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23 Dec

CS Lewis critiquing Christmas

Lucy meets Tumnus: against a snowy landscape, a little girl and a faun carrying parcels stand under a wrought iron streetlight.

“Always winter and never Christmas!” The dismay expressed at that idea in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does not mean that C.S. Lewis was an uncritical fan of Christmas. In 1957 he wrote “What Christmas means to me”, critiquing the idea of Christmas1

Lewis outlines the three meanings of Christmas: as a religious festival (“important and obligatory for Christians…of no interest to anyone else”), a popular holiday (“an occasion
for merry-making and hospitality…I much approve of merry-making”) and a commercial racket. This third is what Lewis objects to.

He objects for four reasons. First, the commercial racket gives more pain than pleasure. “Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them.” Second, it is involuntary: “The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail.” Third (partially as a result of the second), people end up giving useless presents to each other, just to fulfill the obligation. Finally, all this is done while normal life (and shopping) has to continue, making normal living more difficult. It is, says Lewis, simply nuisance.

Countering the appeal to the economy, Lewis concludes, “Can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write if off as a charity.”

As Stephen Law in The Philosophy of Christmas2 adds, “is the endless economic growth, to which Christmas is in large part designed to contribute, necessarily a good thing? Or even sustainable?” As philosophers from Hegel to Peter Singer have pointed out, once we have fulfilled basic needs, there is no obvious limit to what additional luxuries we could continue to desire.

Lewis says, ” I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends.” Nonetheless, as we do our last shopping for Christmas, it might be worth considering how much of what we are doing is because we think we must, and how much is to make us and others happy.

Merry Christmas!

Lucy meets Tumnus: against a snowy landscape, a little girl and a faun carrying parcels stand under a wrought iron streetlight.Featured Image: “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, Bloomsbury 9435, Front (artist: Quad Digital Mandii Pope). Steve Jones/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) – detail.

References

  1. C.S. Lewis (1957/1970) “What Christmas means to me…” from God in the dock — Essays on Theology and Ethics by C. S. Lewis published by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. © 1970 The Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis. (Online at University of Rochester). First published December 1957.
  2. Stephen Law (2011) The Xmas Files: The Philosophy of Christmas, Hackett Publishing, chapter 7.

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