"The Christian idea ... or primeval paganism in modern clothes? That is the sovereign question which faces us."
CHRISTMAS, 1945. Peace at last and good will toward men. But the words have a hollow sound, and Merry Christmas this year is a mockery for most human beings upon this earth. Christmas, and here in Canada mountains of food, stores swarming with holiday shoppers, warm houses, trees alight in the windows, children waiting for Santa Claus, and sons and daughter coming home from overseas; but in Europe and Asia starvation and disease crawling through the ruins, and a stunted generation of children who have no feeling now but animal hunger.
Throughout the world this Christmas spreads and deepens such chaos and despair as man never has known before, and in this dark sea of misery our continent is a single island of plenty.
To this have we come, through 1,945 years, from the morning when the Child was born in Bethlehem to bring His message of hope and love. For almost 20 centuries His idea has struggled to keep alive in the world, has flickered like a tiny candlelight through the Middle Ages of darkness, has burned up brightly in our time until its light seemed for a moment to cover the earth, and now, in most places, gutters out again.
Worse times for human beings have existed before, when brutish men knew no better, when they had no light in their minds nor tools in their hands. But never before this Christmas has there been such a contrast between riches in a few countries, like Canada, and the sudden collapse of the world at large into barbarism, at the very moment when the means of plenty had appeared for all.
WHAT has happened in these 1,945 years to blight and wound our civilization, to halt the forward surge of mankind just as the end of its long march came into sight? How has the human species, which mastered all the secrets and skills of invention, returned overnight to destruction and brutality such as the old barbarians could not conceive? Why have the Dark Ages fallen on us again like a quick December night?
Such a universal disaster did not come out of any single event. It did not come merely out of the wars and revolutions and military laboratories of our time. It began long, long ago, and these events were only the outward reflection of a deeper process in the minds of men. It began when we forgot the meaning of Christmas.
What we have made of Christmas in the Christian world symbolizes as well as anything the corruption and decay which has brought us to this hideous holiday of 1945. We have taken Christmas, the first Christian festival, and made it into something little better than a pagan feast. We have taken the poverty and humility of the manger and made them into a Saturnalia of goods and a display of riches. In the decline of Christmas from its true meaning may be seen the decline in our civilization to its present state, when it lies so truncated and shattered that we turn our eyes away and try to forget it in our own feasting.
We did not will the wars and suicides of these days. We were peaceful people, coveting no man’s land or treasure. We were kindly people, and just; and the human individual, whom the Child proclaimed, was safer among us than he had ever been anywhere before. But underneath our glowing health the infection was at work and paganism was quietly taking possession of us.
In the scientific discoveries of the last century, which seemed to reduce man from an angel to an ape, and in the industrial production of this century, goods, wealth, luxury and what we glibly called the standard of living became the kernel, the motivating force and the creed of our lives. From the birthday of a homeless Baby in a manger we had toiled upward for 20 centuries to make a world of two cars in every garage.
Out of such a world, collapse of some sort was bound to come. It came first in depression. Then, from total selfishness erected into the central policy of states and the habit of individual minds, the step to total war was quick and easy.
The return of paganism and black night moved more rapidly and much farther in Europe than here. In Germany and in its pupil nations men no longer obeyed even the forms of Christianity, and in the very land which gave us the Christmas tree and Santa Claus they repealed the whole basis of Christian belief, denounced its central faith and founded a state on the proposition that men are animals, that physical force is the only power worth a sensible man’s consideration.
THE challenge of this idea, the oldest in human history but now equipped with modern weapons, burst upon us in 1939. It was repelled, for we discovered suddenly that in all the raging materialism of the western world the lesson of our fathers was not forgotten among us. It was the Christmas idea in a thousand different, outward forms, but whole and indestructible in its inner meaning—the idea of individual men as the creation of God—that won the war. It could not have been won otherwise, nor would it have been worth fighting otherwise.
But only the war was won. Only the immediate threat to the Christian idea was repelled, nothing more, and for a brief time. We gained by the war no permanent survival or peace but only the chance to assure them, only a breathing spell and a bivouac in the night, which we can use to prevent all this happening again, if we have the virtue and the wisdom. And we can use it, we can have peace and a chance for the ordinary man to lead a man’s life instead of an animal’s, only if we go back to the point from which we started at the first Christmas.
