Friday, January 18, 2013

Why Christmas?

Christmas would not strike many as a warlike holiday. It's traditionally considered a time of peace and goodwill. Yet, Christmas has of late come under determined attack--not because of its religious nature, although its attackers pretend so, but for the fundamental point of the thing.

Christmas is not on the defensive side, however, but the offensive. It is a martial idea that insists on being taken seriously. It isn't because Christmas is a Christian holiday that it is objectionable, for the holidays of other religions are tolerated. It is because at Christmas one is brought to face a real and living God, which cannot at all times be comfortable. 

Consequently, secular society is not the only force in conflict with the idea of Christmas. While the preservation of Christmas as a holiday is due to Christian belief and effort, ironically Christians themselves have been among its fiercest assailants. It was Cromwell who proscribed Christmas in Britain, and the Puritans did the same in the New England colonies. 

Then and today, Christians object to three main things about Christmas: where Christmas came from; how it is celebrated; and why we should even celebrate it at all. This last point is the most important of the three. Many Christians no longer celebrate Christmas, not so much because of the first two considerations, but because of the third: why should we celebrate Christmas?


Christmas is an observance of our Lord’s birth, an event overshadowed by his life, death, and resurrection—it is related in any depth in only two of the four gospels. Yet, Christ’s advent is the subject of vast portions of the Old Testament, for many of the prophecies about him were chiefly concerned with his arrival.

The obvious reason for this lies in the idea behind the incarnation: God not only died for mankind but God actually became a man, putting himself in our position and fully relating to our state. The name “Immanuel”—God with us—is important because in all religions except the Christians’ God is an impersonal god—a being of wrath or indifference, but never sympathy; a deity to be feared and appeased but not one in which to seek safety; an idea to be grasped with the mind, not seen, heard, or handled.

God did not have to take the form of a man to redeem men, or even to understand what it is like to be a man, but he chose to visit earth as the lowest and poorest of its inhabitants. He might have come as a king, or at least as a grown man able to defend himself, but instead he came as an ignorant and helpless infant.

Because God came to earth in this way, he changed forever the way we see humble things. Many things that are weak and despised—women, children, the poor, rude stables, draught animals—bear in the Christian mind a symbolic beauty because God associated himself with all of them that first Christmas. British apologist G. K. Chesterton points out this primary importance:

There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves…Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man's end. All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds; the hinds who found themselves talking face to face with the princes of heaven.i.

The greatest truth of Christmas is that God thought man was important enough to be worth his while to save—and to prove it God became a man. Christmas is a celebration and appreciation of humanity—a humanity fallen and sinful, but still carrying the stamp of the Creator in whose image it was made. Christmas is a different sort of celebration from Good Friday and Easter, although it is just as necessary. In the words of William Muer Auld,

Christian thought and devotion occupied exclusively with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Cross and Passion, or with the Glorious Mysteries of the Resurrection, can take on a character too somber, or too sublime. At the lowly Manger, confronted with the charm and innocence of His Childhood, faith becomes human and homely, intimate and cheerful, receiving with child-like grace this revelation of the Father of an infinite majesty, as He essayed to make it to the infantile souls of mankind; while passing, if not wholly devoid of mystic vision, none the less readily through this particular portal into the realm of Eternal Love.ii.

This is why we celebrate Christmas. At Easter we celebrate Christ’s atonement for our sins and his victory over death and the grave, but at Christmas we celebrate the strange fact that he not only wanted to save us, but to be with us as well. Some think that is worth celebrating.


But there are the objections to Christmas. First, the exact date of Christ’s birth is unknown and the date on which the Church has chosen to celebrate it has many pagan associations.

The winter solstice, like the summer solstice, has always held great significance, religious and otherwise, to the inhabitants of this globe—particularly those who live near the poles where the variance of the daylight hours is more noticeable. Nearly every culture has its own festival centring around the winter solstice, many of them related to sun worship. Christmas was introduced by the Church in order to replace these heathen festivals with something more orthodox. But many pagan things carried on into Christmas as we celebrate it now: evergreen boughs, mistletoe, fir trees, feasting, giving presents, candles, fireworks, and many other traditions are either heavily influenced by or come directly from pagan cultures.

