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A Christmas Carmen
JOHN G. WHITTIER I Sound over all wat...

The Night After Christmas
ANNE P.L. FIELD Twas the night after Christm...

Santa Claus
ANON He comes in the night! He comes in the ...

The Festival Of St Nicholas
MARY MAPES DODGE We all know how, before the Christm...

Jimmy Scarecrow's Christmas
MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN JIMMY SCARECROW led a sad ...

Inexhaustibility Of The Subject Of Christmas
LEIGH HUNT So many things have been said of late yea...

The Knighting Of The Sirloin Of Beef By Charles The Second
ANON The Second Charles of England Ro...





Christmas Dreams






CHRISTOPHER NORTH

To-morrow is Merry Christmas; and when its night descends there will be
mirth and music, and the light sounds of the merry-twinkling feet within
these now so melancholy walls--and sleep now reigning over all the house
save this one room, will be banished far over the sea--and morning will
be reluctant to allow her light to break up the innocent orgies.

Were every Christmas of which we have been present at the celebration,
painted according to nature--what a Gallery of Pictures! True that a
sameness would pervade them all--but only that kind of sameness that
pervades the nocturnal heavens. One clear night always is, to common
eyes, just like another; for what hath any night to show but one moon
and some stars--a blue vault, with here a few braided, and there a few
castellated, clouds? yet no two nights ever bore more than a family
resemblance to each other before the studious and instructed eye of him
who has long communed with Nature, and is familiar with every smile and
frown on her changeful, but not capricious, countenance. Even so with
the Annual Festivals of the heart. Then our thoughts are the stars that
illumine those skies--and on ourselves it depends whether they shall be
black as Erebus, or brighter than Aurora.

Thoughts! that like spirits trackless come and go--is a fine line of
Charles Lloyd's. But no bird skims, no arrow pierces the air, without
producing some change in the Universe, which will last to the day of
doom. No coming and going is absolutely trackless; nor irrecoverable by
Nature's law is any consciousness, however ghostlike; though many a one,
even the most blissful, never does return, but seems to be buried among
the dead. But they are not dead--but only sleep; though to us who recall
them not, they are as they had never been, and we, wretched ingrates,
let them lie for ever in oblivion! How passing sweet when of their own
accord they arise to greet us in our solitude!--as a friend who, having
sailed away to a foreign land in our youth, has been thought to have
died many long years ago, may suddenly stand before us, with face still
familiar and name reviving in a moment, and all that he once was to us
brought from utter forgetfulness close upon our heart.

My Father's House! How it is ringing like a grove in spring, with the
din of creatures happier, a thousand times happier, than all the birds
on earth. It is the Christmas Holidays--Christmas Day itself--Christmas
Night--and Joy in every bosom intensifies Love. Never before were we
brothers and sisters so dear to one another--never before had our hearts
so yearned towards the authors of our being--our blissful being! There
they sat--silent in all that outcry--composed in all that
disarray--still in all that tumult; yet, as one or other flying imp
sweeps round the chair, a father's hand will playfully strive to catch a
prisoner--a mother's gentler touch on some sylph's disordered symar be
felt almost as a reproof, and for a moment slacken the fairy flight. One
old game treads on the heels of another--twenty within the hour--and
many a new game never heard of before nor since, struck out by the
collision of kindred spirits in their glee, the transitory fancies of
genius inventive through very delight. Then, all at once, there is a
hush, profound as ever falls on some little plat within a forest when
the moon drops behind the mountain, and small green-robed People of
Peace at once cease their pastime, and vanish. For she--the
Silver-Tongued--is about to sing an old ballad, words and air alike
hundreds of years old--and sing she doth, while tears begin to fall,
with a voice too mournfully beautiful long to breathe below--and, ere
another Christmas shall have come with the falling snows, doomed to be
mute on earth--but to be hymning in Heaven.

