In practicing the rites of worship men hope that they will be vouchsafed a share in the superhuman abundance of life. From time immemorial, this very thing has always been considered the true, the immanent fruit of all great festivals… Men are swept away from the here and now to utterly tranquil contemplation of the ground of existence; to happiness, as in absorption in beloved eyes. … Thus when a festival goes as it should, men receive something that is not in human power to give. This is the by now almost forgotten reason for the age-old custom of wishing one another well on great festivals. What are we really wishing our fellow men when we send them ‘best wishes for Christmas’? Health, enjoyment of each other’s company, thriving children, success—all these things, too, of course. We may even—why not?—be wishing them a good appetite for the holiday meal. But the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth. Nowadays, to be sure, all this can barely be sensed behind the trite formula: ‘Happy Holidays.’
Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (St. Augustine’s Press)
Offering best wishes for Christmas can have more meaning than I realized. There is in fact so much to wish for. Pieper points out that Christmas, as any great festival or feast-day, takes us to the foundations of our world-view. Pulsing at the root of everything is a goodness, a love, that gives rich meaning to life, in all of its aspects and all of its moments. Life is good, very good. And we need to see this—really see this—and respond. A feast like Christmas provides an irreplaceable opportunity to see: to break through the mists of work-a-day life, by our festival observances, and especially by divine worship, and really see. But such a vision is not automatic. It is a gift, we can dispose ourselves, and others, to receive. What more could we wish for our loved ones, and all our fellow men?
A truly Merry Christmas to all, and may God bless us, every one.
Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German philosopher in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. Many of his works have been translated into English and are still in print, including Leisure the Basis of Culture, Happiness and Contemplation, The Silence of St. Thomas, and The Four Cardinal Virtues, to name just a few.
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