For a long time now, in the western world, we have maintained the forms of Christianity. We have sometimes remembered the history of Christmas as we sat down to our feast, and sang carols and recalled, with a brief nostalgia, where they came from. But we were too wise to believe that these notions could have any practical effect in the modern world. They were good for the children and made a pleasant break in the long, cold winter of Canada, but they were not practical politics.
By this Christmas we should know better. All our wisdom and learning, all our practical statesmanship and clever invention, lie in rubble. We can see, if we have eyes and hearts, that the only practical idea which ever came into the world was born in Bethlehem on the night when the great star shone. By no other idea, by none of the devices of science, by no political system or economic theory, can a civilization as complex as ours long exist. It has almost been destroyed because the idea was forgotten by individual men and because the policies of all great nations were based on the opposite idea of selfishness and gain. It can be restored in the present crisis only if the original faith is restored.
If there were no Christianity it would be necessary to create it for our own survival. If there were no Christmas we would have to contrive it to make the world a tolerable living place. If there were no God we would have to invent Him to control the weapons we have invented for our own destruction.
Thus, after a long and fruitless search elsewhere, after our struggle out of the caves, after every other discovery and theory of man have betrayed us into present ruin and the certainty of final annihilation, we have come back in practical politics to the manger. Nothing else is practical. Nothing else will save us.
THIS return is visible in many aspects. All the striving for a peaceful world, the structure of the United Nations, the various international agencies, the laborious negotiations for agreement among the victorious nations, and all the charities of individual men, even our own meat rationing and mutual aid program in Canada, are part of this process. But will it work?
It will not work through the agencies of statecraft alone, or through any economic measure or any political agreement, for these things lie only on the surface. The substance still lies, as everything of importance always lies, in the minds of men. If the people of the world have not perceived the meaning of our times, if the stark lesson of this Christmas is not accepted by men themselves, in their own hearts and in their daily living, then everything the statesmen and economists can do will be in vain, and the laboratories of science, turned away from peaceful tasks, will begin again their search for still greater weapons to turn upon us.
ON THE first Christmas the Child came into the world, not to reason with governments, not to make bargains with the rich and powerful, but to teach a simple lesson to the ordinary man, to the shepherds of Asia Minor, to the Wise Men of the East and to the workers in the factories of our day.
They alone, the vast amorphous and forever unknowable mass of two billion human beings who inhabit the earth, will decide whether the Christian idea—proclaimed in the Christian church, in religions of other names or in the life of the man who has no formal religion—is to be the operating principle of our civilization or whether, after a brief devotion to it in war, we are to return to primeval paganism dressed up in modern clothes and armed with atomic bombs.
There is the sovereign question which faces us this Christmas. There is the final test which we should apply to all public policies, to our relations with other nations, to our domestic policies at home and, most of all, to our private lives.
Our answer cannot be long delayed. If we give the wrong answer while celebrating an anniversary which has lost its real meaning for us, then nothing is going to save us. The shape of a pagan world will harden quickly, a new structure of brief prosperity and quick collapse will emerge out of the war’s ruins for our children’s habitation. Then Christmas, with all the hopes that have been built upon it these 1,945 years, will not return for us.
IT WILL not die, for it is more powerful in the end than any power discovered upon the earth or in the heavens. It will return in due season, if we reject it, but only in a new civilization more worthy of survival than ours, a civilization which, long hence, will look back on ours, read our records and see where we lost our chance—will note, perhaps, Christmas, 1945, as a date which marked our failure; for if on such a Christmas as this we refuse to succor a starving world, what hope is there in us, or virtue, or worthiness to endure? This Christmas and beyond it, which path are we going to take, the hard and slow path upward at heavy immediate cost, or the cheap, easy path which leads us back to the abyss?
Amid the shadows and squalor of this Christmas are we able to say—not in public policies and brave proclamations but in our own hearts as we sit beside our Christmas fireside—that Christmas is coming back into the world, thgt the great star shines again over the manger?
PEACE on earth and good will to men, these were the tidings of the first Christmas. Peace we have, of a sort, but how much good will? We shall soon see. Not only the lives of distant, foreign people but our own will hang on it. Tiny Tims of this Christmas, waifs of this storm, spinning atoms of the atomic age, God bless and save us, one and all.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.