Of that House--to our eyes the fairest of earthly dwellings--with its
old ivyed turrets, and orchard-garden bright alike with fruit and with
flowers, not one stone remains. The very brook that washed its
foundations has vanished along with them--and a crowd of other
buildings, wholly without character, has long stood where here a single
tree, and there a grove, did once render so lovely that small demesne;
which, how could we, who thought it the very heart of Paradise, even for
one moment have believed was one day to be blotted out of being, and we
ourselves--then so linked in love that the band which bound us
altogether was, in its gentle pressure, felt not nor understood--to be
scattered far and abroad, like so many leaves that after one wild
parting rustle are separated by roaring wind-eddies, and brought
together no more! The old Abbey--it still survives; and there, in that
corner of the burial-ground, below that part of the wall which was last
in ruins, and which we often climbed to reach the flowers and
nests--there, in hopes of a joyful resurrection, lie the Loved and
Venerated--for whom, even now that so many grief-deadening years have
fled, we feel, in this holy hour, as if it were impiety so utterly to
have ceased to weep--so seldom to have remembered!--And then, with a
powerlessness of sympathy to keep pace with youth's frantic grief, the
floods we all wept together--at no long interval--on those pale and
placid faces as they lay, most beautiful and most dreadful to behold, in
their coffins.

We believe that there is genius in all childhood. But the creative joy
that makes it great in its simplicity dies a natural death or is killed,
and genius dies with it. In favored spirits, neither few nor many, the
joy and the might survive; for you must know that unless it be
accompanied with imagination, memory is cold and lifeless. The forms it
brings before us must be inspired with beauty--that is, with affection
or passion. All minds, even the dullest, remember the days of their
youth; but all cannot bring back the indescribable brightness of that
blessed season. They who would know what they once were, must not merely
recollect but they must imagine, the hills and valleys--if any such
there were--in which their childhood played, the torrents, the
waterfalls, the lakes, the heather, the rocks, the heaven's imperial
dome, the raven floating only a little lower than the eagle in the sky.
To imagine what he then heard and saw, he must imagine his own nature.
He must collect from many vanished hours the power of his untamed heart,
and he must, perhaps, transfuse also something of his maturer mind into
these dreams of his former being, thus linking the past with the present
by a continuous chain, which, though often invisible, is never broken.
So is it too with the calmer affections that have grown within the
shelter of a roof. We do not merely remember, we imagine our father's
house, the fireside, all his features then most living, now dead and
buried; the very manner of his smile, every tone of his voice. We must
combine with all the passionate and plastic power of imagination the
spirit of a thousand happy hours into one moment; and we must invest
with all that we ever felt to be venerable such an image as alone can
satisfy our filial hearts. It is thus that imagination, which first
aided the growth of all our holiest and happiest affections, can
preserve them to us unimpaired--

For she can give us back the dead,
Even in the loveliest looks they wore.

Then came a New Series of Christmases, celebrated, one year in this
family, another year in that--none present but those whom Charles Lamb
the Delightful calleth the old familiar faces; something in all
features, and all tones of voice, and all manners, betokening origin
from one root--relations all, happy, and with no reason either to be
ashamed or proud of their neither high nor humble birth, their lot being
cast within that pleasant realm, the Golden Mean, where the dwellings
are connecting links between the hut and the hall--fair edifices
resembling manse or mansion-house, according as the atmosphere expands
or contracts their dimensions--in which Competence is next-door neighbor
to Wealth, and both of them within the daily walk of Contentment.

Merry Christmases they were indeed--one Lady always presiding, with a
figure that once had been the stateliest among the stately, but then
somewhat bent, without being bowed down, beneath an easy weight of most
venerable years. Sweet was her tremulous voice to all her
grandchildren's ears. Nor did these solemn eyes, bedimmed into a
pathetic beauty, in any degree restrain the glee that sparkled in orbs
that had as yet shed not many tears, but tears of joy or pity. Dearly
she loved all those mortal creatures whom she was soon about to leave;
but she sat in sunshine even within the shadow of death; and the voice
that called her home had so long been whispering in her ear, that its
accents had become dear to her, and consolatory every word that was
heard in the silence, as from another world.

