By DAVID KING, Ph.D. | Published December 23, 2021
Holidays of any sort present a burden for both the homilist and the columnist, and of all these special days, Christmas is probably the most challenging: What to say that’s new? How to say it? Hasn’t the audience heard it all?
I admit that this year, after over 10 years as an arts and culture columnist at the Georgia Bulletin, I find myself in exactly that predicament.
It occurs to me, at the same time—sadly—that this is the first year that neither of my boys—aged 14 and 11—wrote a letter to Santa Claus.
If you’re a parent or grandparent, or godparent or friend, of a child, you know how precious those letters are. They are written carefully, charged with innocence and earnestness, and the writer never doubts for a moment that they will be faithfully delivered to the North Pole as on some sort of great mission. Their misspellings and grammatical errors endear them to us. And where do they go? Perhaps to the North Pole, one likes to think. Maybe to a dead letter office. Many of them end up undelivered, hidden away in bedside tables, ready to be discovered years later by parents who indeed read them and weep.
To return to my predicament, then, I imagined what several of my favorite Catholic artists might have written to Santa, had they the chance to have wishes granted as adults, even posthumously. Thus, I present to you the following requests, all preceded of course by the salutation “Dear Santa.” Think of it as a kind of Sears Roebuck “Wish Book,” the wonderful abridged catalog—aimed primarily at children—that used to come out in November, just in time for us to begin drafting our own letters.
Flannery O’Connor, of Milledgeville, Georgia would like to get rid of her crutches, even though she senses her suffering and illness are of benefit to her art.
Alfred Hitchcock, of London, England would like his fans to know that he is indeed “more scared than they are, of things in real life,” and that he cherished the gift of the Mass, particularly in his final years.
Thomas Merton, of a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, wants to be left alone in silence, yet failing that gift, he wishes to use his words to bring peace on earth. Also, a little more quiet to go with the peace would be nice—no artillery booming at nearby Fort Knox, for example. And he still wishes we would believe him when he says “that we are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Walker Percy, from all over the South, wishes he had never contracted tuberculosis, yet is grateful for how the disease led him to a profound understanding of both philosophy and religion, as well as a National Book Award and a really great marriage.
Andre Dubus, of Louisiana and Massachusetts, would certainly like to be rid of his wheelchair, but more importantly, he wishes his readers to see the presence of extraordinary grace in ordinary circumstances, even something as simple as making a peanut butter sandwich.
George Tooker of Brooklyn, a painter, wishes more people knew his full work and his genuine love for the spirit of Vatican II, and not just those lonely and alienated souls in the subway and the government bureau.
J.R.R. Tolkien, of Oxford, England, wants a full return to the Latin Mass, because after all he is a linguist, and languages—even dead ones—matter. Also, he wishes to stop being bothered about Hobbits. And don’t forget, he has a hotline to Father Christmas, as his children could tell you.
Jack Kerouac, of Massachusetts and the Great American Night, really, really, really wants to be seriously considered in the Canon of American Literature; like really, man.
Federico Fellini, of Italy, along with Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Leone—also all of Italy, and lately purgatory—just want to get out; we’re filming this, you know.
Evelyn Waugh of London wishes more people would read Brideshead Revisited than watch the miniseries. He also wishes more of us valued the essential completeness, vitality, and universality of our Catholic faith without fussing over smells and bells.
G.K. Chesterton, also of England, wishes that perhaps he had not written quite so much. But in his defense, he argues, “The difficulty of explaining why I am a Catholic is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”
Muriel Spark of Scotland wants us to remember, like her heroine Jean Brodie, that education should be less about putting in information, and more about what bringing out what already exists in the student’s potential.
Graham Greene, yet another convert from the U.K., longs for reconciliation, both with God and with one another.
Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, American expatriates in Paris, wish that more people knew how much Catholicism influenced their work. Scott imagines we can realize our dreams and seize the future; Papa says, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Edwin O’Connor of Rhode Island, John R. Powers of Chicago and Jon Hassler of Minneapolis wish that instead of debating whether or not the Catholic novel still exists, we would simply go back and read their books The Edge of Sadness, The Last Catholic in America, and Staggerford and be satisfied.
Pablo Picasso, whose first great picture featured his sister’s first communion, has almost everything, so desires almost nothing except the gift of innocence to paint like a child.
Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Vince Guaraldi are jamming eternal with Father Norman O’Connor, the Jazz Priest, as emcee, and wishing only to swing forever.
Frank Capra, of Sicily and the United States, wishes people would at last understand that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is not just a Christmas movie!
“10,000 reasons,” as Chesterton says. We could go on and on, for there seems to be no limit to the achievement of the Catholic Aesthetic Tradition, no matter the art, no matter the genre. “All art belongs to it,” said Jacques Maritain, “the sacred as well as the profane.”
It seems fitting to end this “Wish Book” with a final reference to the long ago: Dame Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who fears she is lost to the shrouds of time, wishes only that we all remember, especially in suffering, that “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
T.S. Eliot, of America first but then enshrined in England at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, likes that line of Dame Julian’s so much he steals it for his Four Quartets—can’t have Christmas without a Grinch, even an Anglo-Catholic one!
Merry Christmas, all, and thanks be to God for the gifts of beauty, truth, and goodness in the enduring Catholic imagination.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.