Thursday, December 24, 2009

`That Unwassailing Crew'

“Karl came to see us for Christmas. He brought his friend Pierre and for my aunt a flower in a pot, and for me? Now what do you think sweet Karl brought his Pompey, on Christmas day, on Christmas day, on Christmas day in the morning? He brought Pompey, chaps, a Translation of Faust in Two Volumes.”

I hope you find this passage from Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper as amusing as I do. Throughout the novel Smith skirts but never swan-dives into an irritating Slough of Whimsy. Rather, Novel is a minor miracle of comic timing, indirection and discursiveness. The passage quoted (which digresses wonderfully into an anatomy of the German soul, circa 1935) also represents the tradition of gently, lovingly debunking Christmas, contra Dickens. Here’s another (pre-Dickens) example, from a letter Charles Lamb wrote to his friend Bernard Barton in December 1826:

“Old Christmas [that is Father Christmas, or Santa Claus] is a-coming, to the confusion of Puritans, Muggletonians, Anabaptists, Quakers, and that unwassailing crew.”

And to his friend Thomas Manning in China, an early scholar of that culture and the first Englishman to enter Lhasa, the holy city of Tibet, Lamb writes:

“Dear old Friend and absentee, This is Christmas Day 1815 with us; what it may be with you I don't know, the 12th of June next year perhaps; and if it should be the consecrated season with you, I don't see how you can keep it. You have no turkeys; you would not desecrate the festival by offering up a withered Chinese bantam, instead of the savoury grand Norfolcian holocaust, that smokes all around my nostrils at this moment from a thousand firesides. Then what puddings have you? Where will you get holly to stick in your churches, or churches to stick your dried tea-leaves (that must be the substitute) in? What memorials you can have of the holy time, I see not. A chopped missionary or two may keep up the thin idea of Lent and the wilderness ; but what standing evidence have you of the Nativity? Tis our rosy-cheeked, home-stalled divines, whose faces shine to the tune of `Unto us a child was born,’ faces fragrant with the mince-pies of half a century, that alone can authenticate the cheerful mystery.”

All day this season I listen to the less-than-reverent parodies of “Jingle Bells” and “Joy to the World” performed by my younger sons, ages 6 and 9. Like Smith and Lamb they love Christmas enough to poke fun at its observance and will never be a part of “that unwassailing crew.”

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