Raise a glass to GK Chesterton

This year marks the centenary of GK Chesterton’s reception into the Catholic Church. It had been anticipated by some of his most Catholic writing: his brilliant works of Christian polemic, Heretics and Orthodoxy, were written years before. As a high Anglican and even before, he intuitively appreciated the sanity and humanity of the creeds. His reception, 100 years ago, in the Railway Hotel in Beaconsfield (converted into a makeshift chapel), marred by the absence of his friend Hilaire Belloc, for whom he waited in vain for over an hour, was the culmination of a long journey to the Church.

We reflect on him now because it is at Christmas that Chesterton comes into his own, not least because he was such a champion of Charles Dickens, who helped revive the season of Christmas from its long Puritan winter. As Daniel Frampton writes in this magazine, he intuited Dickens’ appreciation of the season as an essential part of what we mean by Merry England. It was a celebration of comfort, characterised by gathering around the hearth and keeping out the cold. GK (a Catholic Herald contributor) cherished the essential geniality of Dickens precisely because he was so genial himself.

“In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival, Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears

irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday. The beauty and the real blessing of [A Christmas Carol] do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable, but in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scroooge and everything round him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us. Whether or not the visions were evoked by real Spirits of the Past, Present and Future, they were evoked by that truly exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits.”

Both Chesterton and Dickens were great men and great writers, not least because they were complicated, flawed men. Dickens’ great sin was in his human relations, his mistreatment of his wife. Chesterton’s were to do with the darker side of his world view; the anti-Semitism that he largely contracted from Belloc. A Catholic view of human beings takes on board that we are compounded of good and bad, that we are all sinners, and that some of the greatest saints were themselves sinners.

Chesterton’s conversion was in many ways a homecoming. He found in the Church something that was already familiar. And at Christmas, he gave, like Dickens, expression to the warmth and hospitality of the season in a way which has made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy it even more.

The 12 Days of Christmas – darkness and light

Piers Paul Read points out in a characteristically perceptive piece in this issue that the Christmas season, which we rightly celebrate as a joyful affair, is in fact made up of darkness and light. The birth of the holy child at Bethlehem was in response to the decree of Augustus for a great census, and at Bethlehem there was nowhere for his family to stay. The birth was followed by the arrival of the Three Kings to pay homage to him. But their inquiry to Herod about where the King of the Jews was to be found made that febrile man paranoid; in response, he ordered the massacre of boy babies in the area around Bethlehem, an event commemorated in the feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December and poignantly remembered in the Coventry Carol, which begins: “Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child”. The

day after Christmas Day is the feast of Stephen, who was stoned to death for professing Christ and whose martyrdom in many ways replicates his passion. On the 29th, we celebrate the feast of St Thomas Becket, the turbulent priest whose defence of the rights of the Church against the king led to his murder. All these things are dark, apparently at odds with the merrymaking at Christmas.

But if the season has its bleak as well as merry aspect, it’s because human life does too. An unremittingly festive season is a fine thing, but it would not do justice to the way that even in the happiest times, and especially at Christmas, there is the shadow of grief and loss. The birth of Christ does not do away with all this, but at Christmas, Heaven broke through into our world, and nothing has ever been the same since.