A Stanford Nutting Christmas Holiday
Prince Caspian, the Movie

The Heart of Christmas

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2010

When I was a child, Christmas was the most wonderful thing in the world to me. The only thing that even came close to matching its appeal was a trip to Florida, to the white sand and blue-green waters of the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, I was more interested in Santa Claus and the presents he brought me than in the Nativity of Christ. I learned fairly early that this was not really the correct way to think or feel about Christmas, but I couldn’t help it. Mary and Joseph and the baby and the stable and the manger and the shepherds and the angels and the Wise Men were all very sweet, but a little off to one side in the Christmas picture, not nearly as entrancing as the Christmas tree and the magical surprise of the presents that would appear around it on Christmas morning.

And yet I was conscious that without the Nativity the rest of it was meaningless and without real delight. When I say I was conscious of this, I don’t mean that I reasoned it out in a chain of logic—B is dependent on A, and therefore if I want A I must also have B—or put it into words for myself, but that I perceived, directly, that the things I loved about Christmas could not be separated from the event it commemorates. From the time I could read I felt that there was something amiss when “Season’s Greetings” was substituted for “Merry Christmas.” (Even in the 1950s, there was sometimes an impulse to make “the holidays” a generic secular winter festival; it would make an interesting subject of study to see just how far back that goes in popular culture and advertising, and how it developed.)

There was a seasonal or holiday magazine of sorts that appeared in our house sometimes. It was called something Ideals: that is, Christmas Ideals, Easter Ideals, and so on. I mainly remember the Christmas one. It was something more than an ordinary magazine, much heavier and thicker, really a sort of book, and as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of pictures, stories, and poems associated with the holiday. The Christmas one of course relied heavily on snow and evergreens and all the other trappings of Christmas in the northern parts of the U.S. and Europe. I loved it and pored over it again and again in the weeks before Christmas for the pleasure of tasting that sense of magical expectation that anything connected with Christmas gave me. Some of the pieces were of the generic winter variety: a snowy landscape with no hint of red and green to suggest Christmas, a description of a holiday gathering which did not name the holiday. Living in a hot climate, I felt a romantic attraction toward snowy landscapes, but in this context I felt that something was missing if they were no more than that.

And the music: I always felt that “Winter Wonderland” had something missing, but I think I was twelve or fourteen before I realized that it is not in fact a Christmas song. I never even much cared for the Santa Claus songs which left everything but Santa out of the picture.

I knew instinctively that the story of the Nativity, with all its implications about the nature of the world and our place in it, was the heart of Christmas. Maybe I preferred to look at the face, but I knew, unconsciously, that it was dependent on the heart for its life.

And this was true whether or not I recognized it. Those who celebrate a Christmas without Christ don’t recognize it, and don’t believe the connection between the two is a necessary one. But I’m pretty sure they’re mistaken. We can still see Christ in the popular American commercial Christmas by his absence; it’s as if all the a-religious trappings outline his form. If you try to imagine a Christmas which had never been founded in the Bethlehem story at all, you get something very different.

The secularizers who for various purposes of their own—anti-Christian or merely commercial—wish to eliminate Christmas in favor of a featureless Holiday that commemorates nothing in particular may eventually succeed. But that Holiday will inevitably be dull in comparison with what it replaces, and probably increasingly squalid as well, given the general drift of our society. The particular festive spirit that animates Christmas is a product of hope, a hope that cannot be entirely defeated by the world, because it looks toward something beyond the world. But anything which does not look beyond the world will sooner or later be defeated by it.

As with the holiday, so with the culture at large. The increasingly post-Christian culture of America and Europe are nevertheless more deeply rooted in Christianity than is usually recognized by its opponents (and some of its adherents). It’s at least theoretically possible that this culture will eventually get Christianity out of its system, out of the roots of its consciousness, and negligible as a cultural force, reduced to the private practices of an eccentric few. This would take several generations, and I don’t think it will happen, but it certainly could. And if it did, the resulting culture would, like Christmas, lose the hope and the humanism which had been its legacy from Christianity. As with Christmas, if the heart were to stop beating, the body would die.

We have seen the prospects for that new culture already, in the totalitarian nightmares of communism and fascism, in the wasteland of pleasure-and-power-seeking which is offered as the good life by much of the entertainment and advertising produced by capitalism, in the drab materialist collectivism of “Imagine” and the absurd materialist egoism of Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps it’s not even too much to say that if Christmas were to die, the remains of Christian culture would die, too, and with it that softness toward the individual human person—imperfect, of course, and slow to develop—that has characterized it. As long as the mad mixture of the very earthly and the very heavenly which is Christmas—the poor and vulnerable newborn baby among the animals on the one hand,  choirs of angels on the other—remains at the heart of the holiday, and the holiday remains very much alive in the culture, the natural coldness and brutality of the human race is always challenged from within the culture itself. Should that challenge be removed, no one would be more surprised by the result than those who worked to remove it. They might not live to see that result, but if their souls were not lost altogether, part of their purgatory might be the knowledge of what they had done to their descendants.


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"But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all."

"Can't I?"

"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings
and the ox and the ass."

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."

"But you can't BELIEVE things because they're a lovely idea."

"But I do. That's how I believe."

