"A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded."
Indeed, part of the very origin of Christmas celebration and indeed of Christianity has been a tension between private and public life. As Chilton writes, "The early Christians were much concerned with the public aspects of the Incarnation. Indeed, they were martyred in droves, because they refused to privatize their faith."
And you see, while he (Chilton) is mistaken about the origins of Christmas (it was a few hundred years after the birth of Christ before the customary December festivities transformed into what we call Christmas), he's exactly right about the coming of the Messiah, the birth of Jesus, the advent of the Christian era. It wasn't a secret. It didn't happen within the private walls of home. It didn't happen at 'home' at all, as the center of that event left His glorious home in Heaven to come to earth and put on human flesh and become one of us. It didn't happen in the home of Mary and Joseph, as we all know they were traveling from home to participate in the Roman Census and were forced to take shelter in a stable, finding no room in that inn.
More than that, Christianity itself is not to be confined to the privacy of the home. In one of those paradoxes of which G. K. Chesterton was so fond, the Christian is told to fast and pray in secret, not making a big production of it, to practice benevolence quietly, without drawing attention to oneself, in fact, so privately that the right hand knows not what the left hand is doing, and yet to proclaim Christ from the mountaintops and confess Him before men, to preach the word in season and out of season (even this season).
As she comments, the story does not take place in the home. The Christmas story is in some ways a story of exile from the home. Exile is not the correct word, perhaps simply "left" is better but it will have to do for now. Our Lord left His home, His station, His identity, to come to earth as an unknown neonate. The Holy Family, Joseph and Mary, also underwent an exile; no domestic comforts there in the stable, no feasting, no warm fire. Their "exile" was caused by a political event -- a bureaucratic event, in fact.
Yet the Birth that has become the pivotal point of public history was a private event, a domestic affair. Perhaps Christmas is one of the few times, at least nowadays, when we publicly and multisensorially (!) recognize and celebrate the power of the private, the amateur, the hidden domestic circle to affect the course of public life. Chesterton said that the inside of a home is larger than the outside. Surely one of the messages of the Bethlehem story is that family intimacy-- Love-- signify more than fame or political power. The inner things are more significant than the outer things; the inside is larger than the outside. He who made the world depends on the swaddling care of a human mother.
Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which does not take place at home but is a story about Home -- preserving, defending and celebrating it -- the Christmas story is a story about Home. ... His departure, and return; theirs, the Holy Family's; and our own hope of the same. No doubt Augustus's census was the talking point of the hour for the society of the time, but it is only a precipitating footnote in the real Story. We are right to celebrate Christmas both in our domestic circle and publicly, because the Nativity is an example of how one and the other are inextricably entwined. But it starts in the home circle, and resonates outwards, and never ultimately the other way around.
Since our society is sometimes clumsy about these things, we celebrate rather clumsily, perhaps. Plastic electronic Nativity scenes; boycotts of Lowe's for their "holiday trees"; compulsive shopping and buying; busy-ness. It's the kind of thing we do all year but to an extreme. Truly, "creation comes alive" -- with spending, rushing and gadgetry. Still, the alternative may well be considerably worse. With abundance and conviviality sometimes come extravagance and vulgarity. The reformed Scrooge may be a good example of this, with his clumsy, eager, lively good will. Surely the Misses Bingley would turn up their noses. We all have a bit of the Miss Bingley in us, no doubt, but perhaps during Christmas it behooves us to encourage our inner Ebenezer.
Dale Ahlquist writes on Chesterton in Fancies vs Fads something that seems a bit relevant here.
“Private life is more important than public life.” But that is not what is taught in any public school. As we said, all these fads are a form of prohibition, attacks on personal freedom. They make our lives smaller. “Freedom,” says Chesterton, “is fullness, especially fullness of life.”Freedom is fullness of life. "I came that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly." Of course freedom can be abused, as Chesterton writes about prohibition:
In the modern world, with our ever changing ideas about what is good or bad for a person, with our blind faith in science as an authority, and with our general loss of common sense, we resort to Prohibition, to vast restrictions that affect every aspect of our lives. We do not trust people to make their own decisions, on the contrary, we want to prevent them from having any free will at all, both in principle and in practice.
"I mean that they are satisfied with saying about this liberty what can obviously be said about any liberty - that it can be, and is, abominably abused. If that had been a final objection to any form of freedom, there never would have been any form of freedom."
One of the things that concerns the narrow, Miss Bingley side of our society is that amateurish, inept humans may mess up, may do things wrong. They make laws and hedges to forestall this possibility. They encourage us to send our tots to preschool so they can be managed by the experts; they rule that the only sins are trespasses against physical safety, like smoking or eating too much or not buckling your seatbelt. At Christmas, we can discern the other side of this possibility -- that fullness of freedom leads to life, to red and green and gilt, to roast turkeys "the one as big as me", to dancing and to jesting and joy, and that a family relationship is at the heart of it all.