I have often been tempted to put a certain question to the Vicar: to any vicar. Does he in his heart think that anything has much changed in the last four or five thousand years — that is in the known course of history? Are we any better; are we any worse? On the whole, if the said vicar had a parish in Babylon, would the general conduct of his parishioners have been much different from that of his parishioners in his parish in Marylebone? Or supposing him to be a country vicar; wouldn’t he be glad on the whole if his young people were as decent in their ways as Daphnis and Chloe?
It is a large question, and I have had grave doubts on the matter; but, lately looking up this business of Christmas, I am inclined to think that we really have got on a little. But, first, it is necessary to go into the origin of Christmas. The old story was that it was a peculiarly northern festival; that all its mirth and jollity and ringing carols and sumptuous meats and drinks had no reference to any Christian joy. All our Christmas mirth, these wise men told us, we had inherited from our Scandinavian ancestors, who had noted that the tide of winter began to turn for the better somewhere about our Christmastide. The shortest day was past, the hours of light steadily began to lengthen, the spring was already prophesied. And so the Northern people literally made a song and dance about it; they made merry because the worst of the winter was over, and better things were coming. It is all very ingenious; but I think I see flaws. Did these people who rejoiced at Christmas tear their hair on Midsummer Day because the longest day was over and winter would soon be upon them? I have never heard that they did anything of the kind. And, again, it may be objected that the worst of the winter is, demonstrably, not over at Christmas. In nine cases out of ten the worst is to come. They must have been simple souls, indeed, those Scandinavians, if they rejoiced for winter past in December; with the terrors of January, February, and, often, of March to come. As a matter of fact, of course, they made merry as we make merry at this season, so far as our mirth is seasonal at all, precisely for the opposite reason. ‘It is very cold, indeed: the snow is falling fast, the wind comes piercing from the North, all appearances of summer are long over: and the best of it is, there is greater cold to come.’ That is the real sentiment of the season, and De Quincey; expresses it admirably. Thus he writes, indicating the season and the circumstances of felicity:
‘Let it, however, not be spring, nor summer, nor autumn — but winter in his sternest shape. This is a most important point in the science of happiness. And I am surprised to see people overlook it, and think it matter of congratulation that winter is going, or if coming, is not likely to be a severe one. . . . Indeed, so much of an epicure am I in this matter, that I cannot relish a winter night fully if it be much past St. Thomas’s day, and have degenerated into disgusting tendencies to vernal appearances; no, it must be divided by a thick wall of dark nights from all return of light and sunshine.’
And that, no doubt, is the truth of the matter, expressed as only that wonderful, profound and eloquent De Quincey could express it. But there is another point to be noted: they kept up Christmas tremendously in pagan Rome, though they did not call it by that name. Now, winter has no frightful terrors in Italy, and yet, it is odd enough, the Christmas of Rome fell, within a day or two, just at our Christmastide. They called it the Saturnalia. The Classical Dictionary tells me that it was a feast of immemorial antiquity, founded to commemorate the golden, happy age of Saturn. ‘All animosity ceased, schools were shut, war was never declared, but all was mirth, riot and debauchery.’ The last phrase is a little severe, but I think we may take it as meaning that the ancient Romans had a thoroughly good time at this season of the year. All social inequalities were annulled while the feast lasted; and as in old Virginia, in the slavery days, the black people claimed the right of taking the inside places in the coaches at Christmas while their masters rode outside, so in Rome, the slave told his master what he thought of him. ‘Come,’ says Horace to his man, ‘use your December liberty, say what you like.’ The man used it, freely enough; he told his master what he thought of him; that nobody would have been unhappier than he if he had suddenly found himself in the good old times that he was always praising, and so forth. Davus, in fact, told his master home truths, and it is in this point that, I claim, we have advanced over ancient morals. For, be it observed, we use our December liberty in quite another sense. Christmastide is exactly the season when we keep what are called home truths in the background. We hold back all the nasty things that are at the tip of our tongues, we begin to find that there is a good deal to be said for ‘that scoundrel Brown,’ we discover that M’Caw’s cold and studied insolence is ‘only manner,’ and that Mulligan’s noisy and tiresome vulgarity is pure heartiness and high spirits. We find out, in short, that we are all jolly good fellows. Even a man who considers himself deeply injured thinks it all over at Christmas, and sees that there is something to be said on the other side. And thus we transcend and surpass the pagan conception of Christmas — or Saturnalian — jollity. The Romans told each other ‘home truths’; we tell each other the truth. For, of course, we are, all of us, jolly good fellows. Consider, if we speak of literature; what is the truth about it? Surely, that is to be sought in Shakespeare, and Keats, not in the commercial drama of the West End, nor in the feeble imbecilities of the minor poets. If we are to speak of painting, we mean Turner, we neglect the existence of German oleographs and all the multitude of pink sentimentalities in pigment. Architecture means Westminster Abbey, not a tin meeting house. It is the good things and the splendid things and the perfect things that come to the account; not the failures or make-believes. So, with ourselves and the rest of us: at Christmas we see humanity as it ought to be: genial, full of charity, brimming over with mirth and good will. We are mummers, if you please; we dress up, if you like: but we know that these gay, cheerful and resplendent vestments are the clothes that we should always wear, if things were right, if ‘the letters of the Name were made known.’ It is true that one cannot go by the Underground into the City in parti-coloured jester’s robes, or in the silver armour of St. George: but so much the worse for the Underground and the City.
At Queen’s College, Oxford, they bring in the Boar’s Head with surpliced songmen and choristers and a noble old carol at Christmas. Everybody knows in his heart that this is the way in which we should always dine, if the world were properly managed. In the rush of business, it would be slightly inconvenient if the chops and steaks and cuts from the joint were brought in by chanting waiters: still, the old Oxford Christmas custom shows how the thing should be done.
The boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry Qui estis in convivio
Caput apri defero Reddens laudes Domino.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53