Seasonable Nonsense by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

The most hard-hearted of cynics must pity the poor daily journalist who is calmly requested nowadays to produce a Christmas article. For my own part I decline to meddle with holly and jollity and general goodwill, and I have again and again protested against the insane Beggars’ Carnival which breaks out yearly towards the beginning of December. A man may be pleased enough to hear his neighbour express goodwill, but he does not want his neighbour’s hand held forth to grasp our Western equivalent for “backsheesh.” In Egypt the screeching Arabs make life miserable with their ceaseless dismal yell, “Backsheesh, Howaji!” The average British citizen is also hailed with importunate cries which are none the less piercing and annoying from the fact that they are translated into black and white. The ignoble frivolity of the swarming circulars, the obvious insincerity of the newspaper appeals, the house-to-house calls, tend steadily to vulgarize an ancient and a beautiful institution, and alienate the hearts of kindly people who do not happen to be abject simpletons. The outbreak of kindness is sometimes genuine on the part of the donors; but it is often merely surface-kindness, and the gifts are bestowed in a bitter and grudging spirit. Let me ask, What are the real feelings of a householder who is requested to hand out a present to a turncock or dustman whom he has never seen? The functionaries receive fair wages for unskilled labour, yet they come smirking cheerfully forward and prefer a claim which has no shadow of justification. If a flower-seller is rather too importunate in offering her wares, she is promptly imprisoned for seven days or fined; if a costermonger halts for a few minutes in a thoroughfare and cries his goods, his stock maybe confiscated; yet the privileged Christmas mendicant may actually proceed to insolence if his claims are ignored; and the meek Briton submits to the insult. I cannot sufficiently deplore the progress of this spirit of beggardom, for it is acting and reacting in every direction all over the country. Long ago we lamented the decay of manly independence among the fishermen of those East Coast ports which have become watering-places. Big bearded fellows whose fathers would have stared indignantly at the offer of a gratuity are ready to hold out their hands and touch their caps to the most vulgar dandy that ever swaggered. To any one who knew and loved the whole breed of seamen and fishermen, a walk along Yarmouth sands in September is among the most purely depressing experiences in life. But the demoralization of the seaside population is not so distressing as that of the general population in great cities. We all know Adam Bede–the very finest portrait of the old-fashioned workman ever done. If George Eliot had represented Adam as touching his cap for a sixpence, we should have gasped with surprise at the incongruity. Can we imagine an old-world stonemason like Hugh Miller begging coppers from a farmer on whose steading he happened to be employed? The thing is preposterous! But now a strong London artizan will coolly ask for his gratuity just as if he were a mere link-boy!

It is pleasant to turn to kindlier themes; it is pleasant to think of the legitimate rejoicings and kindnesses in which the most staid of us may indulge. Far be it from me to emulate the crabbed person who proposed to form a “Society for the Abolition of Christmas.” The event to be commemorated is by far the greatest in the history of our planet; all others become hardly worthy of mention when we think of it; and nothing more momentous can happen until the last catastrophe, when a chilled and tideless earth shall roll through space, and when no memory shall remain of the petty creatures who for a brief moment disturbed its surface. The might of the Empire of Rome brooded over the fairest portions of the known world, and it seemed as though nothing could shake that colossal power; the pettiest officer of the Imperial staff was of more importance than all the natives of Syria; and yet we see that the fabric of Roman rule has passed away like a vision, while the faith taught by a band of poor Syrian men has mastered the minds of the strongest nations in the world. The poor disciples whom the Master left became apostles; footsore and weary they wandered–they were scorned and imprisoned and tortured until the last man of them had passed away. Their work has subdued princes and empires, and the bells that ring out on Christmas Eve remind us not only of the most tremendous occurrence in history, but of the deeds of a few humble souls who conquered the fear of death and who resigned the world in order that the children of the world might be made better. A tremendous Event truly! We are far, far away from the ideal, it is true; and some of us may feel a thrill of sick despair when we think of what the sects have done and what they have not done–it all seems so slow, so hopeless, and the powers of evil assert themselves ever and again with such hideous force. Some withdraw themselves to fierce isolation; some remain in the world, mocking the ways of men and treating all life as an ugly jest; some refuse to think at all, and drag themselves into oblivion; while some take one frantic sudden step and leave the world altogether by help of bullet or bare bodkin. A man of light mind who endeavoured to reconcile all the things suggested to him by the coming of Christmas would probably become demented if he bent his entire intellect to solve the puzzles. Thousands–millions–of books have been written about the Christian theology, and half of European mankind cannot claim to have any fixed and certain belief which leads to right conduct. Some of the noblest and sweetest souls on earth have given way to chill hopelessness, and only a very bold or a very thick-sighted man could blame them; we must be tender towards all who are perplexed, especially when we see how terrible are the reasons for perplexity. Nevertheless, dark as the outlook may be in many directions, men are slowly coming to see that the service of God is the destruction of enmity, and that the religion of tenderness and pity alone can give happiness during our dark pilgrimage.

