THERE is one modern improvement which would have delighted my grandmother’s heart-the more general observance of Christmas Day. Forty years ago the Episcopalians were the only religious body that decorated and opened their churches on that day, and made it, as it should be, the one day of all the year sacredly set apart for home and the little ones.
The Roman Catholics confined their celebration to an early mass, and the members of Protestant denominations in many cases held it to be safer to make their presents on New-year’s Day, and thus to avoid even the appearance of a ritualistic tendency. This was a fading relic of ancient Puritanism, but was still so marked that certain of my adult friends would think it necessary to remark that they “did not believe in Christmas,” when putting a gift into my little hands on the first day of the year. Somehow it gave me a chill, then, to. hear this formal declaration of independence of the tenderest episode in humanity’s story. I am glad to see our whole busy city gathering at the cradle of the Babe of Bethlehem, and in spite of its creed of indifferentism, paying homage to the divine spirit of the time. In the Christmas atmosphere of our streets and homes, the Christmas bustle of our shops and markets, the Christmas sunshine in all faces, the Christmas neighborliness of all hearts, and the Christmas services and sermons in all churches, I see signs of a recognition of humanity’s oneness of feelings and aims such as are vouchsafed through no other channel.
“And he took a little child and set it in the midst of them.” There comes back to me now the memory of a Christmas season passed in the military prison of the Confederates in Richmond. An officer of the Confederate guard came into the room where the Federal officers were quartered, bringing his little girl, a child of three or four years of age, with him. The sunny-haired babe was a revelation to us. Thought flashed back to desolate homes in the North, and fire-sides that waited in vain for us. There was not a dry eye in the room, I think, and yet those ragged, unkempt men had nothing but smiles ,for the little one, and crowded around her with gifts of trinkets they had carved during their long hours of leisure. The babe did not know that she was a preacher, and her congregation did not realize, then at least, the fulfilment of a prophecy that a little child should lead them. Set in the midst of them, she did lead them a step nearer heaven. ” Yes,” said my grandmother, when I told her of this, and the tears were flowing freely as she tried to fix a grim smile upon. her gentle face-” yes, Felix, and I suppose you stood there and stared, too, and made a gumpey of your-self.” Precisely what kind of animal or apparition a ” gumpey ” was I have never been able to deter-mine, but it was rather a favorite synonyme with our elders for something horrible and awkward in the extreme.
Let us have no mistakes to start with. We children had a good time on Christmas Day. That was our contract, and we carried it out. Let me look back as far as I can, and see how a school-boy prospered at the hands of St. Nicholas. And right here let me say that even as late as the year of which I speak, some of the stanch old Dutch families celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas on his natal day and gave their Santa-Claus gifts nearly three weeks before Christmas-even at the last yielding reluctantly to the English innovation that transferred the traditions of the old city’s patron saint to the holiday which England’s Church most honored.
A light snow was falling when I ran out of our house in St. John’s Park, upon Christmas Eve, on my way to an early celebration of the holiday at Mr. Greenough’s school in Franklin Street. The sedate New England pedagogue was a rigid Presbyterian, but it was understood that he relaxed for this once on account of his Episcopalian scholars. We had recitations and dialogues, followed by lemonade and cake, and were home before nine o’clock. Master Felix Oldboy distinguished himself on this occasion by reciting “The Night Before Christmas,” which at that time was newly written. I remember nothing more vividly than my lonesome walk home on this Christmas Eve. It was only nine o’clock, but nobody was abroad. I crept through the drifting snow, past the old French Church on Franklin Street, past the great Dutch Church, past the tall flag-staff at Franklin Street and West Broadway- ah, what a long way it seemed then to my little feet, and how short a distance now !-and up through Varick, by quiet houses that showed glimpses of light within, but whose blinds were decorously closed. It seemed to me, I remember, as if everybody had gone to bed, until I came to the Park, and there, through the long, thin swirls of snow, through the swaying, feathered crests of the trees, I saw the flashes of light from many a window, showing that our near neighbors at any rate were oblivious of all ancient edicts against the royal claims of mince-pie, egg-nogg, and Santa Claus.
