Advent: A View from Down Under… Way Under

Over seventy years ago, C.S. Lewis disclosed a mysterious correspondence that became known as The Screwtape Letters, consisting of instructions to a novice demon from his netherworld mentor. What follows is a newly discovered document that bears eerie similarity:

Dear Swillpit,

It’s that time of year again! The weeks—no, months—of preparations for the Event reached febrile proportions just a few weeks ago. “Black Friday,” they call it. Oh, the irony!

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On the same day of the week that an angry mob rushed to put a wooden cross on His back, bargain-crazed shoppers rush to put a financial one on theirs, buying gifts they can’t afford for people who don’t need them that wear out, break down, or become obsolete by the time the season rolls around next year—all to the melody that fills the retail aether, “White Christmas.”

Far and away, Swillpit, this is my favorite time of year. But it wasn’t always so.

For centuries we thought that His promise to “put enmity” between our Master and “the woman” was an idle threat. Then, out of nowhere, a young peasant Jewess is told that she will be “blessed.” The announcement sent shockwaves throughout our chattel-filled caverns. If true, it signaled; oh, no, it couldn’t, could it?

Down here the gnashing and wailing ramped up until Crumgrub, I think it was, picked up on a little but important detail that escaped our notice on first hearing: the girl was unmarried. That’s right, the vessel for his grand entrance would be an unwed teenager engaged to an old duffer.

We thought surely our old Rival couldn’t be serious. If the girl wasn’t stoned for adultery, her child would be born illegitimate. Either the lad would be snuffed out of existence before he drew a breath or he would be a social outcast. This was how he planned to “crush our Master’s head?” What an addle-brained scheme!

Someone snickered, setting off a chain reaction that exploded into a rumbling howl that, I have on good account, created a minor seismic event up there with all the nuisances of shifting tables and rattling pots.

Without delay, agents were dispatched to idlers known to have a quick eye for indiscretion and ready tongue for rumor. And, whew, did those tongues set to wagging at the first whiff of impropriety! Although the nattering didn’t result in our hoped-for stoning—largely, because of the dotard’s shocking decision to marry the girl—the rumor survived, if just below the surface of dinner conversation.

From time-to-time a knowing nod or hand-covered murmur revived memories about the questionable circumstances of his birth. It had the delightful effect of contributing to the general skepticism that ultimately led to his rejection and execution.

I recall my satisfaction, when he was hanging on the cross as a criminal, thinking how fitting—even poetic—that at the other end of his life he had been lying in a manger as a bastard. But my satisfaction was short-lived.

Three days later his followers laid sight on the “empty tomb,” and the scandal surrounding his birth was all but forgotten. Overnight his indignity became glory, his defeat victory, and thirty-three years of our malignity was neutralized.

Most tragically, once the story of his death got out, it spread with epidemic virulence generating a following that, today, spans the globe. Who could have imagined that the cross, once an object of scorn and shame, would become an object of worship proudly displayed in their churches, homes and even adorning their bodies—or, that his procreation, once an object of idle gossip, would give cause for celebration?

Yet, what was originally a one-day religious observance in honor of his birth, is now a full season of consumerism. The happy development began when the date was moved to coincide with the pagan winter solstice celebrations. We were initially concerned that this would increase the popularity of the Christian celebration. But that concern was dispelled almost at once.

The facility and speed with which the pagan traditions were assimilated exceeded our dreamiest expectations. Once introduced, the pagan practices of burning Yule logs, decorating trees, feasting, and partying began eclipsing the religious practices until the Christian significance became all but a perfunctory afterthought. But the greatest outcome of all was the runaway trend in gift-giving!

Driven by worry and greed, shopkeepers capitalized on the “spirit” of the season earlier and earlier, creating the devilish combination of dissatisfaction and desire with their latest line of fashionable products until the spirit was more about presents under the tree than the Progeny in the stable.

Who could have predicted from the celebration’s modest beginnings that church-goers would eventually spend more on Christmas gifts than they tithe all year to their churches, and over twice as much as they give to religious non-profit organizations? Imagine, Swillpit, if those funds were used to support missions and help the needy. Why, there’s no telling how much trouble that would cause us!

As it stands, while we’ve been able to reclaim a lot of Europe and have been making headway in America, we are losing BIG in the developing world. In fact, for the better part of a decade, their missionaries have been re-evangelizing those who evangelized them: Europe and America!

On a global scale, it is my sense, and that of our Betters, that Hell is teetering on the tipping point. In whispered conversations there is fear that even a smidgen more coverage of the so-called, “good news,” could lead to an advantage that no amount of devilry could surmount.

As long as their gift-giving trend continues, don’t begrudge them their kitsch crèches, nativity plays, and cloying carols. For most earthlings, these are hardly more than symbols evoking mawkish memories of childhood, a time when their suspicions about the Man in the Red Suit were put off one more year by a half-empty glass of milk, a partially eaten cookie, and an eye-full of presents.

And speaking of the Man in the Red Suit, few characters have served us as well! Originating from the exploits of a common fourth century do-gooder, he developed into a legend about an omniscient, omnipresent Judge and Gift-Giver best expressed in one of their most popular seasonal ditties:

He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who’s naughty and nice…
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

I trust that you see why he has been so useful to us. Once a child learns the disappointing truth about the Man in the Red Suit, as all children do, he will naturally wonder whether he was similarly misled about the God in the Sky. If the former is a myth foisted upon him by adults for the purposes of behavior modification then, most likely, so is the Latter.

The crestfallen child who is told, “What is important is not the existence of Santa Claus, but what Santa Claus represents,” can’t help but suspect that “What is important is not the existence of God, but what God represents.” For many, this will be the seed of life-long cynicism toward authority and received knowledge. And when that blossoms, Swillpit, it is a thing of beauty!

Oh, did I fail to mention the increased incidences of mental depression, substance abuse, suicide, crime, and domestic violence during this most joyous time of year?

As I think I’ve made sufficiently clear, “‘tis the season” chock-filled with devil-making opportunities. Make the most of them, my pupil, make the most of them!

Seasons Greetings from Your Seasoned Highness,

∼ S.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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