Over the dial-face of the year, on which the hours are months, the apex resting in sunshine, the base in withered leaves and snows, the finger of time does not travel with the same rapidity. Slowly it creeps up from snow to sunshine; when it has gained the summit it seems almost to rest for a little; rapidly it rushes down from sunshine to the snow. Judging from my own feelings, the distance from January to June is greater than from June to January—the period from Christmas to Midsummer seems longer than the period from Midsummer to Christmas. This feeling arises, I should fancy, from the preponderance of light on that half of the dial on which the finger seems to be travelling upwards, compared with the half on which it seems to be travelling downwards. This light to the eye, the mind translates into time. Summer days are long, often wearisomely so. The long-lighted days are bracketed together by a little bar of twilight, in which but a star or two find time to twinkle. Usually one has less occupation in summer than in winter, and the surplusage of summer light, a stage too large for the play, wearies, oppresses, sometimes appalls. From the sense of time we can only shelter ourselves by occupation; and when occupation ceases while yet some three or four hours of light remain, the burden falls down, and is often greater than we can bear. Personally, I have a certain morbid fear of those endless summer twilights. A space of light stretching from half-past 2 a.m. to 11 p.m. affects me with a sense of infinity, of horrid sameness, just as the sea or the desert would do. I feel that for too long a period I am under the eye of the taskmaster. Twilight is always in itself, or at least in its suggestions, melancholy; and these midsummer twilights are so long, they pass through such series of lovely change, they are throughout so mournfully beautiful, that in the brain they beget strange thoughts, and in the heart strange feelings. We see too much of the sky, and the long, lovely, pathetic, lingering evening light, with its suggestions of eternity and death, which one cannot for the soul of one put into words, is somewhat too much for the comfort of a sensitive human mortal. The day dies, and makes no apology for being such an unconscionable time in dying; and all the while it colours our thoughts with its own solemnity. There is no relief from this kind of thing at midsummer. You cannot close your shutters and light your candles; that in the tone of mind which circumstances superinduce would be brutality. You cannot take Pickwick to the window and read it by the dying light; that is profanation. If you have a friend with you, you can’t talk; the hour makes you silent. You are driven in on your self-consciousness. The long light wearies the eye, a sense of time disturbs and saddens the spirit; and that is the reason, I think, that one half of the year seems so much longer than the other half; that on the dial-plate whose hours are months, the restless finger seems to move more slowly when travelling upward from autumn leaves and snow to light, than when it is travelling downward from light to snow and withered leaves.
Of all the seasons of the year, I like winter best. That peculiar burden of time I have been speaking of, does not affect me now. The day is short, and I can fill it with work; when evening comes, I have my lighted room and my books. Should black care haunt me, I throw it off the scent in Spenser’s forests, or seek refuge from it among Shakspeare’s men and women, who are by far the best company I have met with, or am like to meet with, on earth. I am sitting at this present moment with my curtains drawn; the cheerful fire is winking at all the furniture in the room, and from every leg and arm the furniture is winking to the fire in return. I put off the outer world with my great-coat and boots, and put on contentment and idleness with my slippers. On the hearth-rug, Pepper, coiled in a shaggy ball, is asleep in the ruddy light and heat. An imaginative sense of the cold outside increases my present comfort—just as one never hugs one’s own good luck so affectionately as when listening to the relation of some horrible misfortune which has overtaken others. Winter has fallen on Dreamthorp, and it looks as pretty when covered with snow as when covered with apple blossom. Outside, the ground is hard as iron; and over the low dark hill, lo! the tender radiance that precedes the morn. Every window in the little village has its light, and to the traveller coming on, enveloped in his breath, the whole place shines like a congregation of glow-worms. A pleasant enough sight to him if his home be there! At this present season, the canal is not such a pleasant promenade as it was in summer. The barges come and go as usual, but at this time I do not envy the bargemen quite so much. The horse comes smoking along; the tarpaulin which covers the merchandise is sprinkled with hoar-frost; and the helmsman, smoking his short pipe for the mere heat of it, cowers over a few red cinders contained in a framework of iron. The labour of the poor fellows will soon be over for a time; for if this frost continues, the canal will be sheathed in a night, and next day stones will be thrown upon it, and a daring urchin venturing upon it will go souse head over heels, and run home with his teeth in a chatter; and the day after, the lake beneath the old castle will be sheeted, and the next, the villagers will be sliding on its gleaming face from ruddy dawn at nine to ruddy eve at three; and hours later, skaters yet unsatisfied will be moving ghost-like in the gloom—now one, now another, shooting on sounding irons into a clear space of frosty light, chasing the moon, or the flying image of a star! Happy youths leaning against the frosty wind!