Is it wrong to keep these pagan traditions? If I involuntarily associate lighting a candle with making a prayer to the sun for its eventual return, or if hanging a bough of mistletoe recalls to me druidical rites, perhaps I ought to dispose of these traditions. But most of the old associations have been lost and only their Christian significance remains. We light a candle as we remember that Jesus is the Light of the world, or decorate a tree in celebration of the eternal life he brought to us.

Christ probably was not born on the 25th of December. Yet this date is so significant that for hundreds of years it has been the one on which to celebrate his arrival. It is in the depths of winter when hope is most necessary, and thus when the fulfilment of mankind’s most glorious hope is most naturally remembered and commemorated. All the pagan rituals and festivals surrounding the winter solstice may have not been a heathen worship of the sun so much as an attempt to satisfy a longing deep in the soul of every man for the True Light. Christmas may be less a “Christianization” of those festivals as a fulfilment of that longing.


But what about today? Christmas retains little of its religious significance and is now little more than an advertising ploy. After standing in lines at department stores, wrecking the month’s budget, and covering their living room floor with a litter of wrapping paper, it is not surprising that many people object to celebrating Christmas. But any good thing may be made bad by bad people. The only control we have over the issue is whether we will keep it good or follow others in making it bad—or a third option, which is to simply throw it away as not worth our while.

Fifty years ago everyone knew what Christmas was really about. Now most have only vague notions of presents, friends and family, and Santa Claus. It has been said that Christmas will never be done away with because it is so profitable from a commercial standpoint, but if no other significance is found for Christmas, people will eventually stop celebrating it. Presents are not enough to replace Christmas: you cannot celebrate a celebratory gesture.

Therefore, those who discard Christmas are only doing a little early what the secular culture is in a gradual process of doing. If Christians cannot keep Christmas, certainly no one else can.

If Christmas is not worth celebrating, then nothing is worth celebrating. If God had saved mankind without any intention of an intimate relationship with him, then we have no greater hope than the Moslems or the Hindus or the ancient pagan cultures that worshipped the sun—a deity impersonal and unapproachable. Christ’s short sojourn on earth is an earnest of our eternal future with him in heaven. Christmas is an anticipation of the future as well as a remembrance of the past.

i. The Everlasting Man by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1925
ii. Christmas Traditions by William Muir Auld, 1931

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mr. Not-So-Nice-Guy

a.k.a. The Villain

Whether he appears in a black cloak with a rapier at his side; in a black hat and bandana; or in a black trench coat with a red armband and swastika; the minute he steps into a scene he owns it: the Villain. The criminal of the century, the repository of all evil, with airy fantasies of world domination, an undying antipathy for the hero, and a face that could stop a clock, he makes his entrance rubbing his hands, twirling the indispensable black moustache, and shouting ‘Ha ha!’

The moment he appears he brings a new element into the story: the dark side of life personified and ‘out to get’ the hero. He is evil, but evil is a fact of life and we the readers accept the villain in a story, not as a mistake, but as something to be overcome.

‘I’ll Get You, My Pretty!’
Not all stories have a villain and not all stories need them. The villain’s essential role is to create conflict and this role can be filled by other elements of the story, but most stories will still have their villains because of all the important things that villains do. They generate tension, suspense, drama, and fright. They embody the forces pitted against the hero and bring the story to a personal, immediate level.

Villains are memorable—much more memorable than mere events, the forces of nature, or an indifferent ‘society’ or ‘fate,’ all of which can fill the part of the antagonist. Villains are more interesting and exciting than impersonal forces, which is why they sometimes become celebrities in their own right. They can—and occasionally do—completely overshadow the other characters of the story, including the more conventional protagonists. Some such famous villains include the Wicked Witch of the West, Count Dracula, Cruella Deville, and the schizophrenic Mr. Hyde. Other renowned villains win a deserved notoriety by matching wits with the famous heroes who battle them, such as Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, Captain Hook and Peter Pan, Grendel and Beowulf, or Chauvelin and the Scarlet Pimpernel.