Far back in last winter a man was forcing his way across a dreary marsh in the very teeth of a wind that seemed to catch his throat in an icy grip, stopping the breath at intervals and chilling the very heart. Coldly the grey breakers rolled under the hard lowering sky; coldly the western light flickered on the iron slopes of far-off hills; coldly the last beams struck on the water and made chance wavelets flash with a terrible glitter. The night rushed down, and the snow descended fiercely; the terrified cattle tried to find shelter from the scourge of the storm; a hollow roar rang sullenly amid the darkness; stray sea-birds far overhead called weirdly, and it seemed as if the spirit of evil were abroad in the night. In darkness the man fought onward, thinking of the unhappy wretches who sometimes lie down on the snow and let the final numbness seize their hearts. Then came a friendly shout–then lights–and then the glow of warmth that filled a broad room with pleasantness. All the night long the mad gusts tore at the walls and made them vibrate; all night the terrible music rose into shrieks and died away in low moaning, and ever the savage boom of the waves made a vast under-song. Then came visions of the mournful sea that we all know so well, and the traveller thought of the honest fellows who must spend their Christmas-time amid warring forces that make the works of man seem puny. What a picture that is–The Toilers of the Sea in Winter! Christmas Eve comes with no joyous jangling of bells; the sun stoops to the sea, glaring lividly through whirls of snow, and the vessel roars through the water; black billows rush on until their crests topple into ruin, and then the boiling white water shines fitfully like some strange lambent flame; the breeze sings hoarsely among the cordage; the whole surface flood plunges on as if some immense cataract must soon appear after the rapids are passed. Every sea that the vessel shatters sends up a flying waterspout; and the frost acts with amazing suddenness, so that the spars, the rigging, and the deck gather layer after layer of ice. Supposing the vessel is employed in fishing, then the men in the forecastle crouch round the little fire, or shiver on their soaked beds, and perhaps growl out a few words of more or less cheerful talk. Stay with the helmsman, and you may know what the mystery and horror of utter gloom are really like. There is danger everywhere–a sudden wave may burst the deck or heave the vessel down on her side; a huge dim cloud may start shapelessly from the murk, and, before a word of warning can be uttered, a great ship may crash into the labouring craft. In that case hope is gone, for the boat is bedded in a mass of ice and all the doomed seamen must take the deadly plunge to eternity. Ah, think of this, you who rest in the glow of beautiful homes! Then the morning–the grey desolation! No words can fairly picture the utter cheerlessness of a wintry dawn at sea. The bravest of men feel something like depression or are pursued by cruel apprehensions. The solid masses of ice have gripped every block, and the ropes will not run; the gaunt masts stand up like pallid ghosts in the grey light, and still the volleys of snow descend at intervals. All the ships seem to be cowering away, scared and beaten; even the staunch sea-gulls have taken refuge in fields and quiet rivers; and only the seamen have no escape. The mournful red stretches of the Asiatic deserts are wild enough, but there are warmth and marvellous light, and those who well know the moaning wastes say that their fascination sinks on the soul. The wintry sea has no fascination–no consolation; it is hungry, inhospitable–sometimes horrible. But even there Christ walks the waters in spirit. In an ordinary vessel the rudest seaman is made to think of the great day, and, even if he goes on grumbling and swearing on the morrow, he is apt to be softened and slightly subdued for one day at least. The fishermen on the wild North Sea are cared for, and merry scenes are to be witnessed even when landsmen might shudder in terror. Certain gallant craft, like strong yachts, glide about among the plunging smacks; each of the yachts has a brave blue flag at the masthead, and the vessels are laden with kindly tokens from thousands of gentle souls on shore. Surely there is no irreverence in saying that the Master walks the waters to this day?