I am a Christian, I hope, although far from a muscular one—consequently I cannot join the skaters on the lake. The floor of ice, with the people upon it, will be but a picture to me. And, in truth, it is in its pictorial aspect that I chiefly love the bleak season. As an artist, winter can match summer any day. The heavy, feathery flakes have been falling all the night through, we shall suppose, and when you get up in the morning the world is draped in white. What a sight it is! It is the world you knew, but yet a different one. The familiar look has gone, and another has taken its place; and a not unpleasant puzzlement arises in your mind, born of the patent and the remembered aspect. It reminds you of a friend who has been suddenly placed in new circumstances, in whom there is much that you recognise, and much that is entirely strange. How purely, divinely white when the last snowflake has just fallen! How exquisite and virginal the repose! It touches you like some perfection of music. And winter does not work only on a broad scale; he is careful in trifles. Pluck a single ivy leaf from the old wall, and see what a jeweller he is! How he has silvered over the dark-green reticulations with his frosts! The faggot which the Tramp gathers for his fire is thicklier incrusted with gems than ever was sceptre of the Moguls. Go into the woods, and behold on the black boughs his glories of pearl and diamond—pendant splendours that, smitten by the noon-ray, melt into tears and fall but to congeal into splendours again. Nor does he work in black and white alone. He has on his palette more gorgeous colours than those in which swim the summer setting suns; and with these, about three o’clock, he begins to adorn his west, sticking his red hot ball of a sun in the very midst; and a couple of hours later, when the orb has fallen, and the flaming crimson has mellowed into liquid orange, you can see the black skeletons of trees scribbled upon the melancholy glory. Nor need I speak of the magnificence of a winter midnight, when space, sombre blue, crowded with star and planet, “burnished by the frost,” is glittering like the harness of an archangel full panoplied against a battle day.
For years and years now I have watched the seasons come and go around Dreamthorp, and each in its turn interests me as if I saw it for the first time. But the other week it seems that I saw the grain ripen; then by day a motley crew of reapers were in the fields, and at night a big red moon looked down upon the stocks of oats and barley; then in mighty wains the plenteous harvest came swaying home, leaving a largess on the roads for every bird; then the round, yellow, comfortable-looking stacks stood around the farm-houses, hiding them to the chimneys; then the woods reddened, the beech hedges became russet, and every puff of wind made rustle the withered leaves; then the sunset came before the early dark, and in the east lay banks of bleak pink vapour, which are ever a prophecy of cold; then out of a low dingy heaven came all day, thick and silent, the whirling snow,—and so by exquisite succession of sight and sound have I been taken from the top of the year to the bottom of it, from midsummer, with its unreaped harvests, to the night on which I am sitting here—Christmas, 1862.
Sitting here, I incontinently find myself holding a levee of departed Christmas nights. Silently, and without special call, into my study of imagination come these apparitions, clad in snowy mantles, brooched and gemmed with frosts. Their numbers I do not care to count, for I know they are the numbers of my years. The visages of two or three are sad enough, but on the whole ’tis a congregation of jolly ghosts. The nostrils of my memory are assailed by a faint odour of plum-pudding and burnt brandy. I hear a sound as of light music, a whisk of women’s dresses whirled round in dance, a click as of glasses pledged by friends. Before one of these apparitions is a mound, as of a new-made grave, on which the snow is lying. I know, I know! Drape thyself not in white like the others, but in mourning stole of crape; and instead of dance music, let there haunt around thee the service for the dead! I know that sprig of Mistletoe, O Spirit in the midst! Under it I swung the girl I loved—girl no more now than I am a boy—and kissed her spite of blush and pretty shriek. And thee, too, with fragrant trencher in hand, over which blue tongues of flame are playing, do I know—most ancient apparition of them all. I remember thy reigning night. Back to very days of childhood am I taken by the ghostly raisins simmering in a ghostly brandy flame. Where now the merry boys and girls that thrust their fingers in thy blaze? And now, when I think of it, thee also would I drape in black raiment, around thee also would I make the burial service murmur.
