By popular demand, I present the entire article:
For Christmas Atticus considers…The Heart of the Matter
Whether you wholeheartedly like Christmas, merely tolerate it, or even rather dread it, you cannot escape it: perhaps because it is really several festivals rolled into, one. It is still a pagan feast as well as a Christian one, a celebration of the winter solstice. It offers parents a chance to indulge their children, shopkeepers to disgorge their surplus stock, businessmen to offer clients a seasonal bribe, writers to catch up on manuscripts, and everyone to enjoy a few days of well-fed indulgence to carry them through the worst of the winter.
Marxists send as many Christ-mas cards as non-Marxists. Non-believers appear quite cheerfully in church, and the whole event is obviously rooted deeply in the needs of all Northern peoples. Christmas in the Mediterranean is merely one of several feasts of the Church, and good Catholics, more logically, reserve their most devout rejoicing for the promise of Easter Day.
The Fall of Faith
It was Geoffrey Gorer, the sociologist, who summed up the paradox of Christmas for me so neatly. He thinks that the great-modern commercial Christmas has come with the fall of faith, almost as an alternative to religion: “In Britain, it's now a social festival, not a religious one. It's a very curious development that has almost entirely emerged in the last 100 years. Jane Austen’s characters go to church on Christmas morning but don’t seem to have done anything else out of the ordinary.”
As a Christian, John Betjeman’s ideas on Christmas seem to confirm Mr. Gorer’s observations. “I rather dread it all,” he says sadly, “but after all, it is a feast of the Church. As a festival, I much prefer Easter, which is so much more encouraging religiously. I will probably go to Wantage Parish Church on Christmas Day, or I might go to midnight service in Oxford instead. I haven't quite decided. Yes,” he adds resignedly, “I suppose I will eat turkey, but honestly I don’t care for Christmas fare.”
A Dread of Presents
Another poet who dreads Christmas in Christopher Fry. “As far as Christmas goes,” he says, “I’m out of the race. I dread giving presents and stopped sending cards three years ago. Christmas itself will be quite simple. I’ll go to Temple Church in the morning, because I like the singing. After a lunch I’ll take the dog for a walk, and the rest of the time I’ll be trying to finish the last ten pages of my play on Thomas a Beckett.”
Bertrand Russell, the eighty-seven-year-old philosopher, will spend Christmas Day at his home in Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethsire: “I have three young grandchildren and I wouldn’t dream of depriving them of any portion of it. We shall have all the conventional trappings—plum pudding, presents and Christmas cards.” He thinks Christmas is too commercial: “in fact, it is quite horrid.” He will not, he says, go to church.
“I Shudder to Think”
Gilbert Harding maintains that “for the Catholic Church and certain members of the Anglican Church on the fringe of Catholicism Christmas has real significance”: but not, he thinks, for anyone else. “I belong to a virile and militant organization, not an effete and moribund one. I shudder to think what happens at early services in the Anglican churches.” He himself will begin celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve “to give the staff a day off” and will finish up at Midnight Mass. He has received a file of Christmas cards but is sending none “because Christmas Cards are a trivial, wasteful exercise. I give presents,” he added wistfully, “but I don’t get any because nobody likes me very much.”
By Crocodile to Church
Humphrey Littleton, the Old Etonian jazz trumpeter, is spending four days with his family in his new house at Barnet which has been unkindly compared to a cowshed: “I don’t intend to shave for four days. I will spend the entire time in my dressing-gown. In my own opinion this is the only way to spend Christmas.”
Thriller-writer Ian Fleming has more positive ideas on Christmas: “Ideally, the only possible place to spend it is Monte Carlo. You don't have to eat turkey—a detestable bird. There aren't any people there you know at this time of year, and it's perfectly easy to play a little golf and avoid over-eating.” But even for the creator of James Bond, the ideal is not always attainable, and Mr. Fleming will in fact be spending his Christmas near Belfast, reading three good American thrillers, including the latest Rex Stout, and “going to church in a long crocodile with the rest of the family” on Christmas morning. His one way of simplifying Christmas is to give the same present year after year to all and sundry. It consists of a dozen snuff handkerchiefs from Fribourg and Treyer.
Kingsley Martin, editor of the “New Statesman,” is another escaper. “Christmas,” he says, “is very important for children, but now that all my young nephews and nieces are grown up, my one idea is to get out of the country.” He plans to go to Switzerland, where “in complete silence I intend to get down to some serious work on my new book on the monarchy.”
Even General Wilfred Kuching, head of Salvation Army, admits the Christmas is not what it was. “It does seem to be on the decline a bit if you measure it by the size of the congregation. I blame it partly on the two world wars, which have interrupted the Sunday school teaching of so many.” Christmas, he thinks, is “decidedly too commercialized. I was in Sweden for three years, you know, and there were congregations of two or three thousand people for services at seven in the morning. The day passed quietly and more religiously than it seems to do here.”
The General will celebrate Christmas Day by attending services at a couple of men’s hostels and then going on to a girls’ approved school for his Christmas dinner.
For quite different reasons playwright John Osborne finds Christmas a “deeply depressing experience.”
