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Born in Buenos Aires in 1948, ALBERTO MANGUEL is an acclaimed, award-winning Canadian writer. He is the author of numerous non-fiction books, including the innovative The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (co-written with Gianni Guadalupi) and A History of Reading, The Library at Night, and novels such as News from a Foreign Country Came. As a teenager in Buenos Aires, he served as a reader for the blind Jorge Luis Borges. He currently lives in the South of France.
In Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST I: 1
We are seasonal creatures. We advance in age toward the promised six feet of earth, not along the straight path recommended by the preacher but in a sequence of identical loops that carry us, year after year, from the illusion of beginning to the illusion of end. The Pythagoreans, who believed that all things will return and every life will be lived again, took their cue from the sun rising every morning and from winter announcing the arrival of spring. Like a child who wants the same story told over and over again, the universe seems to take delight in repetition.
Our earliest celebrations mark such repeated moments. Whether in the deserts where writing was invented or, even before, in the primeval steppes where the first human societies came into being, our most ancient grandparents feasted the anniversary of the earth that announced the coming season when crops could again be planted. The Romans marked the passing of midwinter by drinking and dancing on December 17, the feast of Saturnalia, and the Persians honoured the birth of the goddess Mithra, Sun of Righteousness, by carousing and parading on December 25. The Celts adorned their winter trees with garlands to ready them for the New Year, and the Germanic tribes lit huge bonfires on the longest night of all, to coax the hidden rays of the sun into appearing. When the coming of the Saviour was announced to the Jewish people, the celebratory December mood was already well established, and the three kings who came to Bethlehem from the Orient were no doubt aware of the Persian custom of offering gifts on the winter solstice. Under all manner of guises, Christmas was celebrated long before the birth of Christ.
In the beginning, the Christian Church cared little for calendars, fixed holidays, and appointed sacred feasts, since the only date that mattered was that of Christ’s Second Coming, and that date lay in the unknowable future. “Let no man therefore judge you,” wrote Saint Peter to the Colossians, “in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come.” But the seasons came and went, and Christ did not return, and eventually it became necessary for the Church to establish its own timeline, allowing each of us “to put his household in order” (as is told in 2 Samuel) to prepare for our foreseeable end. Even though the first notice we have of Christmas being celebrated by Christians appears in a Roman almanac from the year 336, the official recognition of a specific date for Christ’s birth occurs later, in 354, when the date was made to coincide with that of the winter solstice, the birthday of the sun.
But of what year? More than a century and a half later, in 525, Pope John I commissioned the learned abbot Dionysus Exiguus (or “Little Dennis”) to calculate the Easter date for the following year. The abbot not only calculated the date of the coming Easter but, for the next six years, worked on a series of tables that charted future Easters as well as several other Church anniversaries, starting, of course, with the birth of the Saviour himself. Inspired (he said) by the Holy Spirit, Little Dennis calculated that Christ had been born 531 years earlier, and called that first year anno Domini, or, as it would be written from then on, the year 1 ad. The Armenian Church, however, never accepted December 25 as the day on which to celebrate the birth of Christ, preferring instead to honour the Saviour’s birth on Epiphany, January 6, which for the other Christian churches marked either the baptism of Jesus (in the East) or the visit of the Magi (in the West).
Quite early on, the day of the birth of Christ acquired, both in the Eastern and Western churches, a conventional iconography based on the account given in the Gospel of Luke, the same that we recognize today in decorations and greeting cards: Mary and Joseph, the Child born in the manger (“because there was no room for them in the inn”), the adoring shepherds, the announcing angel and, finally, the beasts referred to in Isaiah I:3: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.”
Already by the second century, the story of the Nativity had become so well known that the Platonic philosopher Celsius was able to mock its tenets in his True Arguments Against the Christians (a book which, by an ironic twist, reached us through piecemeal quotations in the works of the Christian censors who condemned it to the flames). “You began by fabricating a fabulous filiation,” Celsius wrote as if addressing Christ himself, “pretending that you owed your birth to a virgin.”
In reality, you were born in a small place in Judea, the son of a poor peasant-woman who lived off the land. She, guilty of adultery with a soldier called Panterus, was rejected by her husband, a carpenter by profession. Thus banished, and ignominiously wandering from one place to another, she gave birth in secret. Later, forced through poverty to emigrate, she travelled to Egypt and there worked for a salary. In the meantime, you learned some of those magic powers of which the Egyptians boast, and returned to your own country where, proud of the reactions you knew how to provoke, you proclaimed yourself a god.
