Beowulf and the Christmas Monster

Grendel at Christmas? But isn’t Christmas itself a monster? Grendel consumed Hrothgar’s warriors but Christmas consumes us.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Over the centuries, the Christian Church developed a pattern for observing Christmas that made sense. And, first of all, it decided to keep the celebration of Jesus’ birth at the Saturnalia, the annual orgy that pagan societies indulged in when nights were longest and otherwise most depressing.

The Church rightly reasoned that it would be beneficial to replace the drunken revels with something calmer and more positive. So the Church invented Advent, four weeks to prepare quietly and devotionally for the joy of a birthday, the birth of God’s son among us. And after four weeks of quiet and thoughtful preparation, twelve days of celebration would provide a joyous counter-point to the midwinter gloom. There could be a blazing yule log and roast beef and plum pudding and caroling in the streets and at the center of it all the perfect gift: love – God’s love for us and our love for each other.

Then came the Puritans and messed it up. Human sin and God’s wrath and all that didn’t fit with celebrations and happiness in church. They outlawed the whole thing. You can read the chronicles of the early settlers in Boston and Plymouth and how they made keeping Christmas illegal. But not all the settlers were part of the in-group. One Christmas day an elder found that workers had taken the day off and were having a few games in the street. He ordered them back to work. How dare they be happy?

But always there were other voices. Down the street the Anglicans were enjoying their Christmas and it made some of the Puritans envious. Gradually the idea of keeping Christmas crept back. And the merchants saw possibilities of profit. Even Puritans liked profit. But they had forgotten how to do it. They didn’t know about Advent and had forgotten that Christmas ought to be celebrated after Christmas, not before. Even the churches with a Puritan heritage celebrate Christmas now, but at the wrong time and in the wrong way.

And so we have canned music in the stores and people trampling each other the day after Thanksgiving to put down their money for the latest gadgets no one needs. And something beautiful has become crass.

Want to see what happens when Christmas gets detached completely from its moorings? Visit Japan in December. 99% of the Japanese have no clue what Christmas is about – except that it’s a great way to sell merchandise. One year when we lived there a major department store put up placards in the subways and buses featuring a naked lady lying on a beach. Underneath it said: “Christmas – Love.” They had picked up the key words from Christians but somehow got the emphasis wrong.

It isn’t quite that bad here yet, but just wait.

What to do? Here’s a proposal. People who want to do it right can do what the early Christians did: celebrate Christmas at the time of the Saturnalia. Move it from December 25 to November 25 and move Thanksgiving Day to late October. After all, who is still bringing in the harvest in November anyway? So now when the pagan world is rushing to WalMart, we will be having our Christmas Eucharist and plum pudding for twelve days afterwards. And at some point the pagans will look around and say, “Look how much happier they are than we!” and get jealous and join an Inquirers’ Class.

Remember: “for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27)
Even an uncommercial and truly joyous Christmas


AnonymousDecember 9th, 2006 at 10:50 am

Boy, I have not recollection of that “Christmas” ad from my childhood in Japan. Probably just as well.

A question–earlier you say they didn’t know “Christmas should be celebrated after Christmas, not before…” Do you mean Advent for that second Christmas, or Saturnalia? I’m a little confused by the specifics, though of course I get the general point (and, of course, agree!).

AnonymousDecember 9th, 2006 at 10:51 am

Um, that’s “no” recollection, not “not” recollection…


AnonymousDecember 11th, 2006 at 10:02 pm

Hi Mr. Webber:

I run a book-oriented blog at I’d be interested in doing an email interview with you regarding the book.

I’m a former employee at iUniverse and remain close to the company.

I’d also be interested in getting a copy of the video with Sam Waterston.

Can you email me at to get the ball rolling on all that?


AnonymousDecember 11th, 2006 at 10:04 pm

I meant

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