The households of conscientious Presbyterians forty to fifty years ago, let us say, had a certain rigidity, due mainly to the starch of Puritanism—most regrettable, we are apt to think now, without thinking at the same time about its advantage; not its social or religious advantage so much as its peculiarly dramatic advantage as a background against which the undying fires of human emotion and love occasionally flamed up and warmed the children—ourselves in a manner which can never be appreciated by children continuously heated by profusion of all sorts.
If you haven’t had the asperities of successive years of abominable schools in which no concessions were made to the spirit of childhood, and of domestic arrangements which put your impishness violently in a bottle and corked it tight, then you don’t know, even to-day, what the word freedom means, because you haven’t anything much to contrast it with.
But at Christmas Puritanism burned up in emotion; and you can, if you are old enough, indorse this statement—that Puritans can be the most lovable of all people when they want to be, their reticence remains as an exquisite flavor as contrasted with the saccharine gush of the other sort.
A certain glow characterized Thanksgiving. It afforded a splendid opportunity—which was not used—for some golden sort of pageantry and some emphasis on the fact that the basic things come out of the earth and not out of banks, stores, offices, and schools. But we endured the rather cheerless service, which should properly have had a pagan touch by Bakst and Stravinsky somewhere in it, as seeing that which was invisible, namely, the turkey, cranberries, and mince pie. We kept turkey where it belongs, on an eminence, and never had it on any occasion except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The approach to Christmas was the usual crescendo, something like a rocket that bursts into multicolored lights as the climax and then falls into darkness. The darkness in our case was the cold and sullen stream of school which surrounded us. Christmas was a luxuriant island, in which magical things were done in the glow of candles and odor of fir trees. There were songs—‘carols,’ so-called—in which we took a mild interest only, because they were rather less than mildly interesting. The really good ones, the old ones, had not been discovered by Presbyterians, and so they sang, very curiously, bad new ones. There were scriptural readings, which engaged your attention in so far as they concerned the scenes around Bethlehem; for no piece of writing and no human conception can match that in its appeal to all ages between eight and eighty.
But presents were at the centre of all Christmas feeling. One can imagine a wonderful Christmas without presents, but Americans have not the art or the poetry.
Presents, therefore, above all things—presents glittering in new paint and varnish; presents in boxes packed in excelsior, which revealed themselves inch by inch; presents bulging in stockings; candy in the figures of animals, candy in cornucopias, picture-books, story-books, games, the raw stuff of play, the very matrix of indoor joy.
There was more profusion about Christmas than about any indoor experience. We had people in the church who sent things, and we had relatives who sent things, and we fared sumptuously that day, so we thought. But it would not seem so now. We never had a Christmas tree in the house, and got what we could from the Sunday-school tree. A Sunday-school Christmas tree is at its best when, at the height of its splendor, it majestically falls on the assemblage of upturned faces—as it did once, to our ecstasy. You get a Christmas tree then plus some generous action such as a boy might dream of but never have the luck to see.
The minister’s house, in common with every house fortunate enough to have children and friends and a sufficient income to allow even a slight freedom of expenditure, was charged with a sparkling electric fluid between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The business of making things or buying things for others was on, and secrecy was the word. We made things within our range, and I am afraid curdled the anticipations of too many friends with pen-wipers. We bought things of the ten-cent variety; that was about as far as personal expenditure could go. The minister and his wife both bought and made things, but never bought anything that they could make.
And here one of the curious underground rivers in this strange man came to the surface. For some weeks before Christmas he waited until we were all in bed, and then worked late into the night in a small room, making his Christmas presents. We frequently stole out into the chilly hall, and took turns peeking through the keyhole to see that strange sight, but with very unsatisfactory results.
At last, as Christmas approached, there was the smell of paint and varnish; and on Christmas Day, among all the presents, these creations of the minister’s were the really distinguished ones—gifts that had some presence and some atmosphere; in other words, art.
They were presents for boys, and consisted of locomotives and tenders, cars of various sorts, and ships. The proportions were right, the details were right, the colors were right. They were fascinating. They made bought toys look cheap and tawdry. And they were all manned by little figures cut out of wood, painted, modeled as you would model clay, in the postures suited to the employment. The engineer sat in the cab, the brakeman stood on the platforms, the captain stood on the poop looking through his glass—a fat, determined man, one and a half inches high; the sailors were aloft in the rigging, the passengers leaning on or over the rail. They had hats, hands, feet, noses; they had distinctive costume and personality.
How it was done, is a mystery. It was all a piece of magic. It had no relation to reality—to the life of a Presbyterian minister, a theologian and a disciplinarian. It seemed to indicate, even to us, in our puppy-dog stage, that something must be confining, must be restricting in a very serious manner, a character that otherwise would have been the freest, the most happy, and most companionable in the world. But it was inclosed in a crust and we were continually bewildered. It was Puritanism striding with its staff, its cloak, and its book. It was a misfortune which in some instances was tragic. And yet, if I could be a boy again, I should choose to be a boy in that house.
We had time in those days to spare. Time went slowly; the days and nights were long, even when full of intense happiness. That is a phenomenon of youth. It cannot be explained. We will, if we can, sink into old age, ‘calm as a setting constellation.’ But do not try to persuade us that we have lost nothing. We remember too well the zest with which we did things and saw things and heard things and tasted things. We remember what it was to sleep and to wake and to lie dreaming.
We remember a young Earth, Sun, Moon, and Stars, and other young people, vivid, enchanting, daring, glorious in that dazzling light, our companions in a morning world.
And if this diamond was set in the heavy ring of school and of home discipline, so much the better, for it flashed and flashes the more.