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Christmas Eve






HAMILTON WRIGHT MABIE

[From My Study Fire.]

The world has been full of mysteries to-day; everybody has gone about
weighted with secrets. The children's faces have fairly shone with
expectancy, and I enter easily into the universal dream which at this
moment holds all the children of Christendom under its spell. Was there
ever a wider or more loving conspiracy than that which keeps the
venerable figure of Santa Claus from slipping away, with all the other
oldtime myths, into the forsaken wonderland of the past? Of all the
personages whose marvelous doings once filled the minds of men, he alone
survives. He has outlived all the great gods, and all the impressive and
poetic conceptions which once flitted between heaven and earth; these
have gone, but Santa Claus remains by virtue of a common understanding
that childhood shall not be despoiled of one of its most cherished
beliefs, either by the mythologist, with his sun myth theory, or the
scientist, with his heartless diatribe against superstition. There is a
good deal more to be said on this subject, if this were the place to say
it; even superstition has its uses, and sometimes, its sound heart of
truth. He who does not see in the legend of Santa Claus a beautiful
faith on one side, and the naive embodiment of a divine fact on the
other, is not fit to have a place at the Christmas board. For him there
should be neither carol, nor holly, nor mistletoe; they only shall keep
the feast to whom all these things are but the outward and visible signs
of an inward and spiritual grace.

Rosalind and myself are thoroughly orthodox when it comes to the keeping
of holidays; here at least the ways of our fathers are our ways also.
Orthodoxy generally consists in retaining and emphasizing the
disagreeable ways of the fathers, and as we are both inclined to
heterodoxy on these points, we make the more prominent our observance of
the best of the old-time habits. I might preach a pleasant little sermon
just here, taking as my text the survival of the fittest, and
illustrating the truth from our own domestic ritual; but the season
preaches its own sermon, and I should only follow the example of some
ministers and get between the text and my congregation if I made the
attempt. For weeks we have all been looking forward to this eventful
evening, and the still more eventful morrow. There have been hurried and
whispered conferences hastily suspended at the sound of a familiar step
on the stair; packages of every imaginable size and shape have been
surreptitiously introduced into the house, and have immediately
disappeared in all manner of out-of-the-way places; and for several
weeks past one room has been constantly under lock and key, visited only
when certain sharp-sighted eyes were occupied in other directions.
Through all this scene of mystery Rosalind has moved sedately and with
sealed lips, the common confidant of all the conspirators, and herself
the greatest conspirator of all. Blessed is the season which engages the
whole world in a conspiracy of love!

After dinner, eaten, let it be confessed, with more haste and less
accompaniment of talk than usual, the parlor doors were opened, and
there stood the Christmas tree in a glow of light, its wonderful
branches laden with all manner of strange fruits not to be found in the
botanies. The wild shouts, the merry laughter, the cries of delight as
one coveted fruit after another dropped into long-expectant arms still
linger in my ears now that the little tapers are burnt out, the boughs
left bare, and the actors in the perennial drama are fast asleep, with
new and strange bedfellows selected from the spoils of the night.
Cradled between a delightful memory and a blissful anticipation, who
does not envy them?

After this charming prelude is over, Rosalind comes into the study, and
studies for the fortieth time the effect of the new design of decoration
which she had this year worked out, and which gives these rather somber
rows of books a homelike and festive aspect. It pleases me to note the
spray of holly that obscures the title of Bacon's solemn and weighty
Essays, and I get half a page of suggestions for my notebook from the
fact that a sprig of mistletoe has fallen on old Burton's Anatomy of
Melancholy. Rosalind has reason to be satisfied, and if I read her face
aright she has succeeded even in her own eyes in bringing Christmas,
with its fragrant memories and its heavenly visions, into the study. I
cannot help thinking, as I watch her piling up the fire for a blaze of
unusual splendor, that if more studies had their Rosalinds to bring in
the genial currents of life there would be more cheer and hope and
large-hearted wisdom in the books which the world is reading to-day.

When the fire has reached a degree of intensity and magnitude which
Rosalind thinks adequate to the occasion, I take down a well-worn volume
which opens of itself at a well-worn page. It is a book which I have
read and re-read many times, and always with a kindling sympathy and
affection for the man who wrote it; in whatever mood I take it up there
is something in it which touches me with a sense of kinship. It is not a
great book, but it is a book of the heart, and books of the heart have
passed beyond the outer court of criticism before we bestow upon them
that phrase of supreme regard. There are other books of the heart around
me, but on Christmas Eve it is Alexander Smith's Dreamthorp which
always seems to lie at my hand, and when I take it up the well-worn
volume falls open at the essay on Christmas. It is a good many years
since Rosalind and I began to read together on Christmas Eve this
beautiful meditation on the season, and now it has gathered about itself
such a host of memories that it has become part of our common past. It
is, indeed, a veritable palimpsest, overlaid with tender and gracious
recollections out of which the original thought gains a new and subtle
sweetness. As I read it aloud I know that she sees once more the
familiar landscape about Dreamthorp, with the low, dark hill in the
background, and over it the tender radiance that precedes the moon;
the village windows are all lighted, and the whole place shines like a
congregation of glowworms. There are the skaters still leaning against
the frosty wind; there is the gray church tower amid the leafless
elms, around which the echoes of the morning peal of Christmas bells
still hover; the village folk have gathered, in their best dresses and
their best faces; the beautiful service of the church has been read and
answered with heartfelt responses, the familiar story has been told
again simply and urgently, with applications for every thankful soul,
and then the congregation has gone to its homes and its festivities.

All these things, I am sure, lie within Rosalind's vision, although she
seems to see nothing but the ruddy blaze of the fire; all these things I
see, as I have seen them these many Christmas Eves agone; but with this
familiar landscape there are mingled all the sweet and sorrowful
memories of our common life, recalled at this hour that the light of the
highest truth may interpret them anew in the divine language of hope. I
read on until I come to the quotation from the Hymn to the Nativity,
and then I close the book, and take up a copy of Milton close at hand.
We have had our commemoration service of love, and now there comes into
our thought, with the organ roll of this sublime hymn, the universal
truth which lies at the heart of the season. I am hardly conscious that
it is my voice which makes these words audible: I am conscious only of
this mighty-voiced anthem, fit for the choral song of the morning stars:

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
And bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so;
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time;
And let the bass of heaven's deep organ blow;
And, with your ninefold harmony,
Make up full concert to the angelic symphony.

For, if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the age of gold;
And speckled vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mold;
And hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

- - - - -

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.

- - - - -

Like a psalm the great Hymn fills the air, and like a psalm it remains
in the memory. The fire has burned low, and a soft and solemn light
fills the room. Neither of us speaks while the clock strikes twelve. I
look out of the window. The heavens are ablaze with light, and somewhere
amid those circling constellations I know that a new star has found its
place, and is shining with such a ray as never before fell from heaven
to earth.





Next: Christmas In The Olden Time

Previous: A Carol



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