Well, my friends, it is winter here where I live and Christmas is well on its way. The trees are up (we have two, a tradition that started because my family fought over which one we should cut down), the lights are hung inside and outside the house, and we have a brightly lit reindeer on the roof. The kids are making plans to bake cookies with Grandma, and the radio is recycling seventy-five years of Christmas tunes.
C.S. Lewis built the perfect kid-friendly metaphor to describe the horrors of the White Witch’s winter rule: It’s always winter, but never Christmas. While we adults might get caught up in the everyday concerns (How will the Narnians grow food? Will they get enough Vitamin D? Do they have to shovel their driveways every day?), children are faced with the real horror: Santa will never arrive with their gifts. The celebration never comes.
One might expect a more specifically Christian version of Santa Claus from Lewis: St. Nicholas would have been just as widely recognized by 1950s British schoolchildren as Father Christmas was. St. Nicholas has plenty of interesting history to draw from, including some actual historical fact (he was the Greek-born bishop of Smyrna who faced persecution and even served jail time under Emperor Diocletian’s rule), some probably-true history (like when he snuck gold into the home of a man who was about to sell his daughters into slavery and/or prostitution so that the young women had dowries and could marry instead…leading eventually to the modern tradition involving stockings and chimneys), and some weird and delightful myths (like when St. Nick discovered an evil shopkeeper had chopped up three boys and put them in a pickle barrel; Nick finds out and resurrects them from the dead).
But leaving St. Nicholas aside, Lewis introduces us, instead, to the bringer of Spring, the giver of gifts, the prophet of Aslan himself: Father Christmas. And now that Father Christmas is here, spring is as well. December 25th is, of course, the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which (depending on which historians you prefer to believe) was essentially a winter solstice celebration, and may be part of the reason the early Christian Church placed their celebration on the same day. Regardless, Lewis is certainly tapping into something related to solstice here. The long winter is over, daylight has come, and the arrival of Father Christmas is a sure sign of this (Lewis is clear, however, that the great thaw and Father Christmas are both coming because Aslan is on the move).
For those who dislike the mish-mashed world building of Narnia, Father Christmas’s arrival is a central complaint. It didn’t bother me for a moment as a kid, but then again Christmas was already a mish-mash in my world: Charlie Brown and Rudolph and Frosty and Santa and Jesus all had their specific places and times, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. Bob Cratchit was played by a human sometimes, or maybe a cartoon mouse, or Kermit the Frog. Christmas was a holiday where myths and traditions and legends got mixed together, all swirling toward that center.
“But,” some will point out, “There shouldn’t be a Christmas at all in Narnia. Jesus wasn’t born in Narnia. This isn’t part of their world.” Which is a fair point. But then again, Aslan isn’t a metaphor, he’s Jesus incarnate in Narnia. If Father Christmas has access to worlds other than ours, it would only make sense that he would still visit his friend Jesus in whatever form he happened to take. So maybe Father Christmas brings gifts to the people of Narnia (and other worlds besides) to celebrate his friend Aslan’s birthday despite the fact that Narnians don’t know Aslan by his Earthly name and shape. Sure, it might make more sense to call it “Aslanmas” in that case, but again, I think Lewis was making a mythological quilt and he used whichever scraps pleased him. And if, as we discussed at length, Lewis is pointing us toward a Christus Victor model of the atonement, a natural part of that theology is that the resurrected Christ takes a tour of various places to show that he was victorious. It makes perfect sense in that model of atonement for Christ and his servants to take a multiversal tour to celebrate Christ’s victory over death. (Also, if you haven’t read Planet Narnia or The Narnia Code, Michael Ward makes an extremely compelling case for the Narniad as exploration of medieval cosmology…and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is Jupiter. In this framework is makes perfect sense for the jovial/Jovian Father Christmas to arrive in service to the true king.)
