After so long an absence
At last we meet again:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain?
The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the Prophet’s two or three berries
In the top of the uttermost bough.
We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!
We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.
We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.
And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.
"The Meeting” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public Domain. (buy now)
Today is Christmas Day. Many of our Christmas traditions here in America came to us from England — specifically, Victorian England of the 19th century. In fact, there are some who credit Charles Dickens with inventing the holiday, at least as we know it today.
In early 19th-century Britain, rural workers were moving to the cities in droves. They left behind the Christmas traditions of their home regions, but they didn’t really adopt the practices of city dwellers, either. The holiday was slowly waning, and by mid-century, middle-aged Britons had begun to feel nostalgic for the holidays of their youth, even as they adapted to new customs like the Christmas tree, a tradition imported by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert. The American writer Washington Irving spent time in England and fell in love with some of the old Christmas traditions that were fading away. He believed — and Charles Dickens later agreed — that a revival of old Christmas traditions would promote social harmony.
But by the mid-19th century, few could afford to take off “the twelve days of Christmas” to celebrate the season, as they once had. Conditions for industrial workers and miners were very bad, and Dickens — who had himself worked in a blacking factory as a boy — became determined to “strike a sledgehammer blow” for the poor. He also thought a great deal about the Christmas traditions of his father’s boyhood in the country: games, dancing, mulled wine, Christmas pudding, and a fat roasted goose. Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol contains both of these elements — an appeal to care for the less fortunate as an act of Christian charity, and a celebration of that cozy country Christmas that Dickens imagined so fondly. The story was an instant success, and Dickens found himself obligated to churn out a new Christmas story on a regular basis for many years. He grumbled, but he really did love the holiday. As his son later remembered, Christmas was, for Dickens, “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on [...] And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”
It was on this day in 1956 that novelist Harper Lee (books by this author) spent Christmas in New York City with friends, and received a gift that changed her life. In 1949, Lee had dropped out of a law program at the University of Alabama and moved to New York City, the home of her childhood friend Truman Capote. Capote had just published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) — which featured a character based on Lee, and he was a literary star. In New York, Lee found a job as a ticket agent at an airline. For seven years, she wrote on the weekends, but she never published anything.
She rarely got time off from work, so she wasn’t able to get home to Alabama for Christmas. That Christmas of 1956, she was homesick. Lee wrote: “What I really missed was a memory, an old memory of people long since gone, of my grandparents’ house bursting with cousins, smilax, and holly. I missed the sound of hunting boots, the sudden open-door gusts of chilly air that cut through the aroma of pine needles and oyster dressing. I missed my brother’s night-before-Christmas mask of rectitude and my father’s bumblebee bass humming ‘Joy to the World.’”
Lee spent that Christmas, like many others, with her closest friends in the city: a couple named Michael and Joy Brown, whom she had met through Capote, and their two sons. Michael Brown was paid by companies to write promotional “industrial musicals,” like “Wonderful World of Chemistry” for DuPont, which was performed 17,000 times. In the fall of 1956, he had written a successful industrial show for Esquire magazine, and he was feeling rich.
Lee and the Browns had a tradition of trying to exchange the best Christmas gifts for the least amount of money, and that year Lee’s present for Michael Brown was a portrait of an 18th-century Anglican writer and cleric. It cost her 35 cents. Lee couldn’t hide her disappointment when everyone had opened their gifts and there were none for her. The Browns told her to look in the tree, where she found an envelope addressed to her. Inside, it said: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
Lee thought it was a joke, and when she finally realized that it wasn’t, she protested, but the Browns insisted — they were feeling financially comfortable, and they thought she was talented and deserved a chance to write full-time. When she said that it was too big of a risk for them, Michael replied: “No, honey. It’s not a risk. It’s a sure thing.” She wrote: “I went to the window, stunned by the day’s miracle. Christmas trees blurred softly across the street, and firelight made the children’s shadows dance on the wall beside me. A full, fair chance for a new life. Not given me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love. Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”
She went to work immediately, and just three weeks later she brought 49 pages of a new novel called Go Set a Watchman to an agent. By the end of February, she had finished the draft. Her agents suggested some edits, and by October of 1957 the manuscript was sent off to a publishing company without a title. The publishers liked it but thought it needed major revisions — most significantly, they thought that Lee should focus on the childhood, not the adulthood, of the novel’s narrator, Scout Finch. Lee spent two years reworking the novel, and came up with a new title: To Kill A Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) went on to sell more than 30 million copies and become one of the most beloved books in American literature.
Lee didn’t release another book until earlier this year, when Go Set a Watchman (2015) was published. The book has caused a huge controversy, with some people claiming that Go Set a Watchman is an important newly discovered novel, and others criticizing it as a mediocre first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that should never have been published.
Today is the day St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene, in Greccio, Italy (1223). A Nativity scene, or crèche, is the special exhibition of objects that represent the story of the birth of Christ. Nativity scenes can be assembled using model figurines, animals, and human reenactment.
St. Francis was a Roman Catholic friar and preacher. He’d recently completed a trip to the Holy Land. Inspired by his visit to Jesus’s traditional birthplace, he wanted to create something to honor the birth of Christ that the villagers of Greccio could take part in. At that time, Mass was in Latin, which only the clergy understood, so during the Middle Ages, “Mystery” and “Miracle” plays were created as ways to teach Scripture to laypeople. They were popular and educational, and Francis thought he could use that idea to entertain the villagers of Greccio.
He received the blessing of Pope Honorius II, gathered an ass and a donkey, found some villagers to play Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, and staged the whole thing in a cave outside Greccio. He drew quite a crowd and preached about the “babe of Bethlehem.” His living Nativity was such a hit that the hay he used as a crib for baby Jesus miraculously acquired the power to cure cattle diseases and various pestilences.
Such pantomimes quickly became popular. Within 100 years, every church was expected to have some sort of Nativity scene at Christmastime.