Celsius’s is perhaps the first variation on the Christmas story of which examples closer to our time are Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Nino Ricci’s Testament, Jim Crace’s Quarantine, José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—all efforts to translate the essential narrative into contemporary terms, sometimes stripping it of its obvious religious core, sometimes illuminating that core through a personal expression of faith. Like Luke’s story, most of the Christmas stories that followed it attempted to tell, however intimately or allusively, of the experience of hope after despair and redemption after guilt.
Throughout the centuries, the story became enriched with further imaginings that lent it a Northern rather than a Middle Eastern landscape: Yule trees instead of palm trees, reindeer instead of camels and, of course, Father Christmas. St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor, was metamorphosed sometime in the nineteenth century from patron saint of children into the jolly old man who, in the American-Dutch dialect, is called “Sinte Klaas” or Santa Claus. The original Nicholas of Myra was known for both his generosity and his piety, a frugal man who, even as a baby, refused to take his mother’s breast except on Wednesdays and Fridays. Legend has it that the young Nicholas, hearing that three young sisters were going to be sold into prostitution by their needy father, wrapped three round pieces of gold in a cloth and, under cover of darkness, threw them through a window of the girls’ house, thus saving them from their ignominious fate. For that reason, in Christian iconography, Nicholas is represented holding a gift of three golden balls which (fittingly enough for a saint roped in by the commercial machineries of the season) later became the symbol for a pawnbroker’s shop.
But neither belief in the exact date of Christ’s birth nor faith in the marvellous Nativity story is necessary to justify our joy when (in the Northern hemisphere) winter starts to end and spring can be soon expected or when (in the Southern hemisphere) the summer holidays begin. Christians will no doubt rejoice in the remembered birth of their Redeemer, while for the secular world Christmas as a season offers the chance to celebrate the rebirth of the world itself—its repeated conclusion as well as its repeated beginning, the end of the working year and the start of a better year to come.
Charles Dickens, perhaps more than any other writer, understood this celebration of “joy and goodwill towards all men” that Christmas entails. His Christmas Stories created for the season a mythology that, while never denying its roots in religious faith, lends the notion of Christmas a kind of cosmological state of happiness. More than a consciously understood Church holiday, grounded in astronomy and theological arguments, after Dickens, Christmas became the season in which we must, like Scrooge, echo the generosity of the tired earth and make merry atonement for our selfishness and greed, giving thanks for the gifts that we receive and offering gifts to others as a sign of our allegiance to the beleaguered human family. After Dickens, to set a story at Christmastime is to assume, on the part of the reader, the acknowledgment of a prestigious setting, of a period charged with ancient significance, of a season of promised redemption, however much tinged today with Christmas-card sentimentality and less-than-spiritual mercantile dealings.
In the numberless depictions of the Annunciation, when the Angel comes to tell Mary that the Son of God will be born to her, a small cross or a painting of the Crucifixion is shown on one of the walls of Mary’s room. This is not a thoughtless anachronism on the part of the painter, nor merely the conventional representation of a contemporary interior. Like the recurrence of the seasons, its presence affirms the living circularity of time, the promise that birth will follow death which will in turn follow birth. Because all things must end in order to begin again, the knowledge that our efforts and joys and sufferings will have no cut-and-dried conclusions must be cause for rejoicing, not despair, since this must surely mean that a tidy perfection is not expected from us, but rather a stubborn delight in beginning again every day.
The authors of the stories that follow, collected under the merry canopy of Christmas, take for granted the myriad connotations that the mention of Christmas evokes. Something is expected in this season, something hoped for, or feared, or happily awaited, something whose quality remains mysterious to us, because the change that is to come, for all its certainty, gives no indication of its nature. All we know is that darkness will be followed by light, that the days will be longer and brighter, that the commonplaces which mark the change of mood and weather will duly make their appearance, and that, in such expectation, we will begin again, without knowing with what luck or success. Robert Louis Stevenson, writing what he called “A Christmas Sermon” in the last days of 1888, had this to say of our experience:
There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year’s end.
A pleasant thought indeed, echoed in the stories that follow. Every reader knows that the best stories have no ending but continue beyond the page in the reader’s own world. Such inconclusiveness is no doubt a kind of failure, but one that, in all humility and confidence, allows the authors to extend their own landscapes into that of their readers, whose splendid failure it will be never to reach the farthest limit of a memorable voyage through the old Christmas story, imagined all over again for every new generation, “like of each thing that in season grows.”