"I am not one who was born in the custody of wisdom. I am one who is fond of olden times and intense in quest of the sacred knowing of the ancients." Gustave Courbet

24 December 2020


I have now to speak personally because I can think of no other way of saying why Christmas means much more to me than my birthday. The greatest reason of all will take some putting across – even to anyone who has listened so far. It is this.

I cannot believe that I am surrounded by a purposeless accident. On a clear night, I look up at the stars and, remembering amateur astronomy, know that the Milky Way is the rest of this universe and that the light from some of the stars has taken years to reach this planet. When I consider that the light from the sun ninety million miles away takes eight-and-a-half minutes to get here, the consequent immensity of this universe seems intolerable. And then I am told that some little clusters seen beyond the edge of the Milky Way on certain nights are other whole universes in outer space. It is too much, though believable.  And then on any day about now I can turn over a piece of decaying wood in our garden and see myriapods, insects and bugs startled out of sluggish winter torpor by my action. Each is perfectly formed and adapted to its life. From the immensity of the stars to the perfection of an insect – I cannot believe that I am surrounded by a purposeless accident.

But can I believe this most fantastic story of all: that the Maker of the stars and of the centipedes became a baby in Bethlehem not so long ago. No time ago at all when you reckon the age of the earth. Well, it’s asking a lot. If I weren’t such a highbrow it would be easier. No man of intelligence can believe such a thing. A child of Jewish parents the Creator of the universe? Absurd.  But if it is not true, why was I born? And if it is true, nothing else is of so much importance. No date in time is so important as Christmas Day, the birthday of God made man. And carol singers and Salvation Army bands and Christmas cards (yes, even Christmas cards from ardent unbelievers, who always seem to observe Christmas) and cathedrals and saints and church bells and hospitals and almshouses and towers and steeples and the silence and present-giving of Christmas Day all bear witness to its truth.

Beyond my reason, beyond my emotions, beyond my intellect I know that this peculiar story is true. Architecture brings it home to me, I suppose because architecture is, with poetry, my chief interest.

Last week I was in the most beautiful building in Britain – King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. You know it. It is a forest glade of old coloured glass and between the great windows columns of shafted stone shoot up and up to fountain out into a shower of exquisite, elaborate fan vaulting. It is the swansong of Perpendicular architecture, so immense, so vast, so superbly proportioned, so mysterious that no one can enter it without gasping. All the schoolchildren of Cambridge had filed into a carol service and there they were in the candlelight of the dark oak stalls. We stood waiting for the choir to come in and as we stood there the first verse of the opening carol was sung beyond us, behind the screen, away in the mighty splendour of the nave. A treble solo fluted up to the distant vaulting “Once in Royal David’s City”.  It was clear, pure, distinct.  And as I heard it I knew once more – knew despite myself – that this story was the Truth.  And knowing it I knew that, because of the birth of Christ, the world could not touch me and that between me and the time I smashed Mrs Wallis’ Christmas present hung the figure of God become man, crucified in the great east window.

John Betjeman, from his December 25, 1947 BBC Home Service talk, "Christmas Nostalgia"

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