Christmas, which the calendar assures me is coming, has been the crux of more controversies than most people remember when they take advantage of the fortunate fact that it has so often been saved from its enemies. But, like any other good thing, it has suffered much less from the heat of fanatical foes than from the coldness of frigid friends. Fanaticism only encouraged the devout to be defiant, and they resolutely repeated it as a ritual; it was much more in peril of death where people only repeated it as a routine. Now, a ritual is almost the opposite of a routine. It is because the modern world has missed that point that the modern world has in every other way fallen more and more into routine. The essence of real ritual is that a man does something because it signifies something; it may be stiff or slow or ceremonial in form; that depends on the nature of the artistic form that is used. But he does it because it is significant. It is the essence of routine that he does it because it is insignificant. It is the whole point of the ritualist that he knows what he is doing. It is the whole point of the routine worker that he does not know what he is doing. It may be an advantage that he should perform such dull tasks in such a detached way; it may be argued that it is better for the work or for the world that it have routine that is only routine. It may be better, for those who like it, that a man should work in this unconscious fashion; it may be better that he should be an animal; it may be better that he should be an automaton. But it is not the same thing as the man expressing some idea by performing certain acts, even if we think they are antics. It is not the same thing as a man practicing the sacred and solemn art and craft of a mummer, even if we dislike all such mummery. The principle of ancient ritual is to do certain useless things because they mean something. The principle of modern routine is to do certain useful things, but to free ourselves from that degrading slavery by doing them as if they meant nothing.
The forms of Christian festivity are often said to have begun in the old pagan world, and heaven knows they have survived into a new pagan world. But anybody, whether he is a new pagan or an old pagan or even conceivably (for you never know your luck) a Christian, is in fact observing this sort of significant mummery in observing any form of Christmas celebration at all. The professor of ethnological ethics may attribute the tradition of the mistletoe to Baldur or to the Druids. But he must recognise that certain ceremonies were performed under the mistletoe, even if ethnological ethics have permitted other professors to perform them in many places elsewhere. The musical critic, or student of the stages of harmonic development, may distinguish between the quality of a good ancient carol or a bad modern one. But he knows that, even in this timeless time, it is only somewhere about the beginning of Advent that little boys in the street begin to sing the carols attached to Christmas. Like all little boys, they are in advance of the age; but at least they do not begin to sing Christmas carols on Midsummer Day. In short, wherever anybody observes Christmas forms at all, they are still to some extent limited by the idea of a Christmas ritual, and the recurrence of times and seasons. The thing is done at a particular time so that people may be conscious of a particular truth; as is the case with all ceremonial observances, such as the Silence on Armistice Day or the signal of a salute with the guns or the sudden noise of bells for the New Year. They are all meant to fix the mind upon the fact of the feast or memorial, and suggest that a passing moment has a meaning when it would otherwise be meaningless. Behind the opposite notion of emancipation there is really the notion that we should be more normal if all moments were meaningless. The old way of liberating human life was to lift it into more intense consciousness; the new way of liberating it is to let it lapse into a sort of absence of mind. That is what is meant by saying, as many journalists actually do say, that a civilisation of robots would be more efficient and peaceful. One of the advantages of a robot is the complete absence of his mind.
Thus I will admit anything against old customs, except the idea that they are dead and meaningless. It is the society without customs that becomes dead and meaningless. If the professor says to me frankly: "I do not want to kiss a girl under the mistletoe because it makes me think what I am doing, whereas I can now kiss any number of other girls anywhere without thinking what I am doing," then I think he is an honest fellow, and I can debate with him about the real facts of ethnological ethics. If the little boy in the street says: "I like bawling at any time of the year, and I don't see why I shouldn't bawl all the year round," then I am quite ready to admit that it is the nature of boys to bawl, and that there is a certain sympathy between us, because I have been a boy myself. But if either of them say that there is less significance in ritual salutes or ritual songs than in the hearty human instinct to kiss anybody or bawl anything, then I disagree with them upon a purely intellectual issue. It seems to me that human life tends of itself to become much too monotonous and mechanical; and that this is just as true of lax social habits as of stricter ones. If the object is to make life more intense and intelligent, to increase imagination, which is a sense of the meaning of things, then I think it can be done much better by keeping dates and seasons and symbolic actions, than by letting everybody and everything drift.
G. K. Chesterton, 21 Dec 1935 (his last Christmas on earth).