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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Christmas

Title:     On Christmas
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

There is a cant of Christmas, and there is a cant of anti-Christmas. There are some people who want to throw their arms round you simply because it is Christmas; there are other people who want to strangle you simply because it is Christmas. Thus, between those who appreciate and those who depreciate Christmas, it is difficult for an ordinary man to escape bruises. As I grow older, I confess, I accept Christmas more philosophically than I used to do. There was a time when it seemed a dangerous institution, like home life or going to church. One felt that in undermining its joys one was making a breach in the defences of an ancient hypocrisy. Still more, one resented the steady boredom of the day--the boredom of a day from which one had been led to expect larger ecstasies than a surfeit of dishes and the explosion of crackers can give. One might have enjoyed it well enough, perhaps, if one had not had the feeling that it was one's duty to be happy. But to be deliberately happy for a whole day was a task as exhausting as deliberately hopping with one's feet tied. It was not that one wanted to be unhappy. It was merely that one desired one's liberty to be either as happy or as miserable as one pleased.

Remembering these early hostilities, I will not bid anyone be happy or merry or jolly on Christmas Day, except as the turkey and plum-pudding move them. At the same time, I cannot let the festival pass without recanting my childish insolence towards the holly and the mistletoe. I have been converted to Christmas as thoroughly almost as that prince of individualists, Scrooge. I can now pull a cracker with any man; I can accept gifts without actual discourtesy; and if the flame goes out before the plum-pudding reaches me, I am as mortified as can be. The Christmas tree shines with the host of the stars, and I can even forgive my neighbour who plays "While shepherds watched" all day long on the gramophone. The Salvation Army, which plays the same tune and one or two others all through the small hours on the trombone and the cornet-a-piston, is a severer test of endurance. But even that one can grin and bear when one remembers that the Salvationist bandsmen are but a sort of melancholy herald angels. The solitary figure in the Christmas procession, indeed, whom one hates with a boiling and bubbling hatred, is the postman who does not call. In Utopia the postman does not miss a letter-box on Christmas Day. Or on any other day.

It would be affectation to pretend, however, that one has suddenly developed a craving for plum-pudding and cracker-mottoes in one's middle age. One's reconcilement with Christmas is due neither to one's stomach nor to a taste for the wit and wisdom of cracker manufacturers. It is simply that one has come to enjoy a season of lordly inutility, when for the space of a day or two the cash-nexus hangs upon the world as light as air. It is no small thing to have this upsetting of the tyrannies, if it is only for a few hours. The heathen, as we call them, realised this even before the birth of Christ, and had the Saturnalia and other festivals of the kind in which a communism of licence ruled, if not a communism of gentleness. It is still an instinct in many Christian places to turn Christmas into a general orgy--to make it a day on which one bows down and worships the human maw. (And there are worse things in the world than brandy-sauce.) On the other hand, there is also the instinct to make of the day a door into a new world of neighbourliness. It is the only day in the year on which many men speak humanly to their servants and open their eyes to the cheerful lives of children and simple people. Hypercritical youth will deny that man has a right to confine his neighbourliness to a single day in the year any more than he has a right to confine his sanctity to the Sabbath. But we who have ceased to exact miracles from human nature are glad to have even a single day as a beginning. Socialism, we may admit, depends upon the extension of the Christmas festival into the rest of the year. It demands that the relations between man and man shall be, as far as possible, not shopkeeping relations, but Christmas relations. In other words, it aims at a society in which the little conquests of gain will cease to be the chief end of time, and men will no more think of cheating each other than Romeo would think of cheating Juliet. Nor is there any other side of the new civilisation which will be more difficult to build than this. This is the very spirit of the new city. Without it the rest would be but a chaos of stones and mortar--a Gehenna of purposeless machinery.

It is an extraordinary fact that the rediscovery of Christmas in the nineteenth century was not followed sooner by the rediscovery of the limitations of individualism. Dickens himself, the incarnation of Christmas, did not realise till quite late in life what a denial modern civilisation is of the Christmas spirit. Even in Hard Times, where, as Mr Shaw pointed out, he expresses the insurrection of the human conscience against a Manchesterised society, he offers us no hope except from the spread of a sort of Tory benevolence. Perhaps, however, it does not matter how you label benevolence so long as it is the real thing and is not merely another name for that most insidious form of egotism--patronage. That Dickens was pugnaciously benevolent in all his work--except when he was writing about Dissenters and Americans--was one of the most fortunate accidents in the popular literature of the nineteenth century. He did not, perhaps, dramatise the secret mystery of human brotherhood--the brotherhood of saint and fool and criminal and ordinary man--as Tolstoi and Dostoevsky have done in some of their work. But he dramatised goodwill with a thoroughness never attempted before in England.