“Not being a Christian, it doesn't have any significance for me,” he admits. “Just the reverse in fact. It is rather like watching the jollifications of a club you don't belong to. The whole thing seems to be dedicated to the patron saint of shopkeepers.” He would be happier if it were either more religious or more pagan: “But not even the Christmas carols are sung properly. All I can get on the radio are the Beverley Sisters.”
He is not sending any Christmas cards “although a great stack of the things have arrived here from people I don't like or don't even know.” Nor is he having any holly, ivy, Christmas pudding “or any of the rest of the synthetic and dreary nonsense. Last year I flew to Rome to get away from it all and the year before to Paris. This year I shall probably stay in my London flat and burst into tears or something.”
The Northern Blow-out
It wasn't till I talked to Laurie Lee, the poet, that I found someone who unashamedly enjoyed Christmas: “It's my favourite ritual in England—the Christian thing wedded on to the great Northern Blow-out.” He spends it every year in a village in Wiltshire, and regards it mainly as a pagan festival—“part tree worship, part fire worship, part an excuse for old Laurie to set the Christmas tree on fire again. But,” he adds, “we all go to church on Christmas morning in the village church because we all like bawling our heads off.”
Last year he solved his Christmas card problem by sending each of his friends a playing-card. This year he has sent none.
Cecil Beaton thinks that Christmas is “very good for simple people. Often,” he adds, “I wish I were more simple myself.” His own Christmas will be spent in his house at Broadchalk, hard at work on a play, “the nature of which I cannot reveal by the terms of the contract.
“Christmas in America is an absolute racket, and even in this country it can be exceedingly painful with a great group of relatives.”
Carols and Cotton Wool
What about Christmas in the Universities? The climax of Christmas in Cambridge comes when the .Provost of King’s, Noel Annan, reads the final lesson in the service of the nine lessons and carols from the Chapel of King’s College. Afterwards he has dinner in hall with all the resident students, mainly foreigners, and choral scholars. But as Mr. Annan himself—“I'm Church of England in the sense that I’m in King's”—Christmas Day has more than its usual significance. He was born on December 25, so his family celebrate both occasions together.
Alec Guinness, recent convert to Catholicism, is off to Rome with his family “to have a holiday and escape the turkey. I particularly hate all the commercialisation of the English Christmas, the cotton wool and all the decorations—except those in Regent Street.”
“A Frightful Nuisance”
When he comes back he will start-work on the film of James Kennaway's “Tunes of Glory,” followed by Terence Rattigan’s play of Lawrence of Arabia, and he is regarding his Roman Christmas as a chance of rest before a busy year. “I'm not taking my turkey with me wrapped in cellophane,” he added, “and for Christmas dinner I will just go round to one of those little ristorantes and. see what's on the menu.”
Meanwhile Professor C. S. Lewis, for five years a Cambridge don, will be spending Christmas Day with his two step-children at his home in Oxford. A large, red-faced, rather overpowering figure who laughs and smokes a great deal, Professor Lewis is the very reverse of the ascetic who one might have supposed would have written the Screwtape Letters. “I shall spend Christmas in the conventional way—plum pudding, paper caps, the lot,” he says. “So, of course, will many people who will not be seen inside a church. There is nothing wrong in that. But I abominate the commercialisation of Christmas—it has really become a frightful nuisance.”
Fifteen in the Family
Lord Pakenham, the fifty-four-year-old Roman Catholic peer, counts himself in the small minority of those who really enjoy Christmas “partly because I believe that people are gradually becoming more Christian. Britain was at its most pagan thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate. Agnostics always pretend they're winning and Christians are more humble about the whole thing but you can't get away from the gradual rise in church attendance.”
He is joining his wife and a household of fifteen or sixteen in the Sussex countryside for Christmas Day—“I’m not too sure how many we will be but my wife is fantastically capable about that sort of thing.” They will attend midnight Mass at the village church, have their full measure of eating and drinking “and I shall probably have to work off the effects afterwards on Rye Golf Course.”
I leave the last word to Canon John Collins, the controversial campaigner on behalf of nuclear disarmament. The Precentor of St. Paul's is a handsome, grey-haired, highly intelligent man who occupies a roomy study in the shadow of the cathedral.
“For a very large number of people in this country Christmas Day has no real significance,” he says. “But even they have a sense of something deeper than just another Bank Holiday and that at least is something.” He thinks Christmaas is a recognised way of spreading fellowship and goodwill “and the last thing I want to be is a killjoy.”
Canon Collins, who has four small children, likes to reserve the real junketings for Boxing Day.
Best of Both Worlds
“I'm afraid,” he said rather sadly, “that none of on are much interested in anything but our material welfare.” But he is still pro-Christmas: “In fact, I think you can say that I get the best of both worlds.”
So believer and non-believer alike unite in a common loathing of Christmas's commercialism. But the people I spoke to were sophisticated and disenchanted adults. For children, Christmas remains the year's climax and cornucopia, and no one would wish to rob them of it.
And even beneath all the synthetic goodwill and the masochistic pleasures everyone recognised that there was still a religious mystery. And that this, whether one could share in it or not, was really the heart the matter.