“Be of good cheer,” a reader writes, and for once I take it as encouragement not an admonition. Calculated bonhomie, the hideous grimace of professional Yuletide cheer, ensures my stony dolor.
As my younger sons played wall ball in the YMCA gym, two men in early middle age shot baskets on the other side of the divider, a hanging wall of red plastic and netting. Even in their grousing and hairsplitting about rules, the boys were having fun, while the men were grim-faced and robotic in their movements. A third joined them, assuming peculiar postures on a mat, tipping sideways at the waist, one arm down, the other pointing at the ceiling, in a slow-motion mime of “I’m a Little Teapot.” A fourth man, in sleeveless t-shirt and tattoos, arrived. He assumed a sprinter’s crouch, ran to the opposite wall, slapped the floor below it, turned, ran back to his starting place, slapped the floor, and so on. One easily confuses exercise -- clenched teeth, arbitrary motions -- with a desperate imbecility.
“Cheer” dates from the early 13th century, the Anglo-Norman chere, “the face.” Before that, Old French chiere, the Late Latin cara (“face”), Greek cara (“head”). Cheer shows in the face, not in words. By the time of Middle English, the meaning had shifted metaphorically to "mood, demeanor, mental condition," all of which shine through the face. By 1400, cheer as a noun meant pretty much what we mean – sunniness of disposition or expression. Cheer up – first recorded in the 1670s. Cheer as in a shout of encouragement – 1720. As a toast, later than one would expect – 1919, in England.
Here is the title poem from William Meredith’s 1980 collection The Cheer (the title also serves as the first two words of the poem):
“reader my friend, is in the words here, somewhere.
Frankly, I’d like to make you smile.
Words addressing evil won’t turn evil back
but they can give heart.
The cheer is hidden in right words.
“A great deal isn’t right, as they say,
as they are lately at some pains to tell us.
Words have to speak about that.
They would be the less words
for saying smile when they should say do.
If you ask them do what?
They turn serious quick enough, but never unlovely.
And they will tell you what to do,
if you listen, if you want that.
“Certainly good cheer has never been what’s wrong,
though solemn people mistrust it.
Against evil, between evils, lovely words are right.
How absurd it would be to spin these noises out,
so serious that we call them poems,
if they couldn’t make a person smile.
Cheer or courage is what they were all born in.
It’s what they’re trying to tell us, miming like that.
It’s native to the words,
and what they want us always to know,
even when it seems impossible to do.”
Meredith is a rare poet who addresses his reader as “friend” and means it, and we believe him: “Frankly, I’d like to make you smile.” It’s the poem’s second line and already we’re talking about a smile, a face, cheer. And there’s the phrase that started it all: “Certainly good cheer has never been what’s wrong, / though solemn people mistrust it.” Indeed, they do. For the distillate of good cheer, read Chapter XXVIII of Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ real Christmas story, which begins like this:
“As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies, did the four Pickwickians assemble on the morning of the twenty-second day of December, in the year of grace in which these, their faithfully-recorded adventures, were undertaken and accomplished. Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.”