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.





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