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Carol
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Christmas






WASHINGTON IRVING

But is old, old, good old Christmas gone? Nothing but the hair on
his good, gray, old head and beard left? Well, I will have that,
seeing I cannot have more of him.

Hue and Cry after Christmas.


A man might then behold
At Christmas, in each hall,
Good fires to curb the cold,
And meat for great and small.
The neighbors were friendly bidden,
And all had welcome true,
The poor from the gates were not chidden,
When this old cap was new.
Old Song.



There is nothing in England that exercises a more delightful spell over
my imagination than the lingerings of the holiday customs and rural
games of former times. They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in
the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through
books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it; and they
bring with them the flavor of those honest days of yore, in which,
perhaps with equal fallacy, I am apt to think the world was more
homebred, social, and joyous than at present. I regret to say that they
are daily growing more and more faint, being gradually worn away by
time, but still more obliterated by modern fashion. They resemble those
picturesque morsels of Gothic architecture, which we see crumbling in
various parts of the country, partly dilapidated by the waste of ages,
and partly lost in the additions and alterations of latter days. Poetry,
however, clings with cherishing fondness about the rural game and
holiday revel, from which it has derived so many of its themes--as the
ivy winds its rich foliage about the Gothic arch and mouldering tower,
gratefully repaying their support, by clasping together their tottering
remains, and, as it were, embalming them in verdure.

Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the
strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and
sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit
to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the
church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring: they dwell
on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral
scenes that accompanied its announcement; they gradually increase in
fervor and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in
full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I
do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear
the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a
cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant
harmony.

It is a beautiful arrangement, also, derived from the days of yore, that
this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of
peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of
family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred
hearts, which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are
continually operating to cast loose; of calling back the children of a
family, who have launched forth in life, and wandered widely asunder,
once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of
the affections, there to grow young and loving again among the endearing
mementos of childhood.

There is something in the very season of the year, that gives a charm to
the festivity of Christmas. At other times, we derive a great portion of
our pleasures from the mere beauties of Nature. Our feelings sally forth
and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we live abroad
and everywhere. The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the
breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the
golden pomp of autumn; earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and
heaven with its deep, delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence,--all
fill us with mute but exquisite delight, and we revel in the luxury of
mere sensation. But in the depth of winter, when Nature lies despoiled
of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for
our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of
our landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they
circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling
abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social
circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more
aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and
are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for
enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart, and we draw our pleasures from the
deep wells of living kindness which lie in the quiet recesses of our
bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of
domestic felicity.

The pitchy gloom without makes the heart dilate on entering the room
filled with the glow and warmth of the evening fire. The ruddy blaze
diffuses an artificial summer and sunshine through the room, and lights
up each countenance with a kindlier welcome. Where does the honest face
of hospitality expand into a broader and more cordial smile--where is
the shy glance of love more sweetly eloquent--than by the winter
fireside? and as the hollow blast of wintry wind rushes through the
hall, claps the distant door, whistles about the casement, and rumbles
down the chimney, what can be more grateful than that feeling of sober
and sheltered security, with which we look around upon the comfortable
chamber, and the scene of domestic hilarity?

The English, from the great prevalence of rural habits throughout every
class of society, have always been fond of those festivals and holidays
which agreeably interrupt the stillness of country life; and they were
in former days particularly observant of the religious and social rights
of Christmas. It is inspiring to read even the dry details which some
antiquaries have given of the quaint humors, the burlesque pageants, the
complete abandonment to mirth and good fellowship, with which this
festival was celebrated. It seemed to throw open every door, unlock
every heart. It brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended
all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness. The old halls
of castles and manor-houses resounded with the harp and the Christmas
carol, and their ample boards groaned under the weight of hospitality.
Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green
decorations of bay and holly--the cheerful fire glanced its rays through
the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the
gossip knot huddled round the hearth beguiling the long evening with
legendary jokes, and oft-told Christmas tales.

One of the least pleasing effects of modern refinement is the havoc it
has made among the hearty old holiday customs. It has completely taken
off the sharp touchings and spirited reliefs of these embellishments of
life, and has worn down society into a more smooth and polished, but
certainly a less characteristic surface. Many of the games and
ceremonials of Christmas have entirely disappeared, and, like the
sherris sack of old Falstaff, are become matters of speculation and
dispute among commentators. They flourished in times full of spirit and
lustihood, when men enjoyed life roughly, but heartily and vigorously:
times wild and picturesque, which have furnished poetry with its richest
materials, and the drama with its most attractive variety of characters
and manners. The world has become more worldly. There is more of
dissipation and less enjoyment. Pleasure has expanded into a broader,
but a shallower stream, and has forsaken many of those deep and quiet
channels, where it flowed sweetly through the calm bosom of domestic
life. Society has acquired a more enlightened and elegant tone; but it
has lost many of its strong local peculiarities, its homebred feelings,
its honest fireside delights. The traditionary customs of golden-hearted
antiquity, its feudal hospitalities, and lordly wassailings, have passed
away with the baronial castles and stately manor-houses in which they
were celebrated. They comported with the shadowy hall, the great oaken
gallery, and the tapestried parlor, but are unfitted for the light showy
saloons and gay drawing-rooms of the modern villa.

Shorn, however, as it is, of its ancient and festive honors, Christmas
is still a period of delightful excitement in England. It is gratifying
to see that home feeling completely aroused which holds so powerful a
place in every English bosom. The preparations making on every side for
the social board that is again to unite friends and kindred--the
presents of good cheer passing and repassing, those tokens of regard and
quickeners of kind feelings--the evergreens distributed about houses and
churches, emblems of peace and gladness--all these have the most
pleasing effect in producing fond associations, and kindling benevolent
sympathies. Even the sound of the waits, rude as may be their
minstrelsy, breaks upon the midwatches of a winter night with the effect
of perfect harmony. As I have been awakened by them in that still and
solemn hour when deep sleep falleth upon man, I have listened with a
hushed delight, and connecting them with the sacred and joyous occasion,
have almost fancied them into another celestial choir, announcing peace
and good-will to mankind. How delightfully the imagination, when wrought
upon by these moral influences, turns everything to melody and beauty!
The very crowing of the cock, heard sometimes in the profound repose of
the country, telling the night-watches to his feathery dames, was
thought by the common people to announce the approach of the sacred
festival:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth was celebrated,
This 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, no witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

Amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and
stir of the affections, which prevail at this period, what bosom can
remain insensible? It is, indeed, the season of regenerated feeling--the
season for kindling not merely the fire of hospitality in the hall, but
the genial flame of charity in the heart. The scene of early love again
rises green to memory beyond the sterile waste of years, and the idea of
home, fraught with the fragrance of home-dwelling joys, reanimates the
drooping spirit--as the Arabian breeze will sometimes waft the freshness
of the distant fields to the weary pilgrim of the desert.

Stranger and sojourner as I am in the land--though for me no social
hearth may blaze, no hospitable roof throw open its doors, nor the warm
grasp of friendship welcome me at the threshold--yet I feel the
influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of
those around me. Surely happiness is reflective, like the light of
heaven; and every countenance bright with smiles, and glowing with
innocent enjoyment, is a mirror transmitting to others the rays of a
supreme and ever-shining benevolence. He who can turn churlishly away
from contemplating the felicity of his fellow-beings, and can sit down
darkling and repining in his loneliness when all around is joyful, may
have his moments of strong excitement and selfish gratification, but he
wants the genial and social sympathies which constitute the charm of a
merry Christmas.





Next: Church Decking At Christmas

Previous: The Mahogany-tree



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