In essence, the magic of Christmas and the magic of children’s stories are about the same thing – a conceptualisation of the child as the keeper of innocence and enchantment in a modern, secular world.
In the Anglo tradition, wherever we are in the world, we fetishise northern European winter landscapes as places that ‘contain’ the magic of Christmas, mimicking them with our pine trees laden with tinsel and our gingerbread houses crusted in icing sugar snow. In an interview with The Spectator in 2019, UK children’s author Piers Torday discusses the power of hearth and winter in children’s stories, tracing them back to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – but acknowledging that they evoke the threat of the cold winter forest from a still earlier time, carried to us through fairy tales. Not just Christmas stories, then, but children’s stories more generally, draw power from the premodern past. But fairy tales are not the only source of that power.
Western, English-language kids’ literature follows a strong tradition informed by the Romantic ideal of the child. The Romantics reacted against industrialisation and against the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, both of which they saw as a loss of innocence. By their reckoning, however, children were still innocent – connected to nature and as yet unsullied by experience. To this day, in stories about children, they are often in possession of a kind of higher moral attunement lost to their worldlier, wiser elders.
By the twentieth century, according to narratives of progress, our maturation away from primitive, magical ways of thinking was complete. In other words, society had grown up – but where did that leave the child? In her book Re-enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, academic Maria Sachiko Cecire points to the influence of the work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on our enduring ideas of childhood. Both were academics at Oxford and keen medievalists, whose fiction – much of it aimed at or accessible to children – romanticises the premodern past. According to Cecire, these texts lean on the Romantic ideal of the child as innocent, now casting them as the keepers of magic in a secular world. In this approach, progress towards rationalism is a form of ‘disenchantment’ and children’s stories are a place where re-enchantment becomes possible. Just as the wardrobe is a portal to the snowy world of Narnia, children’s books are a portal to a premodern world peopled by knights and witches and where people still believe in magic. More than that – a world where magic is real.
The curriculum established by Lewis and Tolkien, argues Cecire, educated a generation of fantasy writers – among them Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne-Jones and Philip Pullman – extending the tradition and in turn its influence.
So what has all this got to do with Christmas? If we have received the idea that children have an ability (supposedly lost to adults) to access a world of enchantment; and if as adults we construct and celebrate childhood in ways that make us nostalgic for the freedom to believe in magic; then Christmas, as a child-centred festival, itself becomes a (ritualised) portal to the enchanted world kept safe by them, one time of the year where we can glimpse it again.
Like certain kinds of fantasy stories, writes Cecire, Christmas is a powerful example of our ‘belief that a timeless otherworld of imagination, enchantment and moral clarity remains preserved by and for children, and that such a world has its roots in a deep premodern past’.
So when you hang up the lights this year, and decorate the tree, and look forward to the excitement of Christmas morning, remember that the impulse to celebrate Christmas in this way is not so different from the desire to open a book, and lose yourself in a world of magic and wonder.