Lewis describes Father Christmas as “a huge man in a bright red robe” who was more than jolly, he was “so big” and “so glad” and “so real.” Father Christmas says, “I’ve come at last.” The witch had been fighting him, keeping him out of Narnia. “Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” He’s a sort of Narnian adventurer, which fits in well with some of the northern European stories of Santa. (If you’ve never seen it, be sure to read this wonderful, short Christmas comic by Benito Cereno and Evan Shaner.) There are plenty of traditions in which Father Christmas is rolling up his sleeves and fighting evil one-on-one and often, in fact, taming evil and forcing it into service to him and the one true God. This is the flavor I get from Lewis’s Father Christmas…he’s not hunched over in a toy factory somewhere, or kicking back eating milk and cookies; he’s taking the initiative to stand against people like the White Witch, fighting in the front lines of the battle for what’s right in service of his king.
The kids are all astonished to meet Father Christmas. Then, as we all might hope, he parcels out gifts for everyone there. Mr. Beaver gets some help at his dam, and Mrs. Beaver a new sewing machine. Peter receives a sword and shield, perfectly weighted for him (“a very serious kind of present”). Susan gets a bow “that does not easily miss” and arrows, as well as an ivory horn that, if you blow it “some kind of help will come to you.” This will be an important gift in at least one future book. Lucy is given some healing cordial made from fire flowers that grow in the mountains on the sun, and also a dagger that appears to have no magic at all but is just to defend herself if the worst comes to pass. Yes, there is some gender role commentary implicit in these gifts, but we’ve covered that at some length in a previous article.
Father Christmas then, in an echo of Jadis and Edmund and the Turkish Delight, whips out a full tea tray with a bowl of sugar and a jug of cream and a “piping hot” teapot and before they even notice he’s off to deliver more Christmas cheer, but not before saying, “A Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!”
Edmund, I assume, gets his lump of coal at some point, but he’s with the Witch now, so we don’t get to see that. We do get to see that Father Christmas has more business in Narnia than just delivering gifts to the Pevensie children. Edmund, begging the Witch for more Turkish Delight, receives only a dry crust of bread. While Father Christmas is proclaiming the reign of the true King, Edmund is still waiting for Jadis to follow through on her promise to make him king. Mostly, though, he is feeling frightened and small and alone. They set out in their sledge pulled by reindeer, much like Father Christmas, and come across a cheerful party of creatures enjoying a feast brought by the jolly old adventurer. There are squirrels and satyrs and an old fox all enjoying their food when the Witch comes upon them. She asks where they got the food, and the fox tells her. He offers to drink to her health, but she is furious. She says it can’t have been Father Christmas, but one of the baby squirrels assures her he was, so she turns them all to stone over Edmund’s objections.
Jadis slaps Edmund across the face for daring to speak against her. And then Edmund “for the first time in this story felt sorry for someone besides himself.” This is, perhaps, Father Christmas’s gift to Edmund after all. For it’s only when comparing the thoughtful generosity of Father Christmas with the cruelty and broken promises of the false Queen of Narnia that Edmund truly understands how terrible the thing is that he has done in betraying his siblings. As Narnia begins to thaw, it becomes plain that he is not some future king, but rather Jadis’s prisoner. He is forced to march toward the Stone Table, and is only saved from being sacrificed because Aslan has sent a party of his followers to save Edmund at about the same time the poor boy finally realized he was a prisoner.
Which, really, would have been part of the Christmas story as C.S. Lewis understood it as well. In Christian theology, there is an understanding that the ancient prophets were speaking of Jesus when they said:
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
And then, in speaking of the king who was to come:
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:2, 6 NKJV)
Jesus himself claimed that he had been sent to set prisoners like Edmund free (Luke 4, referring back to Isaiah 61), and I do not doubt for a moment that Lewis very much meant us to make that connection. It is Father Christmas who brings us the news of the promised one’s long awaited arrival.
If you are Christian or Narnian or simply enjoy this particular tradition, then a very Merry Christmas to you! If you celebrate some other tradition, then a heartfelt happy holidays to you and yours! And if you do not celebrate a holiday in this season, then, my friends, peace to you and yours. May we all be people of goodwill to one another, and bringers of peace.
Originally published in December 2019 as part of the C.S. Lewis Reread
Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.