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An essay by George William Curtis

Holiday Sauntering

Title:     Holiday Sauntering
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The richness and profusion and variety of the Christmas shops in a great city, the sack of the treasures of the whole earth, which furnish such splendid spoil, recall a remark of Buckle. He says that the history of the world shows enormous progress in all kinds of knowledge, in institutions, in commerce and manufactures, and in every pursuit of human activity, but not in knowledge of moral principle. The most ancient wisdom in morals is also the most modern. Time and the progress of civilization have added nothing to the demands of the conscience or to moral perception. The golden rule is an axiom of the most ancient wisdom.

These are bewildering speculations as we stroll along Fourteenth Street and loiter in Twenty-third Street, which, at the holiday season, have especially the aspect of a fair or a fascinating bazaar. The whole world is tributary to Santa Claus.

"Nothing we see but means our good,
As our delight or as our treasure;
The whole is either our cupboard of food
Or cabinet of pleasure."

Invention and science have put a girdle about the globe fitly to decorate Christmas. Diedrich Knickerbocker, in his cocked hat and flowered coat, had heard of Japan, perhaps, as a romance of Prester John. But it would have been a wilder romance for him to imagine his grandchildren dealing at the feast of St. Nicholas with Japanese merchants in Japanese shops upon the soil of his own Manhattan and on the very road to Tappan Zee. Hendrik Hudson might have been reasonably expected to run down from the Catskills with a picked crew to vend Hollands for the great feast. But Cipango--!

Yes; we have subdued distance, we are plucking out even the heart of Africa. As the streets of Bokhara when the fairs were held were piled with the stuffs of many a province and thronged by merchants of every hue, so the streets of New York at Christmas show that we have taken the whole earth to drop into our Christmas stocking. The festival might be fitly celebrated by coming to the city merely to walk the streets and

"view the manners of the town,
Peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings."

Happily the eye can appropriate all the treasures that it would be theft for the hand to touch.

Corydon, sauntering with Amaryllis, and staring with her at the wonderful windows, may be a prince by proxy. "Those pearls," he whispers, "the diver plunged into Oman's dark waters to find for you. They are so far on their way, adored Amaryllis. They have reached your eyes, if not yet your ears. Let me but be rich--and I expect at least five dollars for my first fee--let the world but discover that in me the Law, whose seat is the bosom of God, has a new Mansfield, another Marshall, and yonder pearls shall circle the virgin neck for which they were predestined. Or do you prefer the diamonds behind the next pane? Or shall Santa Claus sweetly capture both for you, one for state dress and splendor, one for days less rigorous, not of purple velvets and flowered brocades, but summer draperies of soft lace?"

So the Marchioness and the gay Swiveller, with their happy gift of transforming a shred of lemon-peel and copious libations of pure water into nectar, might have walked the Christmas streets of New York as those of Ormus and of Ind. Lafayette, with the gold snuff-box in which the freedom of the city was presented to him, could not have been freer of it. The happy loiterers could see all the beautiful things, and what could they do more if they should buy them all? Like the kind people at Newport in the summer, who spare no vast expense to build noble houses and lay out exquisite grounds and drive in sumptuous carriages and wear clothes so fine and take pains so costly and elaborate to please the idle loiterer of a day, who gazes from the street-car or the omnibus or the sidewalk, so the good holiday merchants present the enchanting spectacle of their treasures freely to every penniless saunterer, but for the same enjoyment they demand of the rich an enormous price. The poor rich must bear also all the responsibility of possession and care, and cannot be secured against theft or loss.

The splendid streets beguile us from our question. In the brilliant bazaars we are recalling the New York of silence and solitary woods and roving Indians--the New York that the Dutch settlers bought from the Indians for twenty-four dollars, and which is now the city that we behold, the metropolis of the State of which Mr. Draper, its Superintendent of Public Instruction, asks, "Who shall say that these six millions of people are not better housed, better fed, better clothed, more generally educated, more active in affairs, better equipped for self-government than any other entire people numbering six millions, unless it be other citizens of our own country, surrounded by the same circumstances and conditions?" Not the Easy Chair, certainly. On the contrary, it says Amen.

But is Buckle right? Are the six millions as much better morally than the first six millions of their white ancestors upon the continent, as they are better clothed, better educated, and better housed? Are they only materially better? Have they better poets, better artists, than the Greeks, than Dante, than Shakespeare, than Raphael and Michael Angelo? Have they wiser men than Plato, Aristotle, Bacon? Have they higher standards of conduct than those of Confucius and the Hindoos? A hundred years ago the pilgrim was sometimes a week travelling to Albany with great discomfort. To-day we travel thither in three hours with incredible ease and luxury. Do we find more public virtue when we get there? Comfort, knowledge, opportunity, resources, are multiplied a thousandfold. Schools, libraries, museums, societies, appliances, have sprung in a night, like Jack's bean-stalk, to a towering height. Have they brought us nearer heaven? Are we more truthful, more upright, manlier men? In a world where mechanical invention and victories over time and space were of no importance, but where moral qualities alone availed, should we men of the end of the nineteenth century stand any better chance than those of the beginning of the ninth?

That is the queer question which Santa Claus insists upon dropping into the stockings that hang by this Christmas hearth. He calls it a Christmas nut to crack. The old fellow chuckles as he thinks of it while he rides through the frosty starlight. "My children," he laughs, "what is the difference between six dozen dozen and half a dozen dozen?" While he asks and chuckles, the old fellow is himself an answer. He did not invent gifts. But he symbolizes universal giving. The moral law may be as old as man, but the demand and disposition for the general application of that law to actual life increase with every century. The moral law was the same when Howard revealed the horrors of prisons that it is now when modern philanthropy has purged and purified them. "The sense of duty," said Webster, in his greatest criminal argument, "pursues us ever." But it pursues us more effectively with the return of every Christmas.

If there be no larger knowledge of the moral law there is a more universal sense of moral obligation. Those pearls of Oman which Corydon designs for Amaryllis would not have adorned so noble a woman had they circled the neck of the Paphian Venus or Helen of Troy.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Holiday Sauntering