« PreviousContinue »
pose them written by some actual doggerel-poet in good faith. Mere mediocrity hardly allows us to give our Christmas-box, or to believe it nowadays in earnest; and the smartness of your cleverest worldly-wise men is felt to be wholly out of place. No, no; give us the good old decrepit “Bellman's Verses,” hobbling as their bringer, and taking themselves for something respectable like his cocked-hat, or give us none at all. We should not like even to see him in a round hat. He would lose something of the old and oracular by it. If in a round hat, he should keep out of sight, and not contradict the portrait of himself at the top of his sheet of verses, with his bell and his beadle's staff. The pictures round the verses may be new; but we like the old better, no matter how worn-out, provided the subject be discernible; no matter what blots for the eyes, and muddiness for the clouds. The worst of these old wood-cuts are often copied from good pictures ; and, at all events, they wear an aspect of the old sincerity.*
Give us, in short, a foundation of that true old Christmas sincerity to go upon (no matter under what modification of belief, provided it be of a Christian sort), and, like the better sort of Catholics, who go to church in the morning and to their dance in the evening, we can begin the day with a mild gravity of recollection, and finish it with all kinds of forgetful mirth, -- forgetful, because realizing the happiness for which we are thoughtful. It is a pernicious mistake among persons who exclusively call themselves religious, to think they ought never to be cheerful, without calling to mind considerations too vast and grand for cheerfulness; thereby representing the object of their reverence after the fashion of an officious and tyrannical parent, who should cast the perpetual shadow of his dignity over his children's sports. Those sports are a part of the general ordinance of things. Man is a laughing as well as a thinking creature; and “there is a time," says the wise man, “for all things.” Formal set times for being religious and thoughtful are, to be sure, not the only times; but a perpetual formality is merely the same mistake rendered thoroughgoing and entire! It might be thought unnecessary to touch upon this point nowadays, and a violation of our own inculcations of seasonableness to notice it in the present article ; but a periodical writer who is in earnest is much hampered by certain inconsistencies in the demands of some of his readers; and what we feel, we express.
* We learn from Hone's “Every-Day Book” that for the use of this personage there was a book, entitled “The Bellman's Treasury, containing above a hundred several verses, fitted for all Humours and Fancies, and suited to all times and seasons." London, 1707, 8vo. – ED.
To have a thorough sense, then, of Christmas, grave and gay, and to reconcile as much as possible of its old times to the new, one ought to begin with Christmas Eve, to see the log put on the fire, the boughs fixed somewhere in the room, and to call to mind what is said by the poets, and those beautiful accounts of angels singing in the air, which inspired the seraphical strains of Handel and Corelli. Those who possess musical instruments should turn to these strains, or procure them, and warm their imaginations by their performance. In paintings from Italy (where the violin, on account of its greater mastery, and the enthusiasm of the people, is held in more esteem than with us), we often see choral visions of angels in the clouds, singing and playing on that instrument as well as the harp; and certainly, if ever a sound which may be supposed to resemble them, was yet heard upon earth, it is in some of the harmonies of Arcangelo Corelli. And the recitative of Handel's divine strain, “ There were shepherds abiding in the fields," is as exquisite for truth and simplicity as the cheek of innocence. See what Milton has sung of these angelic symphonies in the ode “ On the Morning of Christ's Nativity.” Shakespeare has touched upon Christmas Eve with a reverential tenderness, sweet as if he had spoken it hushingly.
“Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes,
Upon which (for it is a character in Hamlet who is speaking) Horatio observes, in a sentence remarkable for the breadth of its sentiment as well as the niceness of its sincerity (like the whole of that apparently favorite character of the poet, who loved a friend),
“So have I heard, and do in part believe it :"
that is to say, he believed all that was worthy, and recognized the balmy and Christian effect produced upon welldisposed and sympathetic minds by reflections on the season.
The Waits, that surprise us with music in the middle of the night, evidently originated in honor of the heavenly visitation. They are, unfortunately, not apt to be very celestial of their kind. There is a fellow in particular, that plays the bass, who seems to make a point of being out of tune. He has two or three notes that are correct enough, that enable him to finish in a style of grandeur and self-satisfaction, but his “by-play,” for the most part, is horrible. However, the very idea of music is good, especially in the middle of the night; and a little imagination and Christian charity, together with a consideration of his cold fingers, will help us to be thankful for his best parts, and slip as we can over his worst. When the English become a more musical people, zealous amateurs will volunteer their services on fine nights, and, going forth with their harps and guitars, charm their friends and neighbors with strains rendered truly divine by the hour and the occasion,
“ Divinely-warbled voice
Answering the stringed noise." . (See Milton's ode, as above-mentioned.)
“ Soft stillness and the night
MERCHANT OF VENICE. A Christmas day, to be perfect, should be clear and cold, with holly branches in berry, a blazing fire, a dinner with mince-pies, and games and forfeits in the evening. You cannot have it in perfection, if you are very fine and fashionable. Neither, alas ! can it be enjoyed by the very poor; so that, in fact, a perfect Christmas is impossible to be had, till the progress of things has distributed comfort more equally. But when we do our best, we are privileged to enjoy our utmost; and charity gives us a right to hope. The completest enjoyer of Christmas (next to a lover who has to receive forfeits from his mistress), is the holiday school-boy who springs up early, like a bird, darting hither and thither, out of sheer delight, thinks of his mince-pies half the morning, has too much of them when they come (pardon him this once), roasts chestnuts and cuts apples half the evening, is conscious of his new silver in his pocket, and laughs at every piece of mirth with a loudness that rises above every other noise. Next day what a pegtop will he not buy! what string, what nuts, what gingerbread! And he will have a new clasp-knife, and pay three times too much for it. Sour oranges also will he suck, squeezing their cheeks into his own with staring eyes; and his mother will tell him they are not good for him, - and let him go on..
A Christmas evening should, if possible, finish with music. It carries off the excitement without abruptness, and sheds a repose over the conclusion of enjoyment.
A word respecting the more serious part of the day's subject alluded to above. It is but a word, but it may sow a seed of reflection in some of the best natures, especially in these days of perplexity between new doctrines and old. It appears to us, that there is a point never enough dwelt upon, if at all, by those who attempt to bring about a reconciliation between belief and the want of it. It is addressed only to the believers in a Providence, but those who have that belief, if they have no other, are a numerous body. The point is this, - that Christianity, to say the least of it, is a GREAT EVENT. It has had a wonderful effect on the world, and still has, even in the workings of its apparently unfilial daughter, modern philosophy, who could never have been what she is but for the doctrine of boundless sympathy, grafted upon the elegant self-reference of the Greeks, and the patriotism of the Romans, which was so often a mere pretext for the most unneighborly injustice. Now so great an event must have been in the contemplation of Providence, – one of the mountain-tops of its manifestation; and, if we say, even of a Shakespeare and a Plato (and not without reason), that there is something