Our earliest description of Christmas from C.S. Lewis is a bitter one. The year was 1922. As usual, C.S. Lewis and his brother Warren spent the holidays with their widowed father in his big house outside Belfast.
"It was a dark morning with a gale blowing and some very cold rain," Lewis reported in his diary. Their father Albert awakened his two sons, both in their midtwenties, to go to early Communion service. As they walked to church in the dawn light, they started discussing the time of sunrise. Albert irritated his sons by insisting that the sun had already risen or else they would not have any light. He was an illogical and argumentative man.
Saint Mark's church was intensely cold. Warren wanted to keep his coat on during the service, and his father disapproved. "Well, at least you won't keep it on when you go up to the Table," Albert warned. Warren asked why not and was told that taking Communion with a coat on was "most disrespectful." Warren took his coat off to avoid an argument. Not one of the three Lewis men had any interest in the meaning of Communion. The two sons hadn't believed in Christianity for years.
"Christmas dinner, a rather deplorable ceremony, at quarter to four, Lewis continued in his diary. After dinner the rain had stopped at last, and Albert urged his two sons to take a walk. They were delighted to get out into the fresh air and head for a pub where they could get a drink. Before they came to the pub, however, some relatives drove by on the way to their house for a visit and gave them an unwelcome ride right back home.
After too much sitting and talking and eating and smoking all day in the stuffy house, Lewis went to bed early, dead tired and headachy. He felt like a flabby, lazy teenager again. It had been another bad Christmas.
In 1929 Albert Lewis suddenly died of cancer. There would be no more coming home for Christmas. Within a couple of years of their father's death, both Warren and C.S. Lewis privately made some major shifts in their ideas about religion. They were separately moving toward Christian faith.
It was 1931. In Shanghai, where he was serving as a British military officer, Warren got up at 6:30 on Christmas morning. There was bright sun, frost on the ground, and what Warren called a faint keen wind. For the first time in many years Warren went to church to take Communion. He was deeply excited about it.
Warren couldn't help thinking about the old days when he had attended Christmas Communion at home in Ireland. "The kafuffle of the early start, the hurried walk in the chill half light, Barton's beautiful voice, the dim lights of Saint Mark's and then the return home to the Gargantuan breakfast-how jolly it all seems in retrospect!" It hadn't seemed jolly at the time. Warren felt great sorrow about the past, but his sorrow was outweighed by gladness and thanks that he was once again a believer in the Christmas story.
On that very day, Christmas of 1931, C.S. Lewis sat down in Oxford to write an eight-page letter to Warren. He began by warning that because of his teaching duties he had done, read, and heard nothing for a long time that could possibly interest Warren. Then he proceeded to write one of his usual entertaining letters full of humor and ideas and bits of new. In the middle of the letter he mentioned that it was a foggy afternoon, but that it had seemed springlike early that morning as he went to the Communion service. That is how he admitted the big news that he had taken Communion for the first time in many years.
At that point in the letter, C.S. Lewis recounted a few thing that he had heard in recent sermons. In a sermon on foreign missions the preacher had said, "Many of us have friends who used to live abroad, and had a native Christian cook who was unsatisfactory. Well, after all there are a great many unsatisfactory Christians in England too. In fact I'm one myself." In a different sermon, that preacher had declared that if early Christians had known they were founding an organization to last for centuries, they would have organized it to death. But because they believed that they were making provisional arrangements for a year or so, they left it free to live. Lewis thought that was an interesting idea.
A less helpful preacher had said shortly before Christmas that he objected to the early chapters of Luke, especially the story of the Annunciation, because they were indelicate. Such prudery left Lewis gasping.
That Christmas letter from C.S. Lewis found its way to Warren on January 19, 1932, and he wrote in his diary, "A letter ... today containing the news that he too has once more started to go to Communion, at which I am delighted." Had he not done so, Warren reflected, they would not have been quite so close in the future as in the past.
From 1931 to the end of his life, C.S. Lewis looked at Christmas from a Christian point of view. In 1939 Warren was on duty away from home again, and on Christmas Eve C.S. Lewis wrote that he had been thinking much that week about Christmas cards. Aside from the absurdity of celebrating the nativity at all if you don't believe in the Incarnation, "what in heaven's name is the idea of everyone sending everyone else pictures of stage-coaches, fairies, foxes, dogs, butterflies, kittens, flowers, etc.?"
Warming to his topic, Lewis asked his brother to imagine a Chinese man sitting at a table covered with small pictures. The man explains that he is preparing for the anniversary of Buddha's being protected by the dragons. Not that he personally believes that this is the real anniversary of the event or even that it really happened. He is just keeping up the old custom. Not that he has any pictures of Buddha or of the dragons. He doesn't like that kind. He says, "Here's one of a traction engine for Hu Flung Dung, and I'm sending this study of a napkin-ring to Lo Hung Git, and these jolly ones of bluebottles are for the children."
Aside from thinking about Christmas cards, Lewis had enjoyed himself in two ways that week. He was back at work on his book The Problem of Pain, and he was able to enjoy good winter walks. The pond on his property had a thin skin of ice. The beautiful frozen days had been of two kinds: "those with bright yellow suns, turning at sunset to red cannon balls, and those with deep dark-grey fog through which the ridges of the grass loom up white." Near the end of his letter he said, "Well, Brother, (as the troops say) it's a sad business not to have you with me to-morrow morning. ... " That meant church.