On the whole, it may be doubted whether the Christmas spirit has not grown stronger and deeper since the time of Dickens. Only a few years ago it seemed as though it were dying. People began to detest even Christmas cards as something more Victorian than The Idylls of the King. But here the old enthusiasm is back again, and we can no more kill Christmas than the lion could kill Androcles. Perhaps the popularisation of Italian art, as well as Dickens, has something to do with it. Our imaginations cannot escape from the Virgin and the Child, and we are like children ourselves in the inquisitiveness with which we peer into that magic stable where the ass and the cow worship and the shepherds and the kings and the little angels in their nightgowns are on their knees. There has come back a gaiety, a playfulness, into the picture, such as our grandfathers might have thought irreverent, but their grandfathers' grandfathers, on the other hand, would have seen to be perfectly natural. The cult of the child has, perhaps, been overdone in recent years, and we have brought our mawkishness and our morbid analysis even to the side of the cradle. At the same time, no one has yet been able to point out a way by which we can escape from the obsession of rates and taxes, of profit and loss, except by the recovery of the child's vision. Without that vision religion itself becomes a matter of profit and loss. With that vision the dullest world blossoms with flowers; even truisms cease to be meaningless; and Christmas is itself again. Out of the drowning of the world we have made a toy for the nursery, and the birth of the King of Glory has become the theme of a song for infants.

One of the most exquisite pictures in literature is that of the three ships that come sailing into Bethlehem "on Christmas Day, in the morning"; and not less childishly beautiful is that other short carol:

There comes a ship far sailing then,
Saint Michael was the steersman,
Saint John sat in the horn;
Our Lord harped, our Lady sang,
And all the bells of Heaven they rang,
On Christ's Sunday at morn.

One sees the same childish imagination at work in the old English carol, "Hail, comely and clean," in which the three shepherds come to the inn stable with their gifts, the first with "a bob of cherries" for the new-born baby, the second with a bird, and the third with a tennis-ball. "Hail," cries the third shepherd--

Hail, darling dear, full of godheed!
I pray Thee be near, when that I have need.
Hail! sweet Thy cheer! My heart would bleed
To see Thee sit here in so poor weed,
With no pennies.
Hail! put forth Thy dall!
I bring Thee but a ball,
Have and play Thee withal.
And go to the tennis.

These songs, it may be, are more popular to-day than they were fifty years ago--partly owing to the decline of the old-fashioned suspicious sort of Protestantism, which saw the Pope behind every bush--including the holly-bush. One remembers how Protestants of the old school used to denounce even Raphael's grave Madonnas as trash of Popery. "I'll have no Popish pictures in my house," declared a man I know to his son, who had brought home the Sistine Madonna to hang on his walls; and the picture had to be given away to a friend. Similarly, the observance of Christmas Day was regarded in some places as a Popish superstition. One old Protestant clergyman many years ago used to make the rounds of his friends and parishioners on Christmas morning to wish them the compliments of the day. It was his custom, however, to pray with each of them, and in the course of his prayers to explain that he must not be regarded as taking Christmas Day seriously. "Lord," he would pray, "we are not gathered here in any superstitious spirit, as the Roman Catholics are, under the delusion that Thy Son was born in Bethlehem on the twenty-fifth of December. Hast not Thou told us in Thy Holy Book that on the night on which Thy Son was born the shepherds watched their flocks by night in the open air? And Thou knowest, O Lord, that in the fierce and inclement weather of December, with its biting frosts and its whirling snows, this would not have been possible, and can be but a Popish invention." But, having set himself right with God, he was human enough to proceed on his journey of good wishes. Noble intolerance like his is now, I believe, dead. To-day even a Plymouth Brother may wreathe his brow with mistletoe, and a Presbyterian may wish you a merry Christmas without the sky or the Shorter Catechism falling.

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Robert Lynd's essay: On Christmas