We Britons must of course express some of our emotions by eating and drinking freely. No political party can pretend to adjust the affairs of the Empire until the best-advertised members have met together at a dinner-table; no prominent man can be regarded as having achieved the highest work in politics, or art, or literature, or histrionics, until he has been delicately fed in company with a large number of brother mortals; and no anniversary can possibly be celebrated without an immense consumption of eatables and drinkables. The rough men of the North Sea have the national instinct, and their mode of recognizing the festive season is quite up to the national standard. The North Sea fisherman would not nowadays approve of the punch-bowls and ancient ale which Dickens loved so much to praise, for he is given to the most severe forms of abstinence; but it is a noble sight when he proceeds to show what he can do in the way of Christmas dining. If he is one of the sharers in a parcel from on shore, he is fortunate, for he may possibly partake of a pudding which might be thrown over the masthead without remaining whole after its fall on deck; but it matters little if he has no daintily-prepared provender. Jack Fisherman seats himself on a box or on the floor of the cabin; he produces his clasp-knife and prepares for action. When his huge tin dish is piled with a miscellaneous assortment of edibles, it presents a spectacle which might make all Bath and Matlock and Royat and Homburg shudder; but the seaman, despising the miserable luxuries of fork and spoon, attacks the amazing conglomeration with enthusiasm. His Christmas pudding may resemble any geological formation that you like to name, and it may be unaccountably allied with a perplexing maze of cabbage and potatoes–nothing matters. Christmas must be kept up, and the vast lurches of the vessel from sea to sea do not at all disturb the fine equanimity of the fellows who are bent on solemnly testifying, by gastronomic evidence, to the loyalty with which Christmas is celebrated among orthodox Englishmen. The poor lads toil hard, live hard, and they certainly feed hard; but, with all due respect, it must be said also that they mostly pray hard; and, if any one of the cynical division had been among the seamen during that awful time five years ago, he would have seen that among the sea-toilers at least the “glad” season is glad in something more than name–for the gladness is serious. Sights of the same kind may be seen on great ships that are careering over the myriad waterways that net the surface of the globe; the smart man-of-war, the great liner, the slow deep-laden barque toiling wearily round the Horn, are all manned by crews that keep up the aged tradition more or less merrily; and woe betide the cook that fails in his duty! That lost man’s fate may be left to the eye of imagination. Under the Southern Cross the fair summer weather glows; but the good Colonists have their little rejoicings without the orthodox adjuncts of snow and frozen fingers and iron roads. Far up in the bush the men remember to make some kind of rude attempt at improvising Christmas rites, and memories of the old country are present with many a good fellow who is facing his first hard luck. But the climate makes no difference; and, apart from all religious considerations, there is no social event that so draws together the sympathies of the whole English race all over the world.

At Nainee Tal, or any other of our stations in our wondrous Indian possession, the day is kept. Alas, how dreary it is for the hearts that are craving for home! The moon rises through the majestic arch of the sky and makes the tamarisk-trees gorgeous; the warm air flows gently; the dancers float round to the wild waltz-rhythm; and the imitation of home is kept up with zeal by the stout general, the grave and scholarly judge, the fresh subaltern, and by all the bright ladies who are in exile. But even these think of the quiet churches in sweet English places; they think of the purple hedges, the sharp scent of frost-bitten fields, the glossy black ice, and the hissing ring of the skates. I know that, religiously as Christmas is kept up even on the frontier in India, the toughest of the men long for home, and pray for the time when the blessed regions of Brighton and Torquay and Cheltenham may receive the worn pensioner. One poet says something of the Anglo-Indian’s longing for home at Christmas-time; he speaks with melancholy of the folly of those who sell their brains for rupees and go into exile, and he appears to be ready, for his own part, to give up his share in the glory of our Empire if only he can see the friendly fields in chill December. I sympathize with him. Away with the mendicants, rich and poor–away with the gushing parasites who use a kindly instinct and a sacred name in order to make mean profit–away with the sordid hucksters who play with the era of man’s hope as though the very name of the blessed time were a catchword to be used like the abominable party-cries of politicians! But when I come to men and women who understand the real significance of the day–when I come to charitable souls who are reminded of One who was all Charity, and who gave an impulse to the world which two thousand years have only strengthened–when I come among these, I say, “Give us as much Yule-tide talk as ever you please, do your deeds of kindness, take your fill of innocent merriment, and deliver us from the pestilence of quacks and mendicants!” It is when I think of the ghastly horror of our own great central cities that I feel at once the praiseworthiness and the hopelessness of all attempts to succour effectually the immense mass of those who need charity. Hopeless, helpless lives are lived by human creatures who are not much above the brutes. Alas, how much may be learned from a journey through the Midlands! We may talk of merry frosty days and starlit nights and unsullied snow and Christmas cheer; but the potter and the iron-worker know as much about cheeriness as they do about stainless snow. Then there is London to be remembered. A cheery time there will be for the poor creatures who hang about the dock-gates and fight for the chance of earning the price of a meal! In that blank world of hunger and cold and enforced idleness there is nothing that the gayest optimist could describe as joyful, and some of us will have to face the sight of it during the winter that is now at hand. What can be done? Hope seems to have deserted many of our bravest; we hear the dark note of despair all round, and it is only the sight of the workers–the kindly workers–that enables us to bear up against deadly depression and dark pessimism.

December, 1888.

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