Men hold the anniversaries of their birth, of their marriage, of the birth of their first-born, and they hold—although they spread no feast, and ask no friends to assist—many another anniversary besides. On many a day in every year does a man remember what took place on that self-same day in some former year, and chews the sweet or bitter herb of memory, as the case may be. Could I ever hope to write a decent Essay, I should like to write one “On the Revisiting of Places.” It is strange how important the poorest human being is to himself! how he likes to double back on his experiences, to stand on the place he has stood on before, to meet himself face to face, as it were! I go to the great city in which my early life was spent, and I love to indulge myself in this whim. The only thing I care about is that portion of the city which is connected with myself. I don’t think this passion of reminiscence is debased by the slightest taint of vanity. The lamp-post, under the light of which in the winter rain there was a parting so many years ago, I contemplate with the most curious interest. I stare on the windows of the houses in which I once lived, with a feeling which I should find difficult to express in words. I think of the life I led there, of the good and the bad news that came, of the sister who died, of the brother who was born; and were it at all possible, I should like to knock at the once familiar door, and look at the old walls—which could speak to me so strangely—once again. To revisit that city is like walking away back into my yesterdays. I startle myself with myself at the corners of streets, I confront forgotten bits of myself at the entrance to houses. In windows which to another man would seem blank and meaningless, I find personal poems too deep to be ever turned into rhymes—more pathetic, mayhap, than I have ever found on printed page. The spot of ground on which a man has stood is for ever interesting to him. Every experience is an anchor holding him the more firmly to existence. It is for this reason that we hold our sacred days, silent and solitary anniversaries of joy and bitterness, renewing ourselves thereby, going back upon ourselves, living over again the memorable experience. The full yellow moon of next September will gather into itself the light of the full yellow moons of Septembers long ago. In this Christmas night all the other Christmas nights of my life live. How warm, breathing, full of myself is the year 1862, now almost gone! How bare, cheerless, unknown, the year 1863, about to come in! It stretches before me in imagination like some great, gaunt untenanted ruin of a Colosseum, in which no footstep falls, no voice is heard; and by this night year its naked chambers and windows, three hundred and sixty-five in number, will be clothed all over, and hidden by myself as if with covering ivies. Looking forward into an empty year strikes one with a certain awe, because one finds therein no recognition. The years behind have a friendly aspect, and they are warmed by the fires we have kindled, and all their echoes are the echoes of our own voices.
This, then, is Christmas, 1862. Everything is silent in Dreamthorp. The smith’s hammer reposes beside the anvil. The weaver’s flying shuttle is at rest. Through the clear wintry sunshine the bells this morning rang from the gray church tower amid the leafless elms, and up the walk the villagers trooped in their best dresses and their best faces—the latter a little reddened by the sharp wind: mere redness in the middle aged; in the maids, wonderful bloom to the eyes of their lovers—and took their places decently in the ancient pews. The clerk read the beautiful prayers of our Church, which seem more beautiful at Christmas than at any other period. For that very feeling which breaks down at this time the barriers which custom, birth, or wealth have erected between man and man, strikes down the barrier of time which intervenes between the worshipper of to-day and the great body of worshippers who are at rest in their graves. On such a day as this, hearing these prayers, we feel a kinship with the devout generations who heard them long ago. The devout lips of the Christian dead murmured the responses which we now murmur; along this road of prayer did their thoughts of our innumerable dead, our brothers and sisters in faith and hope, approach the Maker, even as ours at present approach Him. Prayers over, the clergyman—who is no Boanerges, or Chrysostom, golden-mouthed, but a loving, genial-hearted, pious man, the whole extent of his life from boyhood until now, full of charity and kindly deeds, as autumn fields with heavy wheaten ears; the clergyman, I say—for the sentence is becoming unwieldy on my hands, and one must double back to secure connexion—read out in that silvery voice of his, which is sweeter than any music to my ear, those chapters of the New Testament that deal with the birth of the Saviour. And the red-faced rustic congregation hung on the good man’s voice as he spoke of the Infant brought forth in a manger, of the shining angels that appeared in mid-air to the shepherds, of the miraculous star that took its station in the sky, and of the wise men who came from afar and laid their gifts of frankincense and myrrh at the feet of the child. With the story every one was familiar, but on that day, and backed by the persuasive melody of the reader’s voice, it seemed to all quite new—at least, they listened attentively as if it were. The discourse that followed possessed no remarkable thoughts; it dealt simply with the goodness of the Maker of heaven and earth, and the shortness of time, with the duties of thankfulness and charity to the poor; and I am persuaded that every one who heard returned to his house in a better frame of mind. And so the service remitted us all to our own homes, to what roast-beef and plum-pudding slender means permitted, to gatherings around cheerful fires, to half-pleasant, half-sad remembrances of the dead and the absent.
