Wednesday, December 20, 2006

C.S. Lewis on "Exmas": A Lost Chapter of Herodotus

I'm always delighted to find another piece by C. S. Lewis that I haven't seen before. This one was sent to me a week or so ago by a friend. If it doesn't seem like Lewis' usual style, I have been assured by several people at work that it is a very good imitation of the writings of the ancient historian Herodotus.

A Lost Chapter from Herodotus
by C S Lewis

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and the north, the island of Niatrib which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north-western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rain most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamp with a picture which in their speech is call an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or men in such garments as the Niatribians believe their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And Niatribians are unwilling to say what these picture have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards, which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift every friend will send to him so he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatribians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet and incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of the gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man that come into a Niatribian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen onto Niatrib. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted, with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas, they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatribians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatribians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, call Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of Niatribians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adorning the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, It is not lawful O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatribians to keep Xmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Xmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left. And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, It is, O Stranger, a *racket*; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a *racket* is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called *tennis*).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell of Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatribians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper cars. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, so suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatrib.

1 comment:

Jonadab said...

Incidentally, Niatrib is one transposition from being Britain spelled backwards. It was the fog that tipped me off, because there's nothing about fog in any Christmas custom of which I am aware, so it must be just a local weather phenomenon, which obviously points to England. It makes sense that Lewis would parody his own culture, since it would be what he knows best.

And the style does, at some points anyway, sound like something translated into English from Greek, although I am not familiar with the writings of Herodotus in particular.

I have been tempted myself to refer to the Christmas that I celebrate as Advent. I probably would if I didn't think it would make me sound like a Roman Catholic or an Adventist.