Whether we were indeed all so witty as we thought ourselves--uncles,
aunts, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins, and the rest, it
might be presumptuous in us, who were considered by ourselves and a few
others not the least amusing of the whole set, at this distance of time
to decide--especially in the affirmative; but how the roof did ring with
sally, pun, retort, and repartee! Ay, with pun--a species of
impertinence for which we have therefore a kindness even to this day.
Had incomparable Thomas Hood had the good fortune to have been born a
cousin of ours, how with that fine fancy of his would he have shone at
those Christmas festivals, eclipsing us all! Our family, through all its
different branches, has ever been famous for bad voices, but good ears;
and we think we hear ourselves--all those uncles and aunts, nephews and
nieces, and cousins--singing now! Easy it is to warble melody as to
breathe air. But we hope harmony is the most difficult of all things to
people in general, for to us it was impossible; and what attempts ours
used to be at Seconds! Yet the most woful failures were rapturously
encored; and ere the night was done we spoke with most extraordinary
voices indeed, every one hoarser than another, till at last, walking
home with a fair cousin, there was nothing left it but a tender glance
of the eye--a tender pressure of the hand--for cousins are not
altogether sisters, and although partaking of that dearest character,
possess, it may be, some peculiar and appropriate charms of their own;
as didst thou, Emily the Wild-cap!--That _soubriquet_ all forgotten
now--for now thou art a matron, nay a Grandam, and troubled with an elf
fair and frolicsome as thou thyself wert of yore, when the gravest and
wisest withstood not the witchery of thy dancings, thy singings, and thy
showering smiles.

On rolled Suns and Seasons--the old died--the elderly became old--and
the young, one after another, were wafted joyously away on the wings of
hope, like birds almost as soon as they can fly, ungratefully forsaking
their nests and the groves in whose safe shadow they first essayed their
pinions; or like pinnaces that, after having for a few days trimmed
their snow-white sails in the land-locked bay, close to whose shores of
silvery sand had grown the trees that furnished timber both for hull and
mast, slip their tiny cables on some summer day, and gathering every
breeze that blows, go dancing over the waves in sunshine, and melt far
off into the main. Or, haply, some were like fair young trees,
transplanted during no favorable season, and never to take root in
another soil, but soon leaf and branch to wither beneath the tropic sun,
and die almost unheeded by those who knew not how beautiful they had
been beneath the dews and mists of their own native climate.

Vain images! and therefore chosen by fancy not too plainly to touch the
heart. For some hearts grew cold and forbidding with selfish
cares--some, warm as ever in their own generous glow, were touched by
the chill of Fortune's frowns, ever worst to bear when suddenly
succeeding her smiles--some, to rid themselves of painful regrets, took
refuge in forgetfulness, and closed their eyes to the past--duty
banished some abroad, and duty imprisoned others at home--estrangements
there were, at first unconscious and unintended, yet erelong, though
causeless, complete--changes were wrought insensibly, invisibly, even in
the innermost nature of those who being friends knew no guile, yet came
thereby at last to be friends no more--unrequited love broke some
bonds--requited love relaxed others--the death of one altered the
conditions of many--and so--year after year--the Christmas Meeting was
interrupted--deferred--till finally it ceased with one accord, unrenewed
and unrenewable. For when Some Things cease for a time--that time turns
out to be forever.

Survivors of those happy circles! wherever ye be--should these imperfect
remembrances of days of old chance, in some thoughtful pause of life's
busy turmoil, for a moment to meet your eyes, let there be towards the
inditer a few throbs of revived affection in your hearts--for his,
though absent long and distant far, has never been utterly forgetful
of the loves and friendships that charmed his youth. To be parted in
body is not to be estranged in spirit--and many a dream and many a
vision, sacred to nature's best affections, may pass before the mind of
one whose lips are silent. Out of sight out of mind is rather the
expression of a doubt--of a fear--than a belief or a conviction. The
soul surely has eyes that can see the objects it loves, through all
intervening darkness--and of those more especially dear it keeps within
itself almost undimmed images, on which, when they know it not, think it
not, believe it not, it often loves to gaze, as on relics imperishable
as they are hallowed.

All hail! rising beautiful and magnificent through the mists of
morning--ye Woods, Groves, Towers, and Temples, overshadowing that
famous Stream beloved by all the Muses! Through this midnight
hush--methinks we hear faint and far-off sacred music--

Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise!