From sermon I have returned like the others, and it is my purpose to hold Christmas alone. I have no one with me at table, and my own thoughts must be my Christmas guests. Sitting here, it is pleasant to think how much kindly feeling exists this present night in England. By imagination I can taste of every table, pledge every toast, silently join in every roar of merriment. I become a sort of universal guest. With what propriety is this jovial season, placed amid dismal December rains and snows! How one pities the unhappy Australians, with whom everything is turned topsy-turvy, and who hold Christmas at midsummer! The face of Christmas glows all the brighter for the cold. The heart warms as the frost increases. Estrangements which have embittered the whole year, melt in to-night’s hospitable smile. There are warmer hand-shakings on this night than during the by-past twelve months. Friend lives in the mind of friend. There is more charity at this time than at any other. You get up at midnight and toss your spare coppers to the half-benumbed musicians whiffling beneath your windows, although at any other time you would consider their performance a nuisance, and call angrily for the police. Poverty, and scanty clothing, and fireless grates, come home at this season to the bosoms of the rich, and they give of their abundance. The very red-breast of the woods enjoys his Christmas feast. Good feeling incarnates itself in plum-pudding. The Master’s words, “The poor ye have always with you,” wear at this time a deep significance. For at least one night on each year over all Christendom there is brotherhood. And good men, sitting amongst their families, or by a solitary fire like me, when they remember the light that shone over the poor clowns huddling on the Bethlehem plains eighteen hundred years ago, the apparition of shining angels overhead, the song “Peace on earth and good-will toward men,” which for the first time hallowed the midnight air,—pray for that strain’s fulfilment, that battle and strife may vex the nations no more, that not only on Christmas-eve, but the whole year round, men shall be brethren owning one Father in heaven.
Although suggested by the season, and by a solitary dinner, it is not my purpose to indulge in personal reminiscence and talk. Let all that pass. This is Christmas-day, the anniversary of the world’s greatest event. To one day all the early world looked forward; to the same day the later world looks back. That day holds time together. Isaiah, standing on the peaks of prophecy, looked across ruined empires and the desolations of many centuries, and saw on the horizon the new star arise, and was glad. On this night eighteen hundred years ago, Jove was discrowned, the Pagan heaven emptied of its divinities, and Olympus left to the solitude of its snows. On this night, so many hundred years bygone, the despairing voice was heard shrieking on the Aegean, “Pan is dead, great Pan is dead!” On this night, according to the fine reverence of the poets, all things that blast and blight are powerless, disarmed by sweet influence:—
Some say that ever ’gainst the season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then they say no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike;
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm:
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
The flight of the Pagan mythology before the new faith has been a favourite subject with the poets; and it has been my custom for many seasons to read Milton’s “Hymn to the Nativity” on the evening of Christmas-day. The bass of heaven’s deep organ seems to blow in the lines, and slowly and with many echoes the strain melts into silence. To my ear the lines sound like the full-voiced choir and the rolling organ of a cathedral, when the afternoon light streaming through the painted windows fills the place with solemn colours and masses of gorgeous gloom. To-night I shall float my lonely hours away on music:—
The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving:
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance or breathed spell
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.
The lonely mountains o’er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament:
From haunted spring, and dale
Edged with poplars pale,
The parting genius is with sighing sent:
With flower-enwoven tresses torn
The nymphs in twilight shades of tangled thickets mourn.
Peor and Baalim
Forsake their temples dim
With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heaven’s queen and mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine!