I love this passage from Brideshead. And I think that in a large part this is what children, and all of us, see in Christmas. Not so much that it's a lovely idea, but that it's lovely--filled with love. It's the heart of Christmas and at that heart is a family.


A supernatural family. That's a key part of it to me. It opens a door to another kind of life.

BTW, I remember those Ideals books.




Neat. I'm glad to see that my memory wasn't totally off base.

I remember those 'Ideals' books and may even have a couple in storage (we saved a box or two of Xmas things from my old house when my parents moved -- they are in storage).

I think you are correct about Christmas being, in a sense, the last manifestation of Christendom that's still extant and accepted culturally in today's society. Hence the importance of celebrating it both Christianly and traditionally -- it's important to keep its "heart" and its trappings tied together, so to speak, so that the trappings still have some reference to the heart. For the Christian the trappings will always resonate.

On a related subject, I recently found a service that will put old LPs onto CDs or MP3s for you. There are probably lots of these around, but this one specializes in old Christmas records. I found two old records, unavailable on CD, that we had when we were kids, one from the annual 'Firestone' Xmas record series and the other from Goodyear's similar series. Boy, talk about bringing back memories! I hadn't heard these for at least 35 years, but it's amazing how particular moments of the performances stick in your head -- the horn arrangement from one version of 'The Little Drummer Boy,' for instance, or the strings on "O Holy Night." While listening to these it came to mind that these were undoubtedly the first versions of these songs that I ever heard, and that despite having heard dozens of different versions of these songs hundreds of times over the ensuing 35 years, these are the ones that have stuck with me.

Interesting--I don't think I have any musical memories as detailed as that.

Re Christmas and its trappings: I really don't begrudge the trappings, up to a point. Over the past week or so I've read a couple of pieces about the contribution of Jews to either the secularization or the institutionalization of Christmas through such secular-Christmas songs as "White Christmas" (Irving Berlin"). I really don't mind that--if the vibe (pardon the expression) of Christmas spills over and appeals to those who can't accept its religious heart, that's cool with me. It's only when the secularization becomes a conscious attempt to suppress rather than to avoid the religion that I begin to object.

I found some old copies of Ideals on eBay but I don't think I'm going to try to obtain one. Better just to appreciate what they meant to me at the age of 10 or 12 or so.

There were, of course, decorations that I treasured when I was young and, far and away, the one I treasured most was a red candle about 7" high and 3" in diameter. It had a little niche hollowed out of the front, and a little Baby Jesus was lying in the niche on a gold paper sunburst. I really miss that candle.

And then, we had two 45 rpm records that were translucent red. I thought they were mysterious and wonderful. I don't remember what 3 of the songs were, but one was "Sleigh Ride." I played that over and over again when I was little. After the part that says "giddy-up let's go" (except this was an instrumental) there was a loud crack like a whip. When it got to that part, I would smack together two other records to make the sound. I don't know where my parents were while I destroying their records, but I don't remember anybody ever stopping me, and it was so much fun! :-)

About the time I started high school, we got this set of four Time-Life books called "The Glory/Merriment/Wonder/Pageantry of Christmas." Each was a different color: red, green, purple, and, I think, blue. They weren't really that interesting, but we loved looking at them, and my kids loved the two that I ended up with. Last year I found some of them for sale at the library for cheap--maybe $2 each, so I bought one for each of them and they were excited about them. Somebody has pictures of the pages here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/weetstraw/sets/72157623115693111/

As in Maclin's books, none of these songs or books had much to do with the Nativity, but it never seemed to detract from it at all. When we had a birthday party for our kids and decorated with streamers and balloons, nobody said, "Oh, you shouldn't use those because streamers and balloons don't have anything to do with your child. You should just have pictures of your daughter." It all just added to the glory, merriment, wonder, and pageantry. Like Maclin said, it's when that's all there is that there's a problem.


I would have liked that candle, too. Even more, my wife would. What is it about little niches and miniature scenes? I remember as a very young child feeling like they (even table-sized creches etc.) were another world that I wanted to enter. As Karen was putting out nativity sets last week she mentioned that her favorite was one which has the scene inside a sort of egg-shaped thing, sort of like what you're describing.

I'm glad those weren't my records. I think I may have heard that same "Sleigh Ride"--at least I remember the whip cracks.

I don't think I ever saw those books. They sure have a lot of food in them (insert gmail emoticon of happy eater).

Yes, I always want to get into those little worlds, too. I don't think that's something I've grown out of. I have probably 15 tiny Nativity scenes. I put them all over the house. I had some on the bookshelves last year and I put the angels up on the top of the books to watch over them. After I put them all away, I found the little angels still perched on the books, so they've been waiting all year to be reunited with their loved one. One is Mexican, a little clay church. You lift off the top and the Holy Family is inside. I need to take some pictures.


I remember our tree having these tiny glow-in-the-dark cherubs; they were about an inch long with an inch wingspan. I think we started off with maybe 12 or 15, but over the years some got lost, and when we last packed up our old Christmas stuff 10 or 12 years ago there were only a few left to be found. My sister and I loved those little things!

I think you guys are right about the "trappings" -- as long as they don't become substitutes for the thing itself, I think they're fine. Of course it's our job as Christian parents to provide our children with the proper balance about such things.

Far easier said than done, of course (providing the proper balance).

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