C.S. Lewis on the varied meanings of Christmas

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, wrote in 1957 that the holiday we call Christmas and celebrate on Dec. 25 is really three holidays in one.

GodInTheDockThree things go by the name of Christmas.  One is a religious festival.  This is important and obligatory for Christians, but … it can be of no interest to anyone else …

The second … is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality.  If it were my business to have a ‘view’ on this, I should say I much approve of merry-making.  But what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business. …

But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everybody’s business.  I mean of course the commercial racket.

The idea that everybody is obligated to buy presents for all their friends, and buy cards to send to all their loved ones, friends and acquaintances, is a contemporary idea and not part of the historical idea of Christmas, Lewis wrote.  He condemned the commercial Christmas holiday on the following grounds.

1.  It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You only have to say over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare.  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 of suitable gifts for them.  They are in no trim for merry-making, much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act.  They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

Christmas-Shopping-Fever-22.  Most of 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.  Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we can hardly remember) flops un-welcomed through the letter-box and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3.  Things are given as presents which no mortal has ever bought for himself — gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because nobody was ever fool enough to make their like before.  Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than the spend them on all this rubbish?

4.  The nuisanceFor after all, during the racket we still have our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labor of it.

Lewis wrote that if the Christmas shopping season is necessary to keep the retail stores in business, he would sooner give them the money for nothing and write it off as a charity.


I must admit that the religious aspect of Christmas has never been the most important aspect for me.

I  do remember, as a child, going to church on Christmas morning and sometimes on Christmas Eve.

Christmas_nativity_scene_at_the_Franciscan_church_in_Sanok,_2010I remember unpacking the figures of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Men, the animals in the stable, and Baby Jesus in the manger from the boxes where they were packed with excelsior, and setting up the Nativity Scene.

But this was all overshadowed by waking up on Christmas morning and wondering what presents would be waiting for me under the Christmas tree.

This is still true.   I still go to church on Christmas or on Christmas Eve.  But for me Christmas is more like Thanksgiving—a time for feasting and reconnecting with family and friends.

A holiday doesn’t have to have just one meaning.   But it should be a holiday and not a hassle.

Merry Christmas!


The C.S. Lewis quote is from an article, “What Christmas Means to Me,” which I read in a collection of his writings published in 1970.  It is entitled God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, and was edited by Walter Hooper.   I don’t think it is still in print, but it should be available through used-book dealers or most public libraries.

Tags: , , ,

One Response to “C.S. Lewis on the varied meanings of Christmas”

  1. Atticus C. Says:

    “But for me Christmas is more like Thanksgiving—a time for feasting and reconnecting with family and friends.”

    I think that almost perfectly describes my feelings toward Christmas. I always complain that I wish Christmas and Thanksgiving were a little further apart so it would force me to reconnect with family and friends at times a little further apart (rather than twice in 30 days and often not again until 11 months later). It would also be a lot easier not to eat delicious meals for a month straight. 🙂

    I even get in the spirit and listen to Christmas music and decorate the house. Even a non-believer or someone who finds the holiday a non-religious one can enjoy it, I think.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: