Xmas and Christmas

I am indebted to  This Fine Blog for the following

“Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus,” by C.S. Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, 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 the 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 marketplace 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, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now 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 most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchaser’s 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 some great public 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, calledCrissmas, 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 Chrissmas, 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 calledtennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For 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.


Frances said…
Always thought Britain was behind the colonies...
Anonymous said…
Wonderful and so true. Being very much a small cog in the Xmas machine I at least had Christmas to look forward to. At the midnight service and licking my weeping wounds I prayed for relief - and was given it - instantly - praise The Lord! Lesson, all my prayers need not be for others, God values me also.
Craig, with love.
Anonymous said…
Kelvin: Christmas blessings to you and your family and my continued prayers for your health.
I listened with great interest to your midnight sermon (the microcosm of atoms fascinates me - the image I've used of a nucleus is a football in Wembley stadium), noting especially your appeal to consider 'the Mind which [sic] created the world'. ISTM we are shut up to two possibilities: that the world exists either through impersonal processes (as atheists believe) or through a personal power - which is implied by your use of 'Mind', and as Christians and other theists believe. 'Mind' also implies self-awareness and will. How would you commend such an idea to non-believers? It is interesting to note that the Christian philosopher (and NT theologian) William Lane Craig develops such an argument on naturalistic and scientific/cosmological/philosophical grounds, as a praeparatio evangelica. Briefly, his argument (the subject of his first doctorate - his second, under Pannaberg, was on the historicity of the Resurrection) is that the world is contingent and therefore has to be result of a necessary Being - who (not 'which') must be *simple (not compounded) and spiritual (i.e. non-physical Mind) and personal (decision-making, otherwise the world would not be contingent but an inevitable overflow of 'to en', as in Neo-Platonism). Craig's many philosphical and biblical arguemtns can be accessed from this site:
Anonymous said…
'Pannenberg', of course.
Anonymous said…
... and 'to hen'. (I always leave out the rough breathing. Sorry, plotinus.)
VenDr said…
Thanks for the brief exposition of Craig whom I am not familiar with, although to your brief synopsis, I can only say "yes".

How would I commend a "mind" vs "impersonal process" stance? I'm not sure it is possible philosophically. Our stance on either side of such a divide comes, I think, from somewhere else: our experience of what is. This is the point of John Hick's book which I have been reading lately. It is the experience labeled for want of a better term, the mystical which predisposes us to the "mind" side of the divide, and from there we construct our philosophy to make sense of what we believe anyway. At least, the arguments from pure reason are as convincing for one side as for another. We make our choice as to which side we belong to by entirely other methods
VenDr said…
And Christmas Eve's sermon.... it was an odd experience for me. We lit our church with candles and it looked stunning. The place was packed, and probably 2/3 of those present were new to the church.I stood to preach in the dim golden light and couldn't see a single face in the congregation. My sermons are always a work in progress. Preaching is a spoken art form not a written one. I don't use notes and try to establish and keep a strong personal rapport with the congregation; the pacing and delivery are very much influenced as I go by feedback from the congregation. Christmas Eve I was speaking into a void, albeit a receptive and friendly one. I was reasonably pleased with the sermon, but as I couldn't see the people, had no idea how it was going - I still don't.
Anonymous said…
Kelvin, here's Craig in Auckland debating Bill Cooke:


'mind' (nous) in Western thought denotes a self-conscious, thinking entity. Can we dedude the existence of such a mind by observing the world (the use of reason)? You remark: "Our stance on either side of such a divide comes, I think, from somewhere else: our experience of what is." This may well describe the psychological processes at work, but if so, it leaves us inescapably solipsistic, and being less than reasonable (logikos). Reason can't reveal the Holy Trinity but it's not to be cast aside too quickly. I've always understood Romans 2 (and Psalms 8 and 19) to teach that there is a natural sensus divinitatis in man - clouded by sin and perverted into idolatry, but still there.
Anyway, you might like to hear how Craig debates with Cooke. Keep well.
Jan Richardson said…
Just wanted to swing by and say Merry Christmas, Kelvin! Many thanks for your blog. I wish you and yours a wondrous year ahead, and much good health. Peace to you.