Our American Holidays - Christmas/A Merry Christmas to You

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My own boyhood was spent in a delightful home on one of the most beautiful farms in Western New York — an experience that any city-bred boy might envy. We had no religious festivals except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, and the latter was especially welcome, not only on account of the good fare but its good gifts. Christmas was sacred to Santa Claus, the patron saint of good boys and girls. We counted the days until its arrival. If the night before the longed-for festival was one of eager expectation in all our houses, it was a sad time in all barn-yards and turkey-coops and chicken-roosts; for the slaughter was terrible, and the cry of the feathered tribes was like "the mourning of Hadadrimmon." As to our experiences within doors, they are portrayed in Dr. Clement C. Moore's immortal lines, "The Night Before Christmas," which is probably the most popular poem for children ever penned in America. As the visits of Santa Claus in the night could only be through the chimney, we hung our stockings where they would be in full sight. Three score and ten years ago such modern contrivances as steam pipes, and those unpoetical holes in the floor called "hot-air registers," were as entirely unknown in our rural regions as gas-burners or telephones. We had a genuine fire-place in our kitchen, big enough to contain an enormous back-log, and broad enough for eight or ten people to form "a circle wide" before it and enjoy the genial warmth.

The last process before going to bed was to suspend our stockings in the chimney jambs; and then we dreamed of Santa Claus, or if we awoke in the night, we listened for the jingling of his sleigh-bells. At the peep of day we were aroused by the voice of my good grandfather, who planted himself in the stairway and shouted in a stentorian tone, "I wish you all a Merry Christmas!" The contest was as to who should give the salutation first, and the old gentleman determined to get the start of us by sounding his greeting to the family before we were out of our rooms. Then came a race for the chimney corner; all the stockings came down quicker than they had gone up. What could not be contained in them was disposed upon the mantelpiece, or elsewhere. I remember that I once received an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels; and our colored cook told me that she awoke in the night and, peeping into the kitchen, actually saw the veritable old visitor light a candle and sit down at the table and write it! I believed it all as implicitly as I believed the Ten Commandments, or the story of David and Goliath. Happy days of childish credulity, when fact and fiction were swallowed alike without a misgiving! During my long life I have seen many a day-dream and many an air-castle go the way of Santa Claus and the wonderful "Lamp of Aladdin."

In after years, when I became a parent, my beloved wife and I, determined to make the Christmastide one of the golden days of the twelve months. In mid-winter, when all outside vegetation was bleak and bare, the Christmas-tree in our parlor bloomed in many-colored beauty and bounty. When the tiny candles were all lighted the children and our domestics gathered round it and one of the youngsters rehearsed some pretty juvenile effusion; as "they that had found great spoil." After the happy harvesting of the magic tree in my own home, it was my custom to spend the afternoon or evening in some mission-school and to watch the sparkling eyes of several hundreds of children while a huge Christmas-tree shed down its bounties. Fifty years ago, when the degradation and miseries of the "Five-Points" were first invaded by pioneer philanthropy, it was a thrilling sight to behold the denizens of the slums and their children as they flocked into Mr. Pease's new "House of Industry" and the "Brewery Mission" building. The angelic host over the hills of Bethlehem did not make a more welcome revelation to them "who had sat in darkness and the shadow of death." In these days the squalid regions of our great cities are being explored and improved by various methods of systematic beneficence. "Christian Settlements" are established; Bureaus of Charity are formed and Associations for the relief of the poor are organized. A noble work; but, after all, the most effective "bureau" is one that, in a water-proof and a stout pair of shoes, sallies off on a wintry night to some abode of poverty with not only supplies for suffering bodies, but kind words of sympathy for lonesome hearts. A dollar from a warm hand with a warm word is worth two dollars sent by mail or by a messenger-boy. The secret of power in doing good is personal contact. Our incarnate "Elder Brother" went in person to the sick chamber. He anointed with His own hand the eyes of the blind man and He touched the loathsome leper into health. The portentous chasm between wealth and poverty must be bridged by a span of personal kindness over which the footsteps must turn in only one di rection. The personal contact of self sacrificing benevolence with darkness, filth and misery — that is the only remedy. Heart must touch heart. Benevolence also cannot be confined to calendars. Those good people will exhibit the most of the spirit of our Blessed Master who practice Christmas-giving and cheerful, unselfish and zealous Christmas-living through all the circling year.

  1. By permission of the publishers, Baker & Taylor Company.