The Festival of Peace

by Josiah Oldfield

The world is wise, for the world is old;
Five thousand years their tale have told;
Yet the world is not happy, as the world might be:
Why is it? Why is it? O, answer me!

The world is strong, with an awful strength;
And full of life in its breadth and length;
Yet the world is not happy, as the world might be:
Why is it? Why is it? O, answer me!

Poor world! if thou cravest a better day;
Remember that Christ must have His own way;
I mourn thou art not as thou mightest be,
But the love of God would do all for thee.

The last Christmas in the Century is with us and by the majority of men and women in England it will be celebrated in the same old way as the last hundred Christmases have been celebrated. The great point in Christmas celebrating is to eat beef – roast beef – good old English roast beef – and to wash it down with beer. I have nothing for the moment to say about the beer, there are hundreds of busy pens that are writing to-day, and are pointing out the evils that beer drinking brings in its train.

Upon me and upon a small band has fallen a higher duty – not that of pointing out the palpable evils of indulging to excess in alcoholic poison, but the subtle and more terrible evils which are inherently connected with even the moderate consumption of ox flesh. The “rounds of beef,” the “sirloins of beef,” the “good old beefsteak” cannot be brought upon the Christmas tables without the infliction of atrocious pain upon countless sentient animals.

These foods are not necessary for the development of the best forces that the best men can produce. These dire pains, therefore, are inflicted for the pleasure of the human race – the so-called “civilised” portion of the human race. These dire pains are inflicted as part of a religious festival celebration.

The world is full of similar examples. Every age and every religion and every sect has had its celebrations of pain and its celebrations of joy. Very often the joy of one portion of the community has been obtained by the infliction of pain upon another portion. The proud joy of the leaders in the ancient Roman Triumphs was largely enhanced by the groans of the captives chained to the chariot wheels and by the satisfaction of knowing that ere night fell their racked and tortured bodies would have yielded up the souls they could no longer keep.

Many a gentle Roman maid and matron would sorrow a little in secret for the terrible pains and agonies of the day of Triumph, but they would ease their consciences by saying that Triumphs were necessary for the development of courage and valour and for the perpetuation of the rugged Roman virtues, and that the agonies of the vanquished were indeed a terribly sad item in the proceedings, but they were of course necessary, and were besides really too disgusting to talk about. So too, to-day. Just as in those days, so also in these days. Just as in Pagan Rome, so also in Christian England. We, too, have our days on which we celebrate our triumphs – our festivals of great rejoicing for victories won.

Of all these Triumph days the greatest and most joyous is Christmas. It is a perpetual memory of the birth of the Great Victor-Emperor. The One who overcame death. The One who set free the captive human race. The One who brought into being a peace greater than the Pax Romana, a peace greater than the Pax Britannica. Yea, indeed, a peace which passeth all understanding. In true Pagan style we celebrate our Triumph day.

Our Prince overcame pain, therefore we will inflict pain in exquisite detail in memory of His triumph over it. He came sanctifying the manger stall where cow and ox were tied, and He shared their hospitality, and was succoured and comforted by their warmth and shelter. So we will exemplify our reverence for this beautiful kinship of the Lord of life with the gentle lowing kine, by taking them in their thousands and tearing them from their homes, and driving them with blows and dog-bites for weary miles, and forcing them with twisted, broken tails and dragging chain right up to the fatal axe. And if perchance they were to ask what they had done to be thus tortured, the Christian world with one loud voice replies – “Your ancestors gave home and shelter and hospitality to our beloved Master on His birthday, so we celebrate the memory of their beautiful deed by torturing and slaughtering thousands of their descendants on the annual festival which commemorates His birthday!”

The Master came as the victor over Death and the inaugurator of the reign of Life, we therefore celebrate this festival by emphasising every form of butchered death, and we teach our children that we celebrate our own escape from spiritual death by inflicting a myriad physical deaths upon others. The Prince came to teach that Love shall conquer Force and that the brutal must be replaced by the divinely gentle. We celebrate His festival by declaring that might is right, that the stronger shall ever prey upon the weaker, and that the brutal in man shall be perpetuated. The Son of Man came to declare that the killing of animals and the offering up of their roasted carcases was not pleasing to the Divine Father of all. We celebrate His festival by perpetuating for man’s pleasure what God refused to have done for His own glory.

Thus the Pagan instinct of the Roman Triumph remains, and so long as there is only some killing to be done and some pain to be inflicted, the brute instinct in the human race is satisfied and is quite oblivious of the ghastly inconsistency of doing it to celebrate such a festival as that of the birthday of the most gentle and meek, the most self-sacrificing and humane, the most tender and compassionate of all who have ever been born of woman. Gentle Christian men and gentler Christian women declare that they cannot “keep the feast” of the gentle Christ who accepted the hospitality of the kine, without they eat some of these slaughtered kine – roast beef – good old English roast beef!

They solemnly declare that the festival kept in memory of the most gentle, who came to teach the highest form of gentleness, cannot be “kept” without inflicting pain, terror and death upon thousands of gentle animals. “Christmas,” they say “would be no Christmas to us without our Christmas dinner, and our Christmas dinner would be no Christmas dinner without part of the dead body of a slaughtered ox for us to eat.” “Our Christmas festival is wrapped up in our Christmas dinner, and our Christmas dinner is so intimately connected with pain, slaughter and death, that we cannot understand anyone enjoying Christmas without roast beef!”

This is only the end of the Nineteenth Century. There will perhaps come a happier and a humaner Twentieth. For this we shall pray and for this we must work.

Originally published as the opening essay in the December 1900 edition of The Herald of the Golden Age.