During World War II C.S. Lewis gave a series of talks about Christianity on BBC radio, and later he brought these out as his book Mere Christianity. In that book Lewis summed up Christmas and Christianity in one memorable sentence: "The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God."
In his 1950 book for children, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis made it clear that he was all for merry times and good gifts and Christmas pudding. The land of Narnia was under the spell of a wicked white witch who made it always winter and never Christmas. When the great gold lion Aslan brought the thaw that spelled her doom, Father Christmas came at last.
In 1954 Lewis published a very different kind of fantasy about Christmas, "Xmas and Christmas." It is an essay about the strange island called Niatirb (Britain spelled backwards) and the winter festival called Exmas that the Niatirbians observe with great patience and endurance.
One of the customs that fills the marketplace with crowds during the foggiest and rainiest season of the year is the great labor and weariness of sending cards and gifts. Every citizen has to guess the value of the gift that every friend will send him so that he may send one of equal value whether he can afford it or not. Everyone becomes so pale and weary that it looks as if calamity has struck. These days are called the Exmas Rush. Exhausted with the Rush, most citizens lie in bed until noon on the day of the festival. Later that day they eat far too much and get intoxicated. On the day after Exmas they are very grave because they feel unwell and begin to calculate how much they have spent on Exmas and the Rush.
There is also a festival in Niatirb called Crissmas, held on the same day as Exmas. A few people in Niatirb keep Crissmas sacred, but they are greatly distracted by Exmas and the Rush.
On December 17, 1955, Lewis wrote to an old friend that he was pleased by the card the man had sent him, a Japanese-style nativity scene. But, he continued, Christmas cards in general and the whole vast commercial drive called "Xmas" was one of his pet abominations. He wished they would die away and leave the Christmas observance alone. He had nothing against secular festivities. But he despised the artificial childlikeness, and the attempt to keep up some shallow connection with the birth of Christ.
In 1957 C.S. Lewis published "What Christmas Means to Me." He claimed that three things go by the name of Christmas. First is the religious festival. Second is an occasion for merry making and hospitality. Third is the commercial racket, a modern invention to boost sales. He listed his reasons for condemning the commercial racket. First, it causes more pain than pleasure. Second, it is a trap made up of obligations. Third, many of the purchases are gaudy rubbish. Fourth, we get exhausted by having to support the commercial racket while carrying on all our regular duties as well. "Can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter ... ?" Lewis demanded plaintively.
Two years later C.S. Lewis was featured in the Christmas issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The issue, dated December 19, 1959, bore on its cover a 15-cent price, a picture of a man struggling clumsily to get a package wrapped, and the announcement of a new Screwtape letter by C.S. Lewis. Inside was a life-sized, close-up photo of Lewis's face and his essay "Screwtape Proposes a Toast." This was a kind of Christmas gift to the public from the editors.
In 1963 the Saturday Evening Post featured C. S. Lewis in its Christmas issue for the second time. This time the price on the cover was 20 cents and the picture on the cover was of a children's choir. Inside was Lewis's article "We Have No 'Right to Happiness'" with the heading, "Is happiness-in particular sexual happiness-one of man's inalienable rights? A distinguished author attacks the brutality of this increasingly common notion." In the upper right-hand corner is the announcement, "As this article went to press, its author died at his home in Oxford, England. The article is his last work."
Since Lewis's death on November 22, 1963, a number of his writings from earlier years have become more widely available. A few not published at all in his lifetime have now found their way into print. One of these is his undated poem "The Nativity," available in his book Poems. In this brief poem Lewis shows what the nativity scene meant in his own prayer life.
First, Lewis likens himself to a slow, dull ox. Along with the oxen he sees the glory growing in the stable, he says, and he hopes that it will give him, at length, an ox's strength. Second, Lewis likens himself to a stubborn and foolish ass. Along with the asses he sees the Savior in the hay, and he hopes that he will learn the patience of an ass. Third, Lewis likens himself to a strayed and bleating sheep. Along with the sheep in the stable he watches his Lord lying in the manger. From his Lord he hopes to gain some of a sheep's woolly innocence.
One of the earliest photos of C.S. Lewis shows him as a very little boy posed with a Father Christmas doll. The half-smile caught forever on his plump young face seems balanced between anxiety and pleasure. He looks thoughtfully attentive. It is fitting, because he half-smiled at Christmas the rest of his days. We might do well to pause in the "kafuffle" and "Exams Rush" and look into the manger with C.S. Lewis.
This article originally appeared in the December 16, 1983 issue of Christianity Today. Kathryn Lindskoogis a writer living in Orange, California, and author of C.S. Lewis, Mere Christian (Cornerstone), and How to Grow a Young Reader (Harold Shaw).
Last year, on the one-hundredth anniversary of Lewis's birth, Christianity Today ran an article by J.I. Packer titled "Still Surprised by Lewis | Why this nonevangelical Oxford don has become our patron saint" (Sept. 7, 1998)
See also our earlier story, "Jack Is Back | The search for the historical Lewis" (Feb. 3, 1997)
Despite the glut of C.S. Lewis information online, there's not much on Lewis and Christmas. Still, if it's Lewis you're interested in, Into the Wardrobe should fill your every desire.
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