When there is a villain in a story, the readers root harder for the hero to win, because the force he is battling is personal, visible, and has a great script (something an impersonal force can’t have). Besides, the villain is proactively malignant—he is out to generate conflict—and however much we may avoid that type of person in real life, we like having him in a story. But the greatest reason for having a bad guy is that, without him, winning just isn’t as much fun.

The Purpose of the Villain
The villain is the person in the story whose goal causes him to clash with the hero, either because it is the same goal (e.g. they both want to marry the same woman), it is an opposite goal (e.g. the hero wants to save the world and the villain wants to destroy it), or it is a completely unrelated goal that accidentally makes the hero and the villain at odds with each other, in an impersonal way and through no fault of the hero’s.

The villain is therefore not always evil—the most notable case is that of Javert from Les Miserables, a police inspector who thinks that the hero of the story—Jean Valjean—is a criminal. Their goals clash—Javert wants to capture Jean Valjean and Jean Valjean does not want to be captured—but there is no moral issue dividing them. Rather, it is their opposing viewpoints of the world, Javert’s belief in justice and Jean Valjean’s belief in mercy, that clash—two truths that are constantly at conflict with each other.
Usually the villain is evil. –And we like him that way. If he were not evil, we would not be so desirous of seeing him get his deserts. We want not only a villain who is bad, but one who is bad on purpose and because he likes it. Although many experiments have been made with misunderstood, mistreated, or psychologically unstable villains, the most popular bad guys are still the ones who are bad. –Because we all know in our heart of hearts that evil is a choice and that punishment is deserved.

The Bad and the Ugly
There is another reason why bad guys must be bad and that is so that they highlight the hero’s goodness. The villain always starts out with an advantage over the hero because, unlike the hero, he has no scruples holding him back. He can do whatever he wants to, while the hero must stay within the bounds of ethics or answer for it to the readers.

Heroes play the gentleman, even if it means losing the game. The villain may be lying through his teeth, but the hero still gives him the benefit of the doubt—though all good heroes keep an eye out for the back-handed blow that is sure to come.

The villain must not only be eviller than the hero, he must also be stronger. This is because we tend to root for the underdog, and no author wants his readers rooting for the villain.

Tame villains are boring; villains must be people with consuming desires, dangerous passions, and dizzying goals on a global scale. It is these types of villains that generate good heroes, because only really wonderful heroes can defeat them. The hero must be great but the villain must be greater so that the readers will want to find out how the hero can possibly overcome him.

This does not mean that the good guy must be a super-hero, either. A common-place hero becomes a ‘super-man’ when he takes on the villain, simply because he is brave enough to try it and therefore we want him to win. Right up until the very end when the villain arrives at his downfall we want him to be the one who has all the cards—the hero has only the trump.

Hero and Villain
The relationship between the hero and the villain is one of the most fascinating relationships in a story. Sometimes the two never meet. Sometimes they are ex-best friends, or even brothers. However the case, antagonism creates a strained and very dynamic bond between two people who are very different and yet in some ways similar. Emotion is almost always involved. Even if it is not the hero’s fault that he is in the villain’s way (or vice versa), that doesn’t stop the villain from being angry with him for being there. Hatred, jealousy, frustration, bitterness, contempt, envy, and other equally destructive emotions play a part in the hero or villain’s attitude towards his opponent, and these emotions can still be present at the end of the story even after the conflict is resolved—because these emotions are a reaction to who the other person is and not to his goals or motives.

These underlying attitudes are sometimes overlooked and left unresolved in stories, but they are the most important conflicts to address because they are what makes the story personal and directly relevant to the reader. They are what allow us, the audience, to actively participate in the story and understand and relate to the people in it. At the end of the story, we want these emotions to be gone and in their place pity, mercy, and forgiveness—at least on the part of the hero. We know, in our hearts, that this is what will really last and what is really important, for the hero, and for us.

