Christmas and the First Games

G. K. Chesterton

I have sometimes been haunted with a vague story about a wild and fantastic uncle, the enemy of parents and the cause of revolution in nurseries, who went about preaching a certain theory; I mean the theory that all the objects which children use at Christmas for what we call riotous or illegitimate purposes, were originally created for those purposes; and not for the humdrum household purposes which they now serve. For instance, we will suppose that the story begins with a pillow-fight in a night nursery; and boys buffeting and bashing each other with those white and shapeless clubs. The uncle, who would be a professor of immense learning and even greater imagination and inventiveness, would proceed to make himself unpopular with parents and popular with children, by proving that the pillow in prehistoric art is obviously designed to be a club; that the sham-fight in the night nursery is actually more ancient and authoritative than the whole institution of beds or bedclothes; that in some innocent morning of the world such cherubim warred on each other with such clouds, possibly made of white samite, mystic, wonderful, and stuffed with feathers from the angels' wings; and that it was only afterwards, when weariness fell upon the world and the young gods had grown tired of their godlike sports, that they slept with their heads upon their weapons; and so, by a gradual dislocation of the whole original purpose of the pillow, it came to be recognized as having its proper place on a bed.

It is obvious that any number of these legends could be launched with ease and grace and general gratification. It would be urged, to eagerly assenting little boys, that catapults are really older and more majestic than windows. Windows were merely targets set up for catapults, clear and fragile that such archaic archers might be rewarded with a crash and sparkle of crystal; that it was only after the oppressive priesthood of the Middle Paleolithic had ruthlessly suppressed the Catapult Culture, that people had gradually come to use the now useless glass targets for purposes of light or ventilation. Similarly, butter was originally used solely to make butter-slides in the path of parents and guardians and it was only by a late accident in the life of some prominent though prostrate citizen, who happened to lick the pavement, that its edible qualities were discovered.

The subversive principle can be applied to almost every childish game; it may be said that primitive hunters hunted the slipper, long before that leaping and elusive animal was duplicated and worn as furry spoils upon the feet of the hunter. It might be said that no handkerchief was ever used to blow the nose, as in our degenerate day, till it had been used for centuries to blind the eyes, as in the hierarchic mystery of Blind-Man's-Buff.

True, I cannot set forth here in any great detail any actual proofs of these prehistoric origins; but I never heard of anybody bothering about historic proofs in connection with prehistoric origins. There is quite as much evidence for my favorite uncle's theory of the primitive pillow as there is for Mr. H.G. Wells's detailed account of the horrible Old Man, who ruled by terror over twenty or thirty younger men who could have thrown him out of the cave on his apelike ear; there is as much scientific proof as there is for Dr. Freud's highly modern and morbid romance about a whole race of sexual perverts making a whole religious service out of parricide; there is as much in the way of data for demonstration as in Mr. Gerald Heard's sentimental film-scenario about arboreal anthropoids kissing the stones which they throw at lions. Nobody expects any historic evidence for things of this sort, because they are prehistoric; and nobody dreams of attempting to found them on any scientific facts; they are simply Science. I do not see why my favorite uncle and I should not be Science too. I do not see why we should not simply make things up out of our own heads; things which cannot possibly be contradicted, just as they cannot possibly be proved. The only difference is that my uncle and I, especially when we set out with a general intention of talking about Christmas, cannot manage to work up that curious loathing of the human race, which is now considered essential to any history written for humanitarians. Dr. Freud (as is perhaps natural after a heavy day of psychopathic interviews) seems to have taken quite a dislike to human beings. So when he makes up the story of how their first forgotten institutions arose in utterly unrecorded times, he makes the family story as nasty as he can; like any other modern novelist. But my uncle and I (especially at Christmas) happen to feel in a more cheerful and charitable frame of mind; and, as there are no iron creeds or dogmas to restrain anybody from anything, we have as much right to imagine cheerful things as he has to imagine gloomy ones. And we beg to announce, with the same authority, that everything began with a celestial pillow fight of cherubs, or that the whole world was made entirely for the games of children.

The two or three truths, of which my uncle's hypothesis is at least symbolic or suggestive, may be conveniently arranged thus. First, it must always be remembered that there really is a mystery, and something resembling a religious mystery, in the origin of many things which have since become (very rightly) practical and (very wrongly) prosaic. If my uncle in a festive moment declared that fireworks came before fires, and were used to blazon the blackness of night with ceremonial illuminations, before it was even noticed that they could cook our food or warm our hands, he might not be speaking with pedantic precision; but he would not be far off from a considerable historic truth. There are many strange traces of the ritual side of tilling or tending animals preceding the practical side. Second, it must be remembered that these rituals, including Christmas, have been on the whole preserved by the populace; for a true populace is far more traditional than an aristocracy. They have been preserved by poor people, though generally by poor people who possessed some small property, in short, most markedly by a peasantry. Thus, if my uncle, rising hilariously once more, were to propound to the company the opinion that the Christmas stocking stuffed with gifts and strung onto the bedpost, was a thing far more ancient and authoritative than mere common human stockings as degraded to be the livery of common human legs, I should soothe him by assuring him that I saw his point, though I might not accept this literal illustration of it.

Now it is very interesting to remember that there is another proverb, or traditional truth, about stockings in connection with peasants. It has often been said that the peasant put his small property into his stocking, stuck his little hoard of gold into his stocking, so that it might be safe from thieves and bankers. And the peasant was lectured about this, by no less than nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine lecturers on political economy and professional professors of economics or high finance. It was patiently pointed out to him that metal coins do not breed like maggots when left in a stocking; that guineas do not have little families of guineas as guinea-pigs do; that a stocking is not a nest in which a sovereign can lay half-sovereigns as a bird lays eggs; or, in more learned but less sensible language, that his money was not bringing him any interest. So that the only way to make money do what money cannot do, and the only true scientific scheme for proving there is a guinea-and-a-half when there is only a guinea, is to put it in a bank. A bank, as the nine thousand professors of economics explained to the stupid or stupefied peasant can never fail to pay interest. A stocking may wear out or have holes in it; thieves may break in and steal; but it is manifestly impossible for bankers to steal; and even a violation of nature's laws for things in banks to be stolen; much more for them to disappear altogether, in so brisk and busy a center of speculation. Since banks cannot conceivably fail, argued the professors, you would obviously be a richer man, with somebody else's money from somewhere somehow mysteriously added to your own, if you would take it out of the stocking and put it into the bank. The peasant was still dazed; but he was strangely stubborn. Since then, the situation has been modified in various ways; and a good many of the professors are wishing they had imitated the peasant.

- from The Coloured Lands

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Last modified: 27th May, 1998
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.