Herodotus on Christmas in 20th-Century Britain

A Lost Fragment

Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) began reading Classics at University College, Oxford, in 1917, but he instantly suspended his studies by volunteering to fight in the Great War (1914–18). Lewis resumed his studies in 1919, after he had returned from the trenches and recovered from severe shrapnel wounds. In 1920 he received a First in “Mods” and then a First in “Greats” in 1922, thus completing his Classical studies. A year later, he achieved a ‘Triple First’ by taking an English Language and Literature degree. Soon after, in 1925, he was elected a Fellow and Tutor in English literature at Magdalen College.

Even though he never pursued an academic career in Latin or Greek literature, Lewis was always enamoured with it. His mother began to teach him Latin when he was seven, and soon his command of the language was such that he could enjoy reading the Golden Ass, a novel of the 2nd century AD by Apuleius, in Latin during the Christmas holidays of 1916. By this time he was also able to read freely in Greek; even in his last illness, when he was at hospital, Lewis was reported to read Homer and Euripides for pleasure. As a result, his published works, both his fiction and his philosophical and theological writings, were full of sophisticated Classical allusions, despite his often misleadingly simple and unpretentious writing style.

The freshers of University College, Oxford, Trinity Term, 1917: as one of the eight new undergraduates, C.S. Lewis stands at the back right.

On 4 December 1954 the monthly British journal Time and Tide published Lewis’ short essay “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus”, reprinted posthumously in the collection of periodical writings God in the Dock.[1] In “Xmas and Christmas”, Lewis expressed his heartfelt dislike of the commercialisation of Christmas in Britain, a dislike which seems to have grown as he got older. In 1954 he decided to convey his concerns in a form that had been very popular when he was a student, namely as a pseudo-Herodotean composition. Between the 1860s and 1920s, as Thomas Harrison has noted,[2]  numerous “fragments” of the Greek historian Herodotus (c.484–c.425 BC) were written by British Classics students, first in Greek and later also in English, imitating the style of the “Father of history” and filling in some gaps of his world-ranging travels.

One of the most conspicuous oversights for authors of these “fragments” was the lack of description of the British Isles in his Histories. The only thing Herodotus has to say is the following:

Now these are the farthest regions of the world in Asia and Libya. Of the extreme tracts of Europe towards the west I cannot speak with any certainty; for I do not allow that there is any river, to which the barbarians give the name of Eridanus, emptying itself into the northern sea, whence (as the tale goes) amber is procured; nor do I know of any islands called the Cassiterides (Tin Islands), whence the tin comes which we use. For in the first place the name Eridanus is manifestly not a barbarian word at all, but a Greek name, invented by some poet or other; and secondly, though I have taken vast pains, I have never been able to get an assurance from an eye-witness that there is any sea on the further side of Europe. Nevertheless, tin and amber do certainly come to us from the ends of the earth. (Histories 3.115)[3]

The late 19th– and early 20th-century inhabitants of the Tin Islands came up with a number of “fragments”, describing what Herodotus should have written, if only he had acquired more information. G.S. Madan, for instance, the son of Oxford’s Bodleian Librarian, wrote a Greek parody “Herodotus at Eton” in 1912,[4] where he argued that the Etonaioi (“Etonians” in quasi-Herodotean Greek) must derive from the Ancient Greeks, since they speak mainly Greek, despite their barbarian customs (such as eating meat and bread, and drinking beer). J.D. Beazley, in his earlier Greek tract “Herodotus at the Zoo”,[5] claimed that the inhabitants of Oxford derived from the Classical Athenians; in addition, he mocked his colleagues from the rival city of “Khampriz” (Greek Χάμπριζ) who, he alleged, revered crocodiles. Herodotus in fact reported that the Egyptian name for crocodiles was “khampsai” (Histories 2.69: χάμψαι).

Sir John Beazley (1885–1970) pursuing his primary love.

As Harrison points out, the humour of those essays consisted mainly in “the identification of absurd aetiologies for contemporary ‘rituals’”.[6] Lewis does exactly the same in his short Herodotean “fragment”, describing the odd rituals practised by the inhabitants of the island Niatirb (i.e. “Britain” backwards).

And beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus[7] indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

Lewis proceeds to describe the first of the crucial rituals performed by the Niatirbians during the Xmas festival:

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival; guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the marketplace is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

As if the Exmas-cards ritual was not exhausting enough, the Niatirbians are also obliged to perform another sacred rite:

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest, and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. [8] And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

However, Lewis’ Grinch-like attitude is directed only towards the absurdities of “Exmas”, not towards what he considers to be the real festival or “Crissmas”:

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas,[9] which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

Adoration of the Shepherds, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1650 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket”; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

Towards the end of the piece, Lewis expresses his view that, in a largely secular age, Christians should not strive to maintain the few remnants of their faith within general public culture, but should instead emphasise their own distinct identity. In a 1958 letter to the American Mary Willis Shelburne, he relates what his brother Warren had witnessed. As an Oxford city bus was passing a church with a Nativity scene on the front lawn, a woman on the bus said: “Oh Lor’! They bring religion into everything. Look – they’re dragging it even into Christmas now.” In terms of Exmas and Crissmas, Lewis suggests making a strong distinction between them, rather than “dragging religion into” Exmas:

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

Further Reading

Geoffrey Madan’s “Herodotus in Eton” can be read here, and J.D. Beazley’s “Herodotus at the Zoo” here.

Tom Harrison, “Herodotus’s Travels in Britain and Beyond: Prose Composition and Pseudo-Ethnography”, in T. Harrison & J. Skinner (eds.), Herodotus in the Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge UP, 2020) 244–73.

C.S. Lewis, “The Grand Miracle” [a chapter on the Incarnation of the Word] in Miracles (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1947) 131–58.

C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas means to me”, in God in the Dock (W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1970) 304–5.


1 C.S. Lewis,  “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus,” God in the Dock (W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1970) 301–3.
2 T. Harrison, “Herodotus’s Travels in Britain and Beyond: Prose Composition and Pseudo-Ethnography,” in T. Harrison & J. Skinner (eds.), Herodotus in the Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge UP, 2020) 244–73.
3 Tr. by A.D. Godley (Loeb Classical Library, London/Cambridge, MA, 1920).
4 G.S. Madan, “Herodotus at Eton” (Exercise ‘Sent up for Play’) (Spottiswoode, Eton, 1912), which can be downloaded here.
5 J.D. Beazley, “Herodotus at the Zoo” (Gaisford Prize) (Blackwell, Oxford, 1907), which can be downloaded here.
6 Harrison (as n.2) 257.
7 Hecataeus of Miletus (c.550–c.476 BC) was a Greek historian, author of the prose work Periodos gēs (“Journey around the earth”), which survives only in fragments but clearly influenced Herodotus.
8 The father of Zeus who, according to the poet Hesiod, ruled during the Golden Age. Later on, he was conflated with the personification of Time (Chronos, equated to Cronos) and depicted as an old man with a long beard. Since in Latin he was called Saturn(us), Lewis alludes here to the Saturnalia, a Roman festival devoted to that god and celebrated between 17 and 23 December: Xmas is thus presented as a toilsome reversal of the joyful Saturnalia.
9 The modern English “Christmas” comes from an earlier “Cristemasse”, meaning “Christ’s Mass”.