A Static Character
Here is a simple test to tell the hero from the villain, just in case there is any confusion (sometimes there is): who changes in the story?

The hero changes. The villain does not change. He stays the same warped, frustrated individual he was at the beginning, still out trying to realise his childhood dream of universal dictatorship (or whatever it might be). Granted, the hero doesn’t always change either, but in stories where he doesn’t the difference between the hero and villain is often ambiguous. So when writing a story, be sure to make your hero change (unless you don’t mind him being occasionally taken for the villain).

But, even though he doesn’t change, the villain can still spring surprises on the hero and the readers. As the plot unravels, more is revealed about the villain’s aims, projects, and secret agents. Perhaps the hero has foiled the villain and is, for a brief moment of respite, basking in the light of his success. But the villain has only to dip into his handy black bag of dirty tricks and presto! the hero (and the readers) recoil with revulsion from the spectre of a whole new facet of the villain’s evil plot.

Medina is a mesmerist!
The fetish contained a diamond!
The Bolsheviks plan to abduct the Prime Minister!

Thus the villain provides plenty of excitement, but his demise is certain because he, unlike the hero, refuses to grow and become better. He wilfully rejects his own salvation. He often dies fighting, which is the only time when we can really admire him.

On rare occasions the villain reforms at the end of the story, but this is the only case in which he is allowed to change. In stories in which the villain reforms everyone ends up a ‘good guy.’

To Fight for the Right...
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the villain is that he is not only the opposite of the hero, but the other half of the hero. He is what the hero is not, but is also what the hero might be—if he were not the hero. Part of the suspense the villain provides lies in the sense that the hero might end up like this; he might screw it all up and end up on the wrong side. At the end he might not be the hero anymore. We want the hero to win, but we don’t want him to do so at the expense of what he stands for.

That is the greatest problem with fiction that has no moral basis. No matter what we believe, we all know (because no matter what he is on the surface, nobody deep down is really stupid) that it doesn’t matter so much who or what the hero is as whose side he’s on. He must be fighting for the right in some way. The villain is a picture of what we don’t want the hero to be and he’s there throughout the story to remind us of that.

That is why there is often a part near the end of the story, just after the climax, where we finally see the villain for his true self. He may be evil all through the story, but there is always a slight doubt in the minds of the readers and the hero alike: ‘Is he really as bad as all that? –Or am I the one who is seeing things all wrong?’ It is the final answer to the question, ‘Am I right?’

The hero can’t accomplish anything in the story unless he begins with the basic premise that he’s in the right of it. Even a hero who knows he has problems thinks he is seeing the world the way it really is. He thinks he’s right, and the readers, as long as they sympathise with him, think he is, too. But there will often come a moment of doubt—sometimes it’s there from the start of the story, sometimes it comes just before the climax—when the hero’s faith in his rightness is shaken. The villain has beaten him, he’s failed, and he wonders if it’s because what he was trying to do wasn’t worth it in the first place.

This is almost impossible to do if the hero is perfect, but when he is an ordinary person like the rest of us, it is quite easy. We all wonder, ‘Was he right?’ and we all want the answer to be ‘Yes.’ If the villain can convince the hero otherwise, he has the hero in his power, and us the readers as well, because the right is what really matters in the story. But generally the hero won’t be convinced, he saves the day at the climax, and then the villain is revealed for what he really is—a real bad guy. This is also generally the place where the villain meets with the sticky end he has coming to him.

Although the moral issue is not a factor in all stories, it ought to be. Books or movies that do not have this deeper stake lack both relevance and eternal appeal for the reader, because everybody contends with the basic question ‘Am I right?’ The hero and the villain are at odds; but only one of them has truth on his side: which is it?

Thus the villain not only embodies evil, but also acts as a foil to good. He makes us believe in good, sympathise with the right, and believe that the truth will win out. But he also lets us see the human side of the problem—he shows us his side of the story—and though we may not sympathise, we understand why the bad guy does what he does.