I remember it well. The whole family is gathered together in the main room around a freshly cut evergreen. All eyes are on a single, towering shadow, silhouetted in the soft moonlight. Twinkling candles light the delighted faces of small children, waiting in hushed excitement. I draw in a deep, contented breath, for I too am waiting expectantly. We are all waiting. My father prepares to bless the tree. It is Christmas Eve.
Does your family have Christmas traditions? Do you remember as a child waiting in silent awe for your father to light the tree on Christmas Eve? I do. In fact, Christmas is one of those times that makes me stop and think about the way I was raised and why I believe the things I do. You might say that lighting the Christmas tree on the night of Christ’s birth was just one of those countless memories that made an impression upon me as a child. Yet unlike all those other events, this one comes back to life every year at Christmastime. It is a tradition. I do not mean secularized Christmas traditions, the little nostalgic things you do every year that have nothing more than a superficial meaning. Authentic tradition is inseparable with Christianity.
About a year ago I read, for the first time, an article by Hilaire Belloc entitled, “A Remaining Christmas.” In this short essay, Belloc describes how the Christmas season is celebrated within the walls of his boyhood home, all the while using the home itself as an allegory for tradition. Surrounded by an oak forest and built on the bank of a small creek, the house is cut off from the town and has a monastic detachment from the rest of the world. Although the ancient home has received many additions over the years, care has been taken so that they are indistinguishable from the original 14thcentury structure. Belloc puts it this way:
[T]he tradition is so strong that you would not tell from the outside, and hardly from the inside, which part is old and which part is new. For, indeed, the old part itself grew up gradually, and the eleven gables of the house show up against the sky as though they were of one age.
Just as the exterior of the home has a unity to its appearance, so does the interior. The vast gable beams, long dining room table, and grand staircase are all made of a dark native oak. Even the great hearths burn this same wood. In the very heart of the home, there is a chapel where Mass is said, and in this room, the original architecture is seen the most clearly. The vast oaken beams that hold up the chapel’s vaulted ceiling are black with age, yet the new beams that support the more recent additions are difficult to distinguish from the old. Each new generation has always venerated the ancient chapel and preserved its age-old appearance. By conforming to this room, the continuity of the home has been preserved.
Despite its ancient architecture and customs, the home is always alive during Christmastime with a youthful warmth and vigor, lighted by the great fireplace and reflected in the faces of happy children. There are many Christmas traditions observed in this house, and Belloc explains each of them in detail. The festivities begin on Christmas Eve, when the children and their parents come up from the village around five o’clock to share a common meal. Afterwards, they dance and sing carols around the sparkling Christmas tree, celebrating the night of Christ’s birth until it comes time for Midnight Mass.
[The children] are each given a silver piece one by one, and one by one, their presents. After that they dance in the hall and sing songs, which have been handed down to them for I do not know how long… Indeed, the tradition of Christmas here is what it should be everywhere, knit into the very stuff of the place; so that I fancy the little children, when they think of Bethlehem, see it in their minds as though it were in the winter depth of England, which is as it should be.
It is as if the traditions of Christmas observed in this home are part of the building itself. Belloc seems to be saying that in a physical way, not just by analogy, the wisdom of past generations makes this happy celebration possible, protecting the youthful generation from the cold and storms of winter. The heartwarming imagery found in Belloc’s reflection, such as the burning of the great yule log, is the perfect read for a cold winter day, snuggled up in a blanket before the hearth. It may even prompt you to start counting the days till Christmas. But these cheery and joy-filled scenes Belloc describes are only half the show. His insights are just as important as the story itself…
Belloc, Hilaire. A Remaining Christmas. London, 1900. Reprint, Worcester: Stanbrook Abbey Press, 1976.