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From the NS archive: A merry Christmas

23 December 1922: How to negotiate the many contradictions of the festive season.

By Y Y

Christmas in the years immediately following the First World War was not a straightforward festival. As “Y.Y.”, a regular writer for the magazine, put it: “Good King Wenceslas, had he lived to-day, would, more probably than not, be ambushed in the snow, and the Holy Family themselves would be prosecuted for seeking accommodation on licensed premises.” In this piece he went on to muse on the nature of Christmas – its opportunity for charity, for escape into the imagination, and the riot of gift giving. None were unequivocal. Why should we feel the charitable urge at this time of year rather than the other 364 days, he wondered? Why give children expensive presents when expense was not on their list of priorities? And as to books, they were the perfect gift, if chosen and presented in the right spirit.

A merry Christmas … is it possible? In Russia we have the dictatorship of the proletariat: in Italy, the dictatorship of the still-more-unfairiat; and in America, the dictatorship of the sarsaparillariat. None of these things is of a kind to make a man brought up in the tradition of Dickens cheerful. Everywhere we turn, we see the figure of a rider on a red horse, or a rider on a white horse, or a rider on a dry horse, hideously crossing the landscape, and we know that none of these animals is a fit mount for Father Christmas. Good King Wenceslas, had he lived to-day, would, more probably than not, be ambushed in the snow, and the Holy Family themselves would be prosecuted for seeking accommodation on licensed premises. Everywhere men are making idols of terror and compulsion, and their chief aim is to turn their fellows into machines ­– either Communist machines or bourgeois machines or machines for the consumption of water.

Servility is the virtue that the new men in the public life of the world wish most vehemently to spread, and, as Christmas has always been a protest against servility – were not the Saturnalia a protest against the servility even of the slave? – we shall do better this year to roll up the map of the world and hide it away in the attic, if we mean to abandon ourselves to the traditional merriment of the season.

As a matter of fact, it is perfectly easy for most of us to roll up the map of the world and forget all about it. Our pleasures depend only in part on the circumstances of the world at large, and we and our friends can easily retire for a day into an inner Paradise that does not exist on any map but only in our hearts and imaginations. It may be said that in this we are only inhabiting an illusion, but every child and everyone who plays games with a child, every lover and every friend, dwell among illusions of the same kind. There have even been those who have raised the question whether the outside world may not, after all, be the illusion and this inner Paradise the reality.

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, we have good warrant for setting aside a day now and then for the exploration of Paradise, as though the outer world did not exist save for the purpose of supplying us with food and drink. John Milton was a fairly serious man living in fairly serious times, but even he called upon Cyriack Skinner to “Let Euclid rest, and Archimedes pause. And what the Swede intend, and what the French”; and reminded him that “mild Heaven” “disapproves that care, though wise in show, That with superfluous burden loads the day And, when God sends a cheerful hour, refrains.” There is no more heartlessness shown in enjoying such a cheerful hour even under the gloomiest skies than there is in eating a square meal. If there were, no good man could ever have celebrated the Christmas festival since the date of its first institution.

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Sometimes, when one passes a blind man standing at the bottom of a windy flight of steps under a bridge, with a tray of matches and stiff cold hands, one wonders if one has the right… if it is not a little greedy to go home to turkey and plum-pudding and a pint of cheap Burgundy. There is a flutter of charity in the sub-conscious self that says this is all wrong, and that no human being afflicted with old age and blindness should be doomed to sell matches in an east wind unless one could cheerfully contemplate the prospect of having to do the same thing oneself, or of one’s children’s having to do it, in the helplessness of old age. Could this mood but become universal, and could it last, we should abolish begging within the life-time of the present generation of men and women. But it passes swiftly as a bird on the wing. A penny or, at most, a piece of silver, soothes the conscience that has begun to turn restlessly in its sleep, and the old man is left to endure his blindness in the east wind while we go home to our dinner.

Even so, our chief crime consists, not in our being able to forget the blind beggar on Christmas Day, but in our being able to forget him on the other 364 days in the year. Were we saints, we might remember him on all the 365 days. But we are not, and, being only sinners, we may be content if our consciences can show a clean sheet for as many as 364 days out of the full number. If they can, do not hesitate to take a second helping of plum-pudding. Even if they cannot, do not hesitate to take one helping, lest your bad conscience should darken the dinner-table for children.

Are there not 364 other days in the year in which you can sally forth to cut off the head of the giant Poverty? To-day there is a truce in all wars, and we shall fight, if we fight at all, none the worse for having observed it. Thus we reason with ourselves, for we are determined at all costs to enjoy our Christmas dinner, and, if we cannot do it with a good conscience and a little casuistry, then we are prepared to give conscience the go-by and to eat what is placed before us like heathens.