The Lybic Hammon shrinks his horn,
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.
And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol, all of blackest hue:
In vain with cymbals’ ring
They call the grisly king
In dismal dance about the furnace blue:
The Brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis haste.
He feels from Juda’s land
The dreaded Infant’s hand,
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyne:
Nor all the gods beside
Dare longer there abide,
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine.
Our Babe to shew His Godhead true
Can in His swaddling bands control the damned crew.
These verses, as if loath to die, linger with a certain persistence in mind and ear. This is the “mighty line” which critics talk about! And just as in an infant’s face you may discern the rudiments of the future man, so in the glorious hymn may be traced the more majestic lineaments of the “Paradise Lost.”
Strangely enough, the next noblest dirge for the unrealmed divinities which I can call to remembrance, and at the same time the most eloquent celebration of the new power and prophecy of its triumph, has been uttered by Shelley, who cannot in any sense be termed a Christian poet. It is one of the choruses in “Hellas,” and perhaps had he lived longer amongst us, it would have been the prelude to higher strains. Of this I am certain, that before his death the mind of that brilliant genius was rapidly changing,—that for him the cross was gathering attractions round it,—that the wall which he complained had been built up between his heart and his intellect was being broken down, and that rays of a strange splendour were already streaming upon him through the interstices. What a contrast between the darkened glory of “Queen Mab”—of which in afterlife he was ashamed, both as a literary work and as an expression of opinion—and the intense, clear, lyrical light of this triumphant poem!—
A power from the unknown God,
A Promethean conqueror came:
Like a triumphal path he trod
The thorns of death and shame.
A mortal shape to him
Was like the vapour dim
Which the orient planet animates with light.
Hell, sin, and slavery came
Like bloodhounds mild and tame,
Nor prey’d until their lord had taken flight.
The moon of Mahomet
Arose, and it shall set;
While blazon’d, as on heaven’s immortal noon,
The Cross leads generations on.
Swift as the radiant shapes of sleep,
From one whose dreams are paradise,
Fly, when the fond wretch wakes to weep,
And day peers forth with her blank eyes:
So fleet, so faint, so fair,
The powers of earth and air
Fled from the folding star of Bethlehem.
Apollo, Pan, and Love,
And even Olympian Jove,
Grew weak, for killing Truth had glared on them.
Our hills, and seas, and streams,
Dispeopled of their dreams,
Their water turned to blood, their dew to tears,
Wailed for the golden years.
For my own part, I cannot read these lines without emotion—not so much for their beauty as for the change in the writer’s mind which they suggest. The self-sacrifice which lies at the centre of Christianity should have touched this man more deeply than almost any other. That it was beginning to touch and mould him, I verily believe. He died and made that sign. Of what music did that storm in Spezia Bay rob the world!
“The Cross leads generations on.” Believing as I do that my own personal decease is not more certain than that our religion will subdue the world, I own that it is with a somewhat saddened heart that I pass my thoughts around the globe, and consider how distant is yet that triumph. There are the realms on which the crescent beams, the monstrous many-headed gods of India, the Chinaman’s heathenism, the African’s devil-rites. These are, to a large extent, principalities and powers of darkness with which our religion has never been brought into collision, save at trivial and far separated points, and in these cases the attack has never been made in strength. But what of our own Europe—the home of philosophy, of poetry, and painting? Europe, which has produced Greece, and Rome, and England’s centuries of glory; which has been illumined by the fires of martyrdom; which has heard a Luther preach; which has listened to Dante’s “mystic unfathomable song”; to which Milton has opened the door of heaven—what of it? And what, too, of that younger America, starting in its career with all our good things, and enfranchised of many of our evils? Did not the December sun now shining look down on thousands slaughtered at Fredericksburg, in a most mad, most incomprehensible quarrel? And is not the public air which European nations breathe at this moment, as it has been for several years back, charged with thunder? Despots are plotting, ships are building, man’s ingenuity is bent, as it never was bent before, on the invention and improvement of instruments of death; Europe is bristling with five millions of bayonets: and this is the condition of a world for which the Son of God died eighteen hundred and sixty-two years ago! There is no mystery of Providence so inscrutable as this; and yet, is not the very sense of its mournfulness a proof