In “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” (Essays of Elia, 1823), Charles Lamb credits “M.” with providing the “Chinese manuscript” he cites in that savory essay. Lamb’s source was his friend Thomas Manning (1772-1840), to whom the essayist addressed some of his funniest, most thoughtful letters. Manning was a pioneering Chinese scholar and explorer, and the first European to visit Lhasa, the holy city of Tibet, and meet the Dalai Lama. He interviewed Napoleon on St. Helena, making him an early-nineteenth-century hybrid of Eric Newby and Oriana Fallaci. After twelve years in Asia, Manning returned to England for good at age forty-five.
Imagine being an Englishman in Canton one hundred ninety-five years ago, in the year of Waterloo. Your hosts speak little or no English. Though strong-minded and resourceful, you’re homesick for the comforts of the familiar and you receive a letter from your friend Charles Lamb, written Dec. 25, 1815:
“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, homestalled 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. I feel, I feel my bowels refreshed with the holy tide; my zeal is great against the unedified heathen. Down with the Pagodas; down with the idols,--Ching-chong-fo and his foolish priesthood! Come out of Babylon, oh my friend, for her time is come, and the child that is native, and the Proselyte of her gates, shall kindle and smoke together! And in sober sense what makes you so long from among us, Manning? You must not expect to see the same England again which you left.”
Manning survived his friend Lamb by six years. He assisted others in translating works from the Chinese, and drafted a report on the consumption of tea in Bhutan, Tibet and Tartary. He left no written account of his adventures and bequeathed his library of Chinese books, said to be the largest in Europe at the time, to the Royal Asiatic Society. We remember him as the recipient of Lamb’s wonderful letters, some of the best in the language.
Whether you dine today on turkey or “withered Chinese bantam” (or roast pork), whether your halls are decked with holly or dried tea leaves -- no matter. Readers of Anecdotal Evidence, have a merry Christmas, be a friend as Lamb was a friend to Manning and pause to “authenticate the cheerful mystery.”