I Stand With Scrooge’s Nephew — Charles P. Pierce on the spirit of giving.
As it happens, at midweek next, that song will become more than simply speculative, at least to me. An odd thought struck me recently that, given the state of things and the distance we’ve come since the Year of Our Lord 1953, the developments we chronicle here every day will have ramifications that I may not be around to see. This is the first time this ever occurred to me, at least so vividly. Maybe I won’t be around to see the entire sweep of the damage being done at the moment, or the entire effort it is going to take to repair it, somewhere down the line. It was not an unsettling thought, just an odd bit of mental flotsam caught up in the jetstream of daily events. It passed almost as soon as it arrived.
I always loved the older carols, the ones that straddle the line between the sacred and the secular, the ones that summon up visions of light snow swirling in the yellow light of gas lamps as the night falls, and people in scarves and mufflers running to and fro while sidewalks choirs and street musicians play. It was an older time, crueler in many ways than the romances of the period would indicate. (A toast to Dickens, who saw through so much of it.) Christmas has survived so many things. It has endured bloody folly and the vicious ignorance of men and nations. It has defeated, in a hundred small ways, the faceless onslaught of commercialism and the steady pounding it takes every year from the relentless forces of greed and stupidity.
This is only one of the ways the whole War on Christmas trope is meaningless. That war ended in 1681, when the Puritans here in the Commonwealth (God save it!) got knuckled into rescinding the law banning the celebration of what those grim, walking ice sculptures called “Foolstide.” (An offense against this statute cost any jolly old miscreant five shillings, the price of five chickens.) Nevertheless, the humorless old gombeens hung on; in 1711, Cotton Mather deplored,
“I hear of a Number of young People of both Sexes, belonging, many of them, to my Flock, who have had on the Christmasnight, this last Week, a Frolick, a revelling Feast, and Ball, which discovers their Corruption, and has a Tendency to corrupt them yett more.”
Oh, shut yer gob, why don’t you?
But the victory became a rout only in 1856, when Massachusetts finally declared it a public holiday. By then, of course, the Irish had arrived in Boston by the boatload, the way the French finally showed up at Yorktown. Christmas won.
There isn’t a lot more to say. The country has voted itself into a very strange place. It has shanghaied itself, taken itself hostage, turned itself into Sheriff Bart upon arrival in Rock Ridge, holding a gun to its own head while making a getaway from an angry mob. Either we will find a way out of this situation or sink deeper into it. The former requires us to cut loose from many of our most cherished delusions. The latter requires that we invest even more faith in them. I think the answer to this dilemma lies in how you react to this touching holiday commercial. For myself, I think it’s very moving that the people who made this ad showed so much respect for the Yuletide traditions of North Korea.
But there is hope. I saw it in Washington the day after the Inauguration, and in Nebraska, out in the fields out of which nobody’s been able to carve a pipeline yet, and, most recently, in Alabama, where I spent an evening at what was undoubtedly the happiest election-night party I’ve ever attended. All that happiness, and surrounded at Christmastime, too.
There is nothing wrong with unbridled joy. That’s the bug that got up all those tight Puritan asses in the years before immigration made Boston the great place that it is—and, not coincidentally, made America the great place that it is, too. Foolstide? You damn betcha, Winthrop. Gonna sing. Gonna dance. (Gotta dance!) Gonna wassail ourselves silly.
Also, by god and the boar’s head, we’re going to remember that charity, and good fellowship, and a decent concern for the less fortunate, for the ones that find it hardest to sing and to dance, and who can’t afford the cost of a good wassail, are not the simply the reason for the season, but that they’re the reason this country was founded in the first place. In 1856, when the push to make Christmas a public holiday in the Commonwealth (God save it!) was nearing the finish line, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that the ice-encrusted personality of the old colony had melted away for good.
“We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.”
And that process goes merrily along, despite the modern heirs to Cotton Mather, and despite the best efforts of public events and public people to snuff out the light of the candle in the window, not only here at the shebeen, but in a thousand other places. In the homes of the Dreamers, who wonder what the next knock on the door will bring. In the places where the opioid crisis has clear-cut a generation, and in the cold places of the north, where the ice is no more, and in all the places where parents look on the happy faces of their children and pray that the year will not bring catastrophic illness or crippling debt.
As the Ghost of Christmas Present tells the slowly thawing miser in his charge:
“What place is this?” asked Scrooge.
“A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,” returned the Spirit. “But they know me. See!”
A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song—it had been a very old song when he was a boy—and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.
However, as always, I stand with Scrooge’s nephew.
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
Merry Christmas, happy solstice, jolly midwinter festival, Nollaig shona duit, to you all. Be well and play nice. Stay above the snake-line, and God bless us all, every one.
Doonesbury — The war is over.