Christmas





(A Selection from Dreamthorp)



ALEXANDER SMITH



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 many 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 odor 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, I do 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.



- - - - -



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, of 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

the 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 holds 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

handshakings 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 into 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

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.



- - - - -



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

to-morrow. 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 see 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.





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