that the spirit of Christianity is living in the minds of men? For, of a verity, military glory is becoming in our best thoughts a bloody rag, and conquest the first in the catalogue of mighty crimes, and a throned tyrant, with armies, and treasures, and the cheers of millions rising up like a cloud of incense around him, but a mark for the thunderbolt of Almighty God—in reality poorer than Lazarus stretched at the gate of Dives. Besides, all these things are getting themselves to some extent mitigated. Florence Nightingale—for the first time in the history of the world—walks through the Scutari hospitals, and “poor, noble, wounded and sick men,” to use her Majesty’s tender phrases, kiss her shadow as it falls on them. The Emperor Napoleon does not make war to employ his armies, or to consolidate his power; he does so for the sake of an “idea,” more or less generous and disinterested. The soul of mankind would revolt at the blunt, naked truth; and the taciturn emperor knows this, as he knows most things. This imperial hypocrisy, like every other hypocrisy, is a homage which vice pays to virtue. There cannot be a doubt that when the political crimes of kings and governments, the sores that fester in the heart of society, and all “the burden of the unintelligible world,” weigh heaviest on the mind, we have to thank Christianity for it. That pure light makes visible the darkness. The Sermon on the Mount makes the morality of the nations ghastly. The Divine love makes human hate stand out in dark relief. This sadness, in the essence of it nobler than any joy, is the heritage of the Christian. An ancient Roman could not have felt so. Everything runs on smoothly enough so long as Jove wields the thunder. But Venus, Mars, and Minerva are far behind us now; the Cross is before us; and self-denial and sorrow for sin, and the remembrance of the poor, and the cleansing of our own hearts, are duties incumbent upon every one of us. If the Christian is less happy than the Pagan, and at times I think he is so, it arises from the reproach of the Christian’s unreached ideal, and from the stings of his finer and more scrupulous conscience. His whole moral organisation is finer, and he must pay the noble penalty of finer organisations.
Once again, for the purpose of taking away all solitariness of feeling, and of connecting myself, albeit only in fancy, with the proper gladness of the time, let me think of the comfortable family dinners now being drawn to a close, of the good wishes uttered, and the presents made, quite valueless in themselves, yet felt to be invaluable from the feelings from which they spring; of the little children, by sweetmeats lapped in Elysium; and of the pantomime, pleasantest Christmas sight of all, with the pit a sea of grinning delight, the boxes a tier of beaming juvenility, the galleries, piled up to the far-receding roof, a mass of happy laughter which a clown’s joke brings down in mighty avalanches. In the pit, sober people relax themselves, and suck oranges, and quaff ginger-pop; in the boxes, Miss, gazing through her curls, thinks the Fairy Prince the prettiest creature she ever beheld, and Master, that to be a clown must be the pinnacle of human happiness: while up in the galleries the hard literal world is for an hour sponged out and obliterated; the chimney-sweep forgets, in his delight when the policeman comes to grief, the harsh call of his master, and Cinderella, when the demons are foiled, and the long parted lovers meet and embrace in a paradise of light and pink gauze, the grates that must be scrubbed tomorrow. All bands and trappings of toil are for one hour loosened by the hands of imaginative sympathy. What happiness a single theatre can contain! And those of maturer years, or of more meditative temperament, sitting at the pantomime, can extract out of the shifting scenes meanings suitable to themselves; for the pantomime is a symbol or adumbration of human life. Have we not all known Harlequin, who rules the roast, and has the pretty Columbine to himself? Do we not all know that rogue of a clown with his peculating fingers, who brazens out of every scrape, and who conquers the world by good humour and ready wit? And have we not seen Pantaloons not a few, whose fate it is to get all the kicks and lose all the halfpence, to fall through all the trap doors, break their shins over all the barrows, and be forever captured by the policeman, while the true pilferer, the clown, makes his escape with the booty in his possession? Methinks I know the realities of which these things are but the shadows; have met with them in business, have sat with them at dinner. But to-night no such notions as these intrude; and when the torrent of fun, and transformation, and practical joking which rushed out of the beautiful fairy world gathered up again, the high-heaped happiness of the theatre will disperse itself, and the Christmas pantomime will be a pleasant memory the whole year through. Thousands on thousands of people are having their midriffs tickled at this moment; in fancy I see their lighted faces, in memory I hear their mirth.