At our house we always made much of Christmas Eve. When I had entered and removed my cap and woollen comforter (the boy of that day never wore an overcoat), I found the parlors radiant with festoons of evergreens and innumerable candles, and filled with visitors. To my horror, I was almost immediately stood up before them and made to recite my ” piece ” –for there was then no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or to their audiences. But there was fun enough afterwards to make up for this-two long hours of wild dissipation followed. The elder people played whist (and they did it savagely, too, at intervals), and we children had our games of “pillows and keys,” ” stage-coach,” and ” going to Jerusalem,” with plenty of forfeits and exquisite schemes for their redemption. The big people had cake and punch between whiles; we juniors had cake and mild egg-nogg. Shall I ever forget that night? It was then that for the first time I discovered that I was the possessor of a heart, only to find that I had made it over indissolubly to a lovely being of seven summers, who wore pigtails and pantalets, and whose father got awfully cross over whist, and lived in Pike Street. Indeed, she was bewitching, and a most arrant little flirt withal. It was at her knees I threw the pillow every time it came to me, and I kissed her in a mad whirl of de-light, while she would coolly cross over to a squint-eyed rival of mine and smile sweetly as he bent down to kiss her. But I had the advantage of knowing the locality. So I led her artfully away, and in the back entry I had the satisfaction of exchanging with her a vow of eternal fidelity. The other children shouted at us in chorus, but we did not mind it. We were prepared for persecution. It was all that I could do to tear myself away from her at last. Her father must have guessed my anguish, for he roared out to me at the door: ” Kiss her, Felix, my boy; kiss Anna for her Christmas.” Blushing, I obeyed. The tender Anna pressed a moist and sticky sugar-plum into my hand at parting. I kept it for a whole week in my pocket. It was black when my grandmother, on a weekly voyage of investigation of my pockets, found it and threw it away.
Do you suppose these people walked home through the storm? Not a bit of it. One of the old stage sleighs, with four horses, was provided for them, and when it drove away from the door thirty human souls with their accompanying bodies were packed into it for freight. They sang a lusty Christmas carol as they went ; and the watchman of the period, yclept a leather-head, only smiled as they swept by, and remarked to himself that they were having a good time. They did have a good time. It took little to amuse them, and their enjoyment was thorough. To them the disease ennui was unknown. They even found it fun at odd times to embark in a Kipp & Brown sleigh and ride up to Chelsea and back. As for the boy part of that generation, we could have ridden forever in those great schooners of the streets. Six, eight, or ten horses drew the sleighs, and sometimes they were so crowded inside and out that not a fly could have found resting-place there. How they whirled through the drifts, flew over ice, careened on the hillocks where the side-walks had emptied their burdens of snow, and with shriek and song and shout from the inmates dashed by the smiling and amused lines of pedestrians. But they never escaped delicate attentions from the boys who had no sixpences with which to purchase a ride. These would gather at the corners, collect heaps of snow-balls, and then open fire upon the excursionists. It was of no avail to expostulate. The police never interfered with any legitimate fun. All that could be done was liter-ally to bow before the onset, and run the gantlet as resignedly as possible. Ah me! it is a delight to re-call these wild excursions through Canal Street, up Hudson, beyond the rural homes of old Greenwich Village, out among the open streets and surviving farm-houses of the hamlet of Chelsea. It was only a sixpenny ride, this moonlight dash beside the Hudson, but it had an element of romance in it which sets my blood tingling as I think of it. I wonder if the girl who sat beside me is still living? Many and many an old boy (it would be irreverent to speak of old girls, wouldn’t it ?) will feel the sluggish heart-beat quicken as he reads this paragraph, and will drop the paper, close his eyes, lean back, and think. And those who watch his smile will see again the likeness of the urchin of fifty years ago.
It was a religious observance with my sisters and me to select carefully the largest stockings owned in the family and to tack them securely, at an early hour in the evening, to the old-fashioned wooden mantel-piece in the basement. This was a ceremony we in-trusted to no hands but our own. My little sisters-I can scarcely see them now as I look back through the mist of tears-our little sisters, I should say, for this night I carry with me, I am sure, the tender memories of many an old boy other than he who writes this passage-they cannot be forgotten. It was only yesterday that in the quaint attire of their girlhood they trundled their hoops around the park and flung back their curls to the autumn winds-only yesterday we drew them to school on our sleds, and defended them chivalrously against the cannonade of snow-balls -only yesterday, it seems, and yet they have been dust and ashes for more than thirty years. To-night they come back to revisit us-your sisters and mine, of whom the world says, ” Let me see ; they died young, did they not?” But we know better; we know they never died at all, for our heart in its love keeps them immortal.
