December requires a Christmas essay. In the back of my somewhat unremembering mind, I recalled seeing an essay of Belloc on Christmas. After looking through a number of Belloc books, I finally located his essay, "A Remaining Christmas", in the Penguin Selected Essays. Somehow, the date of this essay is not given in the list of acknowledgments that J. B. Morton gave about the essays' sources. I have not had time to check further, but that is not so important here when we deal with timeless things that happen in time.
After I began the essay, I realized, of course, that I had read this lovely essay before. In fact, the title of the Chapter on Belloc in my Another Sort of Learning is taken from this essay -- "The Immortality of Mortal Man." Indeed, this curious juxtaposition of mortality and immortality is what Belloc called a "shocking, and intolerable and, even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing." Christmas for Belloc was something that made this thoroughly wrenching situation of immortal beings who still die to become somewhat "explicable, tolerable, and normal." How so?
''A Remaining Christmas" is about a man and his home. It is about a place wherein the things that change, and rapidly change, can find themselves confronted with things that do not change, with things that are. The very first sentence in Belloc's essay alerts us to our condition: "The world is changing very fast, and neither exactly for the better or the worse, but for division." The title of the essay "A Remaining Christmas" gains its wording from the question that people ask, even more at the end of the century than in Belloc's time, "how much remains of the observance and of the feast and its customs?" Belloc's essay is essentially an account of a single traditional Christmas. It takes place in an ancient house, the older parts of which date from the fourteenth Century. It is a mile in the countryside. Off the central upper room of the house is "a chapel where Mass is said." The house is constructed of oak and brick. In the fireplace, only oak is burned.
In this large upper room is a huge oaken table which was originally built for an Oxford college, but looted from there by the Puritans. It was finally purchased from the family that inherited it from the Reformation. This table was made "while Shakespeare was still living, and the whole faith of England still hung in the balance; for one cannot say that England was certain to lose her Catholicism finally till the first quarter of that (17th) century was passed." The room was light with candles, "the proper light for men's eyes", as Belloc rightly put it.
This is how Christmas eve is spent in this house. On the morning of that Eve, large quantities of holly and laurel are collected from nearby trees and lots of the farm. Every room in the house is decorated with fresh smelling leaves, berries, needles, and boughs. A Christmas tree twice the size of a man is set up, to which little candles are affixed. Presents are there for all the children of the village, household members, and guests.
At five o'clock, already dark in England that time of year, the village children come into the house with the candles burning on the tree. There is first a common meal. Next the children come to the tree where each is given a silver coin and a present. Then the children dance and sing game songs. Belloc does not see this as quaint or accidental: "The tradition of Christmas here is what it should be everywhere, knit into the very stuff of the place; so that I fancy the little children, when they think of Bethlehem, see it in their minds as though it were in the winter depths of England, which is as it should be." The coming of Christ to Bethlehem is also His coming to the winter depths of England.
There is a Crib with animals, stars, shepherds, and the Holy Family. The children sing their carol at the Crib -- "the one they know best begins, 'The First Good Joy that Mary had, it was the joy of One.'" I am sorry I do not know that carol. After the carols, all leave except the members of the household. The household dines, and, with the Christmas fast, await Midnight Mass. The Yule log is carried in, so large that it takes two men to carry it. It is put on the great hearth. If it lasts all night and is still shouldering in the morning, this is supposed to be good fortune to the family. At Midnight, there is Mass and all take Communion.
All sleep late the next day to await the great Christmas dinner at midday. There is "turkey; and a plum pudding, with holly in it and everything conventional, and therefore satisfactory." The great feast lasts most of the rest of the day. Of the critics of these things, Belloc says, in an aside, that "they may reprove who will; but for my part I applaud." Then follow the twelve days of Christmas, ending with the Epiphany. All the greenery is to remain till this Day of the Magi, but by the end of that day, nothing is to remain. All the greenery is burned in a coppice reserved for these Christmas trees, "which have done their Christmas duty; and now, after so many years, you might almost call it a little forest, for each tree has lived, bearing witness to the holy vitality of unbroken ritual and inherited things." This unbroken ritual and the inherited things are our defense against meaningless change and our reminder that trees too are living vestiges of the work of God.
On New Year's, the custom was to open all the windows and doors of the house so, they say, that "the old year and its burdens can go out and leave everything new for hope and for the youth of the coming time." Some folks say this is superstition, but, Belloc pointed out, it is as old as Europe and goes back to forgotten times. At Midnight, all go outside to listen hushed for the arrival of the New Year. The people wait the boom of a gun in a distant village to be sure that Midnight has arrived. The bells of the churches ring. When the bells cease, there is a silence. Then all go inside, the doors are shut, and all drink a glass.
Not merely death, but many things die and change all the time, and we can hardly bear this reality -- "all the bitterness of living." And yet in this ritual, it all becomes "part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude." All these events of life are connected "holy day after holy day, year after year, binding the generations together."
In this house that celebrates what remains of Christmas, all the tragedies and joys of life have occurred within its rooms and halls. "But its Christmas binds it to its own past and promises its future; making the house an undying thing of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival." The immortality of mortal men -- Belloc sees in this ancient house with its tradition, with its yearly celebration of Christmas, a way to bear the our lot, with the beloved things that change and pass. "There is this great quality in the unchanging practice of Holy Seasons, that it makes explicable, tolerable and normal what is otherwise a shocking and intolerable and even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing. I mean the mortality of immortal man."
Without these rituals of Christmas, their unchanging practice, we see that what is in fact shocking and intolerable and abnormal becomes inexplicable, becomes our lot and our culture. This is the nature of our times. We can no longer explain ourselves to ourselves. In failing to understand our immortality, we do not understand our mortality. And at Christmas, which we should see, as Belloc did, in our family tradition, such that Christ could also have come to the wintery depths of England, or to anywhere, we find in the Nativity the response to both our mortality and our immortality, in the Child with His parents, while the neighboring children sing, the carol I do not know, "The First Good Joy that Mary had; it was the joy of One."
From Schall on Belloc, Generally Speaking, December, 1996.