really get very far even with a Feast of the Supreme Being. It is too simple to be a sensation; and a festival must be a sensation. A man will not be happy about all things, except in the sense in which he can be happy on all days. To produce the special psychological condition called rejoicing it is necessary to have something to rejoice over; something that can be hailed like a signal or received like a message. Hence, apart from anything else, any attempt to generalize a thing like Christmas is at war with a fact of human nature. To avoid the difficulty of dealing in a light controversial fashion with truths so tremendous as those really to be found in the heart of Christmas, I will assume, for the sake of argument, that some peasants somewhere have a very ancient tradition for keeping, let us say, the Feast of the St. Francis. In one sense, to celebrate St. Francis is to celebrate all things and all people, for his charity went out to the most ragged robber and his sympathy to the smallest bird. Nevertheless, you can keep a symbolic ritual about St. Francis, as you cannot keep it about a vague medley of robbers and robins. And the reason is the fact in the heart of the fancies—a person and a real person. There was such a person as St. Francis; there is not such person as St. Friend.

This does, indeed, depend in its turn on a truth of human nature for which I have never been able to find a satisfactory definition, but upon it turns the form of all poetry and the ritual of all religions. We talk of the impossibility of seeing the wood for the trees, or of seeing the trees for the wood; but there is a much more mysterious truth in that dark wood of mysticism and mythology. The truth is that the nerve of imagination may only be touched when we can say, as would be said in a fairy-tale: “Within that wood there is one magic tree.” So far as human imagining is concerned, it might almost be any tree, but it must be one. Different poets might say it of each tree in turn. But all the poets could only say it of one tree at a time. They must all be (in that sense) unable to see the wood, not only for the trees, but for the single tree. I would say that that one tree hid all the wood, were it not (by the another paradox) a part of the very prominence of the tree that it is hidden in the wood. All this sounds very simple; but the more it is considered the more mysterious it will be found. I have never found any explanation that was entirely rationalistic and also entirely rational. I have only found one explanation of any kind. And that is that our souls do not come from everywhere, but from somewhere; that the method of our salvation was truly local an personal, and not cosmic an impersonal; that it is our fundamental spiritual nature to look for a particular place and a particular person; or, in other words, that the one tree in the wood is really a Christmas tree.

—G. K. Chesterton

Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2011 by Pastor Jerry Owen