How steeped now in the stillness of moonlight are all those pale,
pillared Churches, Courts and Cloisters, Shrines and Altars, with here
and there a Statue standing in the shade, or Monument sacred to the
memory of the pious--the immortal dead. Some great clock is striking
from one of many domes--from the majestic Tower of St. Mary
Magdalen--and in the deepened hush that follows the solemn sound, the
mingling waters of the Cherwell and the Isis soften the severe silence
of the holy night.

Remote from kindred, and from all the friendships that were the native
growth of the fair fields where our boyhood and our youth had roamed and
meditated and dreamed, those were indeed years of high and lofty mood
which held us in converse with the shades of great Poets and ages of old
in Rhedicyna's hallowed groves, still, serene, and solemn, as that Attic
Academe where divine Plato, with all Hybla on his lips, discoursed such
excellent music that his life seemed to the imagination spiritualized--a
dim reminiscence of some former state of being. How sank then the
Christmas Service of that beautiful Liturgy into our hearts! Not
faithless we to the simple worship that our forefathers had loved; but
Conscience told us there was no apostasy in the feelings that rose
within us when that deep organ began to blow, that choir of youthful
voices so sweetly to join the diapason,--our eyes fixed all the while on
that divine Picture over the Altar, of our Saviour

Bearing his cross up rueful Calvary.

The City of Palaces disappears--and in the setting sunlight we behold
mountains of soft crimson snow! The sun hath set, and even more
beautiful are the bright-starred nights of winter, than summer in all
its glories beneath the broad moons of June. Through the woods of
Windermere, from cottage to cottage, by coppice-pathways winding up to
dwellings among the hill-rocks where the birch-trees cease to grow--

Nodding their heads, before us go,
The merry minstrelsy.

They sing a salutation at every door, familiarly naming old and young by
their Christian names; and the eyes that look upward from the vales to
the hanging huts among the plats and cliffs, see the shadows of the
dancers ever and anon crossing the light of the star-like window, and
the merry music is heard like an echo dwelling in the sky. Across those
humble thresholds often did we on Christmas-week nights of
yore--wandering through our solitary silvan haunts, under the branches
of trees within whose hollow trunks the squirrel slept--venture in,
unasked perhaps, but not unwelcome, and, in the kindly spirit of the
season, did our best to merrify the Festival by tale or song. And now
that we behold them not, are all those woods, and cliffs, and rivers,
and tarns, and lakes, as beautiful as when they softened and brightened
beneath our living eyes, half-creating, as they gazed, the very world
they worshipped! And are all those hearths as bright as of yore, without
the shadow of our figure! And the roofs, do they ring as mirthfully,
though our voice be forgotten. We hang over Westmoreland, an
unobserved--but observant star. Mountains, hills, rocks, knolls, vales,
woods, groves, single trees, dwelling--all asleep! O Lakes! but we are
indeed, by far too beautiful! O fortunate Isles! too fair for human
habitation, fit abode for the Blest! It will not hide itself--it will
not sink into the earth--it will rise; and risen, it will stand steady
with its shadow in the overpowering moonlight, that ONE TREE! that ONE
HOUSE!--and well might the sight of ye two together--were it
harder--break our heart. But hard at all it is not--therefore it is but
crushed.

Can it be that there we are utterly forgotten! No star hanging higher
than the Andes in heaven--but sole-sitting at midnight in a small
chamber--a melancholy man are we--and there seems a smile of
consolation, O Wordsworth! on thy sacred Bust.

