For the birthday present of birth…


What I remember most about Christmas past was the smallest of things. This was my father’s Christmas tradition: oranges, apples and walnuts in the shell in our Christmas stockings.  It was a small but weighty gesture in the toe. But then it was dismissed as a trifle by we children.  We were more dazzled by the large corporately-produced, enticingly-wrapped packages under the tree and, of course, the appropriately named ‘stocking stuffers’.

And yet, as the years roll swiftly by me, I have forgotten many of those other gifts.  What I do remember are an orange, an apple, and three walnuts in the shell.  And like Chesterton thanking God for what fit into his Christmas stocking,  I think back to my father’s tradition every Christmas and thank God for that.

When I see how high the price of nuts and fruit has risen, it makes these “trifles” of long ago seem as extravagant, luxurious, and wonderful as the dowries St. Nicholas gave to the daughters!  In ‘The Weight of Glory’, Lewis calls this recognition the longing for paradise and he is right. For the longing has caught up with me, now that I have no family of my own to pass oranges, apples and walnuts to in stocking toes. To put a glimmer of paradise in our vision, (even though we did not know it for what it was) in the simple, but costly gift given to us, is the wonder of a heavenly Father.  And we are mistaken to think that anything is more important than what our Heavenly Father meant by that recognition.  The smallest thing is of the largest importance.  Only then, can we recognize, as Chesterton tells us, that gratitude is tied to happiness.

Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.

But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration. It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next milestone to be definitely marked on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in the next chapter about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?

G. K. Chesterton, The Ethics of Elfland, Orthodoxy

One thought on “For the birthday present of birth…

  1. Reblogged this on Reforming the Line and commented:

    What other man noticed how much our own birthday and Christmas have in common? None other than the birthday man himself. Born May 29, 1874. Happy 142nd Birthday, Gilbert! Praising God for your life and your encouragement to many that lives on. “We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” – G. K. Chesterton

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