At early daybreak we three, my sisters and I, darted down the stairs in swift silence to the basement. We did not find enough in the stockings to content a child of to-day, but we were, nevertheless, as happy as the children of a king. The fact is that the child of to-day has ceased to be appreciative. Toys have become so many and expensive, juvenile literature has grown so extensive and luxurious, and all the appliances for the coddling of the young have so multiplied, that everything is taken as a matter of course by the youthful constituent. But the fathers and grandsires of the existing race of small Sybarites were much more circumscribed. Most of the toys of their day were rude and cheap, and many of them, I am bound to admit, undeniably homely. These primitive animals, dolls, soldiers, and arks were voted ” plenty good enough to be all broken to pieces in a day or two.” But we were happy in their possession. No one thought of finding fault with the want of expression or natural hair in a doll, or the fact that an animal’s legs were cut bias, or a soldier had no eyes. I verily believe that if I had been dropped suddenly into one of the huge toy marts of to-day, I should have said to myself that dear old Aladdin had lent me his lamp, and I had unconsciously been rubbing it. As for candies, our parents went down to the candy-store of R. L. & A. Stuart, at the corner of Chambers and Hudson streets (where I have stood on the sidewalk by the hour and watched the progress of candy manufacture in the basement), bought us each a horn of sugar-plums, with an old-fashioned picture on it, and broken candy to an amount limited only by the size of our stockings. This was wholesome and healthful, as were the apples and oranges that were used as makeweights to fill heel and toe of the stocking, and give it the proper bulge.
I am sure the children of to-day do not appreciate all that has been done for them in literature during the past thirty years. There was but one weekly pa-per published then for the little ones-the Youths’ Companion, printed at Boston, and one magazine, published by old Tommy Stanford, on lower Broadway-both of them about as dreary in point of interest as could well be imagined. Now every book-firm in our leading cities is putting its best work into books and periodicals for children, and our most brilliant writers are catering to their tastes. Do the boys who were my contemporaries remember the literary chaff that was fed to us? There were the soul-thrilling and mirth-provoking adventures of Sandford and Merton, with that irredeemable prig, Mr. Tutor Barlow, and his endless object-lessons. It was a highly moral book, also insufferably dull, and every mischievous boy had at least six copies of it presented to him in a lifetime. From the Sunday-school library of St. John’s Chapel I once drew the blood-curdling account of the great plague in London, which Mr. Daniel Defoe wrote entirely from his own imagination, but which I devoutly believed to be true. It was so unspeakably horrible that it gave me a succession of nightmares for a week. A history of Trinity Church, the life of an early bishop, a record of frontier missionary work in Ontario County, the exhilarating hymns of Dr. Watts, a life of Daniel, and a Boys’ Own Book were gifts made to me from time to time, with others so dreary that I have been glad to forget their titles. But I made it up in other ways. Surreptitiously I formed acquaintance with Master Humphrey and Little Nell; enjoyed a rainy afternoon with Quilp in his summer-house, listened to Dick Swiveller as he played upon his flute, and laughed at the antics of Sam Weller; felt my heart beat high when Ivanhoe rode into the lists, and chuckled, as an incipient Latinist had a right to do, at the scholastic conceits of that prince of adventurers, Major Dugald Dalgetty. These books I would read late at night by the fire in the back parlor, and when detected, and the craving for stronger mental food admitted, I was introduced at the age of twelve to the fellowship of Robinson Crusoe, the delights of the “Arabian Nights,” and the secrets of Charles Dickens’s ” Christmas Carol.” Dear old Robinson Crusoe! I was sorry when I learned that he was but a creation of Defoe’s brain-for I had read his story when lying hidden under the bushes of St. John’s Park, and had crept out to search there for the strange footprint in the sand.
There is one feature of the Christmas season which I shall never cease to miss, and whose loss I shall al-ways deplore. In the younger and more primitive days of the city the ladies of the various parishes took upon them the task of preparing the decorations for the churches. There were no wreaths or stars or cross-es to be had in the markets, but the evergreens were ordered in bulk from the country. Huge hemlock-trees, great bushes of laurel, masses of ground-pine, cedar and pine branches-all were dumped in one heterogeneous heap in the Sunday-school rooms, and the deft fingers of the ladies were torn and blackened in moulding the pile into shapes of beauty. But there were three weeks of solid enjoyment in it. We children put the greens into bunches and handed them to our elders. Sometimes it was a quiet young gentle-man whose heart was woven into the wreath the maid-en was weaving. Sometimes it was a buxom widow who kept half a dozen gentlemen and twenty children at work. I remember that, small as we were, we had our favorite taskmasters, and carefully avoided sundry dictatorial old maids. As I grew older, I discovered that it was almost as pleasant working among the Christmas greens as battling for favors under the mistletoe. Besides, there was a sublime satisfaction in looking up from the family pew, during a prosy sermon, and watching a wreath certain fair fingers had woven. What, in comparison with such a treasure, does the purchased decoration signify? Indeed, the dressing of a church for Christmas has become a lost art. The sexton attends to it now. He buys a few trees, crosses, and wreaths, and sticks them here or there as his fancy dictates. But in the dear old days of lang sync we elaborated a plan months beforehand, and made the sanctuary a bower of Christmas life and glory-creating in those plain, old-fashioned interiors a ” beauty of holiness.”