That our consciences are in some way more responsive than usual at this time of the year is shown by the fact that this is the season at which many charities send out special appeals for hospitals and crippled children – for starving little children in Russia and in London, for homeless little children m Greece and in England. It is a time of open hearts and open purses, and many a good citizen pays his tithe to charity while preparing to be a more than usually extravagant Father Christmas to his own children. In the old days, when people used to go to church, this giving of a tenth of the income to charity (including churches and missions) was common. Nowadays, pending the abolition of poverty and the State support of hospitals, it might be no bad thing if the non-church-goers were as generous.

Today, outside the gates of Hyde Park, we see a great hospital with filthy walls hanging out an announcement that it has no money for outside decoration, and hospital after hospital is in the same case. Is it that charity has failed, or is it that what we used to give to charity we now give to Income-tax? Whatever the explanation may be, dismiss the matter from your mind till Boxing Day, and, if you cannot dismiss it without sending a cheque, then write out a cheque and have done with it. The charity complex is the easiest of all complexes to get rid of. You have only to yield to temptation.

After that you can concentrate on the question of what put into the stockings. Not that it matters much what you put, provided you remember as your guiding principle, “the more the merrier”. There are homes, I believe, in which pillow-cases are hung up instead of stockings, and all the presents poured into them in a noble confusion – boxes of bricks, horses, bears, dolls, books, paints, railway trains, chocolates, apples, oranges, and almonds and raisins. I am not sure that I “hold with this”. There is an orthodoxy in these matters, and if Father Christmas is a real person, he is more likely than not to be offended by the spectacle of a large pillow-case inciting him to leave more than a fair share at the bed of one particular cherub. Hence, I think, the larger gifts should be frankly presents for a good boy or girl from an equally good parent.

It is not the costliness of the things that go into the stocking, but their multitude and variety, that the child especially loves. A tiny pack of playing-cards, a pair of doll’s field-glasses, a little wooden tiger, a little delf penguin, a swan for the bath, a paint-box, a child’s diary, a silver pencil, even a pen-wiper or a pin-cushion – good God, have not I who never wiped a pen been made happy by a pen-wiper? – and, added to these, a box of dates, an apple, nuts and raisins, and a tangerine orange, here are treasures to be brought out, one by one, and displayed as gifts from the father of all children who comes in the night and stays for no reward but a glance at the face of a sleeping child.

Do not, I implore you, forget the tangerine orange. It is not that they taste better than any other oranges, but they smell better, and, besides, they are little, like the children themselves, and you can buy them wrapped in silver paper. The smell is good, and the silver paper is better, but I think that what makes children’s faces brighter at sight of one of them is chiefly that they think of them as oranges not yet fully grown – oranges, indeed, that have hardly learned their A. B. C. The charm of little things is a charm to which nearly every child is susceptible, because littleness gives everything the air of being of exactly the right proportions for the doll’s house that the world ought to be.

Hence, I am doubtful of the modern tendency to give children teddy-bears and other toys as enormous as themselves. Children in their play prefer to be the grown-up people and that their playthings should belong to a tinier world that needs to be ordered about and otherwise looked after. Still, any present is a good present, whatever its size, and, if you are giving books, the safest rule is “the bigger the better”. Do not give a child pocket-editions. A child does not carry books in its pocket. It puts them on its lap and enjoys the noise large pages make as it turns them over. Even when it reads the Bible, it instinctively looks out the most enormous Bible in the house. There may be a case for giving it miniature books, but the pocket-edition is a utilitarian compromise that makes no appeal to it.

And there is another point to be remembered in giving children books. Do not buy your child a book merely because you wish to read it yourself. As a boy, I used to make this blunder, and to present the other members of my family (when I presented them with anything at all) with books that I myself had been longing to read. This is really giving presents to yourself – a pretty custom which a friend of mine has observed for many years – but a custom which should be followed frankly and not in the disguise of gift-making.

On the other hand, be equally careful not to give your child a book that you could not read yourself. You may have to read it aloud, and that will not be pleasant. Besides, your child has probably much better taste than you have, and there is no good in beginning the process of the stupefaction of its mind while it is yet in the nursery. There are so many good books that a child enjoys, from Mother Goose to Treasure Island, from Valery Carrick’s Russian Picture Tales to Jane Austen, from Andrew Lang’s fairy-tale books to J.H. Fabre. But even a bad book is better than no book, and who among us is there who has not been made happy by receiving a book of which he never afterwards read a line? No child looks a gift-book in the mouth.

To get a present is all it asks, and the only better thing it can imagine is to get lots of presents. And even we, who are mature and about to go bald, are not above feeling pleased by even the smallest attentions. I assure you, my jaw will drop if I do not receive so much as a coloured card on Christmas morning. If there should also be a complete edition of the works, say, of Dr. Johnson, I shall be confirmed – for, at least, twenty-four hours – in the belief that, in spite of the three sorts of dictators, the world is not such a bad place after all.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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