The Magazine

And Heaven and Nature Sing

Joseph Bottum on the words of Christmas.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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If you're any kind of writer--if you're any kind of reader, for that matter--you know there are things that words want to do. Oh, we speak with them and write with them and read with them, often enough, using them as clumsy rocks to hammer out the rough meanings and crude messages we need for getting on with our lives.

But in themselves, words have other things in mind: deeds and relations and purposes all their own. They want to swirl and turn and join and break in certain ways; they want to express the truth about themselves. And if you don't let them notice you watching--if you eavesdrop quietly on them, late at night when they think you're asleep--you can sometimes see them come to life, like the Nutcracker leading his toy soldiers to war against the Mouse King.

All of which is a way of saying that I don't know a single real writer or reader--a single person awake to the ways that language wants to go--who doesn't believe in Christmas. Oh, part of it is the funny ambiguity in that phrase "believe in." Remember the old joke about the down-east Maine farmer who, asked if he believed in infant baptism, replied, laconically, that he'd seen it done? Whether we like it or not, we've all seen Christmas done, seen the yuletide words in their cotillions, waltzing and promenading, the quadrille of the season.

But there is something more in Advent than just the happenstantial activity of our nativity language, something more than the plain task of getting across a complex seasonal meaning. Reindeer and Santa, swaddling clothes and mangers, ornaments and tinsel, poinsettias and pines. They aren't things, exactly, around Christmas. They aren't even ideas, down at the root. They are a vocabulary, most of all, and Christmas is true as poetry--words speaking, each to each--long before it's true as brute fact. Christmas is one of those moments when the language has been let alone to do what it really wants to do.

And it came to pass in those days . . . no room for them in the inn . . . keeping watch over their flock by night . . . tidings of great joy. The day atheism draws to itself a natural language, the day it seems anything more than cavemen grunting as they chip away at flint, is the day I'll admit that even self-proclaimed atheists actually believe in it.

Children know this, learning the season by learning the words: Bethlehem and sleigh bells, chestnuts and elves, wise men and candy canes. G.K. Chesterton once complained about Scrooge and Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley and all the rest, insisting that Dickens proved with A Christmas Carol his very English separation from the deep wellsprings of European culture--for, said Chesterton, never was there an event that had inspired more mythology in Western Civilization, and still Dickens had to invent his own Christmas myth.

But Chesterton got it wrong. Christmas wants to grow richer. Christmas wants to be as extravagant as that impossible turkey Bob Cratchit receives from Scrooge on Christmas morning. Ornaments and tinsel, snowflakes and crèches, shepherds and magi. Christmas would gobble up the whole language, if it could, and Charles Dickens--the great intuitive writer of the age--knew it.

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams once put a similar plaint, grumbling that a superior Easter carol had been hijacked to make that inferior Victorian Christmas song everyone now knows--the one about Good King Wenceslas and his annoying page boy: Bring me flesh and bring me wine, / bring me pine logs hither. But Vaughan Williams, too, missed the point. There are words and grammatical constructions we still know--language that remains in the great common wordstock, wrapped like presents under the tree--only because Christmas carols preserve them for us, drawing them into the great verbal dance: hark and noël, dayspring and yule, ha'penny and wassail.

Of course, some people don't believe in the natural poetry of language--the ones who won't raise their eyes off their ordinary work with words to wonder why these tools shimmer a little bit more than they need to. And those are the people who won't be persuaded that certain objects might go together because their ideas match, and certain ideas might go together because their words have danced, side by side, late in the great unconscious night.

But for the rest of us, something like evidence exists in the rich vocabulary Christmas has gathered to itself. Wreaths and holly, fruitcakes and mistletoe, Joseph and Mary. St. Nicholas and Scrooge's humbug, for that matter. Why shouldn't language gather in this way at Christmas time? Words want to speak the truth, after all.

JOSEPH BOTTUM