Alas! how many heavenly days, seeming immortal in their depth of rest,
have died and been forgotten! Treacherous and ungrateful is our memory
even of bliss that overflowed our being as light our habitation. Our
spirit's deepest intercommunion with nature has no place in her
records--blanks are there that ought to have been painted with
imperishable imagery, and steeped in sentiment fresh as the morning on
life's golden hills. Yet there is mercy in this dispensation--for who
can bear to behold the light of bliss re-arising from the past on the
ghastlier gloom of present misery? The phantoms that will not come when
we call on them to comfort us, are too often at our side when in our
anguish we could almost pray that they might be reburied in oblivion.
Such hauntings as these are not as if they were visionary--they come and
go like forms and shapes still imbued with life. Shall we vainly stretch
out our arms to embrace and hold them fast, or as vainly seek to
intrench ourselves by thought of this world against their visitation?
The soul in its sickness knows not whether it be the duty of love to
resign itself to indifference or to despair. Shall it enjoy life, they
being dead? Shall we, the survivors, for yet a little while, walk in
other companionship out into the day, and let the sunbeams settle on
their heads as they used to do, or cover them with dust and ashes, and
show to those in heaven that love for them is now best expressed by
remorse and penitence?

Sometimes we have fears about our memory--that it is decaying; for,
lately, many ordinary yet interesting occurrences and events, which we
regarded at the time with pain or pleasure, have been slipping away
almost into oblivion, and have often alarmed us of a sudden by their
return, not to any act of recollection, but of themselves, sometimes
wretchedly out of place and season, the mournful obtruding upon the
merry, and worse, the merry upon the mournful--confusion, by no fault of
ours, of piteous and gladsome faces--tears where smiles were a duty as
well as a delight, and smiles where nature demanded, and religion
hallowed, a sacrifice of tears.

For a good many years we have been tied to town in winter by fetters as
fine as frost-work filigree, which we could not break without destroying
a whole world of endearment. That seems an obscure image; but it means
what the Germans would call in English--our winter environment. We are
imprisoned in a net; yet we can see it when we choose--just as a bird
can see, when he chooses, the wires of his cage, that are invisible in
his happiness, as he keeps hopping and fluttering about all day long, or
haply dreaming on his perch with his poll under his plumes--as free in
confinement as if let loose into the boundless sky. That seems an
obscure image too; but we mean, in truth, the prison unto which we doom
ourselves no prison is; and we have improved on that idea, for we have
built our own--and are prisoner, turnkey, and jailer all in one, and
'tis noiseless as the house of sleep. Or what if we declare that
Christopher North is a king in his palace, with no subjects but his own
thoughts--his rule peaceful over those lights and shadows--and
undisputed to reign over them his right divine.

The opening year in a town, now answers in all things to our heart's
desire. How beautiful the smoky air! The clouds have a homely look as
they hang over the happy families of houses, and seem as if they loved
their birthplace;--all unlike those heartless clouds that keep
_stravaiging_ over mountain-tops, and have no domicile in the sky! Poets
speak of living rocks, but what is their life to that of houses? Who
ever saw a rock with eyes--that is, with windows? Stone-blind all, and
stone-deaf, and with hearts of stone; whereas who ever saw a house
without eyes--that is, windows? Our own is an Argus; yet the good old
Conservative grudges not the assessed taxes--his optics are as cheerful
as the day that lends them light, and they love to salute the setting
sun, as if a hundred beacons, level above level, were kindled along a
mountain side. He might safely be pronounced a madman who preferred an
avenue of trees to a street. Why, trees have no chimneys; and, were you
to kindle a fire in the hollow of an oak, you would soon be as dead as a
Druid. It won't do to talk to us of sap, and the circulation of sap. A
grove in winter, hole and branch--leaves it has none--is as dry as a
volume of sermons. But a street, or a square, is full of vital sparks
of heavenly flame as a volume of poetry, and the heart's blood
circulates through the system like rosy wine.

But a truce to comparisons; for we are beginning to feel contrition for
our crime against the country, and, with humbled head and heart, we
beseech you to pardon us--ye rocks of Pavey-Ark, the pillared palaces of
the storms--ye clouds, now wreathing a diadem for the forehead of
Helvellyn--ye trees, that hang the shadows of your undying beauty over
the one perfect chrysolite, of blessed Windermere!

Our meaning is transparent now as the hand of an apparition waving peace
and good-will to all dwellers in the land of dreams. In plainer but not
simpler words (for words are like flowers, often rich in their
simplicity--witness the Lily, and Solomon's Song)--Christian people all,
we wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New-Year, in town or in
country--or in ships at sea.





Next: Keeping Christmas

Previous: Christ's Nativity



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