Christmas: Then and Now

Copyright restrictions prevent Distributed Proofreaders from working with recent publications so, by the very nature of what we do, we constantly look back towards the past and compare our present circumstances with reports of similar experiences from times gone by.

Now that the Christmas season is upon us, I wonder if the Christmas spirit has been the same in past times, if people a hundred and fifty years ago had a similar spirit or performed similar practices in their Christmas festivities as we do today.

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This came to my mind when post-processing Christmas Stories from French and Spanish Writers, by Antoinette Ogden, an anthology published originally in Chicago, in 1892, containing nine French and six Spanish tales, translated into English, and written several decades earlier. In these fifteen stories I found features that were similar to, and others that were a bit different from, our present way of celebrating Christmas.

Religious practices, Catholicism being the main religion of both France and Spain, are evident in most of these tales. Where religion is not present, Christmas appears more like a social event. In the French tale “I Take Supper with My Wife,” by Gustave Droz, the central point is how charming it is to have a quiet Christmas dinner at home, when it was expected to be had outside in a social gathering. And in the delightful story of Alphonse Daudet, “The Three Low Masses,” the crux is the clash between religious observance and gluttony.

In fact, Christmas is a traditional time for gluttony. Food is present in most of the French tales, but not in the Spanish ones, which usually depict less affluent people. Gift giving is not central in any tale, and there are many in which the idea of gift giving is totally absent (what a difference from the consumerism of our own times!). Christmas trees are not to be found, except very tangentially in a Spanish tale when describing the habits of an upper-class family. Christmas mangers are far more common, and even the yule log is to be found in the very title of the French tale “The Yule Log,” by Jules Simon, and also mentioned in the Provençal form of cacho fio, in Daudet’s sad tale, “Salvette and Bernadou.”

One thing that surprised me is the deep dramatic content in tales that are expected to be gentle, full of optimism, and suitable for children. In half of the tales of this collection, death is present, usually at the end. But in Benito Pérez Galdós’s “The Mule and the Ox,” it is present at the very beginning, most of the tale happening around a child’s coffin. Nevertheless it is a gentle story, where fantasy and dream, the more child-like properties of a tale, do soften and brighten the raw sadness of the scene.

Fantasy and dream play a principal part in many of the other stories too. “A Christmas Supper in the Marais,” by Daudet, is no more than a dream of what a Christmas Eve party would have been in pre-Revolution times among the French nobility. Star characters in “A Tragedy,” by Antonio Maré, and “The Princess and the Ragamuffin,” by Galdós, feature figurines and puppets interacting with humans. And the innards of heaven and hell make their appearance as a result of the fiasco in “The Three Low Masses.”

In all these stories Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day, just as in present times. Christmas Eve is pictured as a warm familiar gathering for those in deprived classes, evolving into a more social and public gathering when we move to an upscale world. This is the central point of “The Poet’s Christmas Eve” by the Spanish author Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, where the poet, unwilling to go to the conventional party he is expected to attend, takes refuge in a café where he reflects, to the lyrics of a seasonal carol, on the differences between his childhood and his present adult life.

Being Spanish myself, I was amused to find that the very same carol I used to sing at Christmas when I was a child was in use almost two centuries earlier. In reading the English translation I was able to recall, and hum, the Spanish words:

To-night is Christmas eve;
To-morrow is Christmas day.
Maria, fetch the jug of wine;
Let’s be merry while we may.

Esta noche es Nochebuena
y mañana Navidad,
dame la bota, María,
que me voy a emborrachar.

and:

Christmas comes,
Christmas goes;
But soon we all shall be of those
Who come back — never!

La Nochebuena se viene,
la Nochebuena se va,
y nosotros nos iremos
y no volveremos más.

In my early years, we sang this last stanza with other children in the street as a plea for some coins. The meaning was, “Tip us and we won’t come back again,” that is, we won’t annoy you any more, but the poet makes a very different reading of these last verses:

But soon we all shall be of those
Who come back — never!

Horrible thought! Cruel sentence, the definite meaning of which was like a summons to me,—death beckoning me from the shadows of the future. Before my imagination a thousand Christmas Eves filed by, a thousand hearths were extinguished, a thousand families that had supped together ceased to exist,—other children, other joys, other songs, lost forever; the loves of my grandparents, their antiquated mode of dress, their remote youth, the memories thereof that crowded upon them; my parents’ childhood, the first Christmas celebration in our home, all the happiness that had preceded me! Then I could imagine, I could foresee, a thousand more Christmas Eves recurring periodically and robbing us of our life and hope,—future joys in which we should not all take part together, my brothers scattered over the earth, my parents naturally dying before us, the twentieth century following upon the nineteenth!

How depressing! However, if we use Christmas time to reflect on our own lives, to remember the past, to foresee what is to come, especially if it is not good or amiable, when the future comes it may find us prepared, aware and resolute.

Considered globally, the Christmas festivities in these stories are not so different from ours, even if there are some differences in the detail. What these stories show is that they are not Christmas tales for children, but for grown-ups. That they are not, most of them, tales to be read to the family around a Christmas tree or a Christmas manger, but literary works to be savoured alone; tales not only to be enjoyed but to be reflected upon.

The main components of the Christmas spirit — hope, good will, forgiveness, fair-play with men and God, attention to the weak and the poor, generosity and unselfishness — are indeed present as a central theme. Christmas is a time of year to show the best of ourselves. It was already so in the 19th century. It should be so in the 21st century.

My best wishes for a merry (and thoughtful) Christmas to all members of Distributed Proofreaders.

rpajares (with thanks to jjz for overseeing my English)

4 Responses to Christmas: Then and Now

  1. Ahhh! Gentle comment reader, The title of Then and Now threw me a mite as a book with that title by Robert Vaughn has been post to the library recently. Vaughn’s book tells of a time when Montana development was beginning, ~1864 to 1900. It includes stories of the gold rush and Indians and cowboys and the beginnings of modern civilization. The book is particularly interesting to me, as it is concerned with my home town area and where I live now.
    quentin

  2. David Edwards says:

    In my work of Project Manager I have seen a lot of the customs for Christmas and I agree there is a lot of sadder tales. In general I have come to the impression for many Christmas is a celebration of Life and Death, or perhaps the early “Thanksgiving” before the American custom that we have now. It is a time to celebrate about what you ‘have’ and how you have also helped others that don’t ‘have’. Charity has always been a major subject for the season. Gifts were given to those that needed or as a special item that one would not normally buy for themselves.

    Easter seems to be more on the Life of Jesus than Christmas.

    • David Edwards says:

      I forgot I was going to define my use of ‘have’.

      Have, are the things that are needed to enjoy life. Food, security, a home, etc.

  3. Thank you for this article. The first two sentences of the second stanza cited appear in a 1887 novel bij Jose Rizal, Noli me tangere. Good to know some context of these verses… (and which meaning should I prefer, the dark one by the English translator, or the lighter one you indicate?)

    La Nochebuena se viene,
    la Nochebuena se va,
    y nosotros nos iremos
    y no volveremos más.

    see this in context: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/47584/47584-h/47584-h.htm#pb407

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