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Exmas and Christmas

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As December 25 draws near, you will no doubt hear from some of your more "pious" and "holier-than-you" friends about the pagan traditions and customs that are bound up in our modern celebration of the birth of Christ. You may even be accused of worshiping the sun, rather than the Son. Perhaps you've already been informed that your Christmas tree is a pagan practice, condemned in the book of Jeremiah (10:1-5). Maybe you have been told that giving gifts to each other is what the heathen do (Matt. 7:11), and is the response of the unregenerate world to the death of the two witnesses in the book of Revelation (11:9-10). We are further warned that because the Bible condemns these pagan practices and because the Bible nowhere tells believers to observe Christmas (or Easter) as holidays (holy days), we are sinning if we participate in them. In fact, if these "anti-pagan" crusaders had their way, the only acceptable action of "true" Christians would be to boycott the whole affair; acting as if the day has no more significance than the one before or the one after it.

Now I am not here to defend December 25 as the actual day of Christ's birth, nor to claim that it does have any more significance—biblically at least—than December 24th or the 26th (or March 9th for that matter). It never ceases to amaze me just how much disagreement there is among those who name Christ as their Lord. Like every other dysfunctional family, the Body of Christ doesn't seem to be happy unless it has something to argue about. By allowing petty differences to divide us, we end up proving to the world around us that we are just as contentious as they are. Even though Christ prayed that His Church would be one, "perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You [the Father] sent Me [the Son] (John 17:23), we find any and every occasion or dispute as a doctrinal battle to be fought to the death. If, as Jesus prayed, our unity was meant to show the world that Jesus was sent by God, then our disunity must be sending the opposite message. The simplicity of the Gospel is being traded for legalistic traditions and we have become the modern Christian equivalent of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Although I don't have the space or the time to go into a lengthy discussion of this topic right now (we'll save that for next Thursday, on Christmas Eve), I thought a short article by C.S. Lewis was in order to begin thinking about it. I first read this article a few years ago and I was struck by how closely Lewis' imaginary land of Niatirb (Britain spelled backwards) resembles 21st century America; things apparently haven't changed much in 55 years. While Lewis never intended his article to be a definitive defense of Christmas-keeping, it is a good starting place. For the purposes of next week's further discussion, take note of the answer given by the Niatirbian priest when asked why they insist on keeping Crissmas on the same day as Exmas.

Exmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus
by C.S. Lewis

Beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and the north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, and though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from other barbarians who occupy the north- western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and the most miserable of citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk in the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think that some great calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush , lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left. And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, It is, O Stranger, a racket, using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis). [1]

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.


[1] For clarification on what Lewis means by "racket," read his essay called "What Christmas Means to Me."

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