By this time I should think every Christmas dinner at Dreamthorp or elsewhere has come to an end. Even now in the great cities the theatres will be dispersing. The clown has wiped the paint off his face. Harlequin has laid aside his wand, and divested himself of his glittering raiment; Pantaloon, after refreshing himself with a pint of porter, is rubbing his aching joints; and Columbine, wrapped up in a shawl, and with sleepy eyelids, has gone home in a cab. Soon, in the great theatre, the lights will be put out, and the empty stage will be left to ghosts. Hark! midnight from the church tower vibrates through the frosty air. I look out on the brilliant heaven, and see a milky way of powdery splendour wandering through it, and clusters and knots of stars and planets shining serenely in the blue frosty spaces; and the armed apparition of Orion, his spear pointing away into immeasurable space, gleaming overhead; and the familiar constellation of the Plough dipping down into the west; and I think when I go in again that there is one Christmas the less between me and my grave.
Smith, Alexander. “Christmas.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 9 Sep 2007. 14 Mar 2018 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/christmas/>.
In the first half of the 19th century, Christmas was a very different kind of holiday than it is today. People did not have a set way of celebrating. Christmas was not even an official holiday yet.
So, communities around the country honored the day in different ways. Some observed Christmas as an important Christian religious day, honoring the birth of Jesus. Others celebrated the day with parties, music, drinking and eating. And, some communities did not celebrate the day at all.
But, it was during the early 1800s that Americans began to reinvent the holiday. They started combining ancient Christmas traditions with modern American influences. Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember tell the story.
In 1819, the popular American writer Washington Irving wrote a series of five essays published in a book called “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.”
The essays describe a wealthy British landowner who invites his farm workers into his home to celebrate Christmas. The landowner recreates a traditional Christmas as it would have been celebrated in the distant past.
Irving praised this looking back to ancient traditions. He liked the idea of different levels of society coming together to enjoy a festive and peaceful holiday. Washington Irving seemed to express concern about the lack of such unifying Christmas traditions in modern America.
Penne Restad wrote a book “Christmas in America: A History.” It shows how Americans began to slowly shape Christmas into a unifying national holiday during the first half of the 19th century. She describes how Christmas had different meanings for Americans who came from different cultural and religious backgrounds. Many immigrants brought Christmas traditions from their own countries.
Religion played a big role in how an American might celebrate the holiday. Calvinist Christians banned the celebration of Christmas. But groups such as Episcopalians and Moravians honored the day with religious services and seasonal decorations.
By mid-century, Christian groups began to ignore their religious differences over the meaning of Christmas and honored the day in special ways.
Christmas became an important time for families to celebrate at home. More and more Christian Americans also began to follow the European traditions of Christmas trees and giving gifts. Christians believed that the tree represented Jesus and was also a sign of new beginnings. German immigrants brought their tradition of putting lights, sweets and toys on the branches of evergreen trees placed in their homes.
This tradition of setting up a Christmas tree soon spread to many American homes. So did the practice of giving people presents. As these traditions increased in popularity, the modern trade and business linked to Christmas also grew.
As Christmas became more popular, some states declared the day a state holiday. Louisiana was the first state to make the move in 1837. By 1860, 14 other states had followed. It was not until 1870 that President Ulysses Grant made Christmas a federal holiday.
Americans already knew old Christmas songs that came from England and other areas of Europe. But many new American Christmas songs started to become popular. For example, in 1849, a religious leader from Massachusetts wrote the words to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The song “Jingle Bells” appeared seven years later. And, a year later, a religious leader in Williamsport, Pennsylvania wrote the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
And of course, no discussion of Christmas would be complete without talking about of one of the holiday’s most famous representations: Santa Claus.
This character is based on the story of Saint Nicholas, a Christian holy person believed to have lived in the third century. Saint Nicholas became known as a protector of children. In his role as a Christmas hero, different cultures have given him different names. These include Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas. But for most Americans his most popular name would become Santa Claus.
In the 19th century, many Dutch immigrants living in the United States celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. Saint Nicholas was especially important to New Yorkers because of their history as a Dutch colony.
In 1809, Washington Irving published his “History of New York.” It lists Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New Yorkers. He describes the saint wearing a low hat, large pants, and smoking a pipe. Does this description sound familiar?