The Literary Maiden

A compendium of obscure 19th century writing.

Tag: Christmas

“The Christmas Gathering” by Mrs. Joseph Clay Neal (Alice B. Neal)

The Christmas Gathering
By Mrs. J. C. Neal (Alice B. Neal, née Bradley)
From Godey’s Lady’s Book, December, 1849, pp. 440-441

     The people of New England rejoice in their “Thanksgiving;” but we of the Middle States make Christmas the holiday of the year, the anniversary on which long-separated friends meet once again, and families gather together to renew the bond of sympathy by social intercourse.
     They have gone out from the household one by one. The boy, who once hailed this merry morning by shouts and glad wishes, that roused the sleepers from their pleasant dreams, wakes not to hear his own little ones clamoring for a kiss, in return for a like salutation.
     His favorite sister has arranged her own Christmas Tree beneath another roof, and for children that smile with soft, blue eyes, so like her own; and the youngest, the pet, the darling of all, has waited until now to
         “Lay aside her maiden gladness,
         For a name and for a ring.”
     And on Christmas morn, memories will intrude of those who return no more. We should not say intrude, for a tender and softened recollection is ever present, of the dear ones who shared with us the blessings of childhood, who slept with arms entwined by ours, though now, alas, covered by the cold clod of the valley! No, it is not an intrusion, when these gentle spirits return, voiceless and viewless, with a presence felt in our inmost souls. Their seat by the fireside may be filled by another; but in our hearts we can still “keep a niche to hold our idols.”
     Why should such thoughts—for they are mournful, though sweet—rise up when we speak of this merry holiday? There is nothing of sadness, save this, in the gathering of children and children’s children in the old home. No seariness is the mellow light that glows through the cheerful room, that flashes outward from the ample hickory fire, or streams in subdued lustre upon broad mirrors and the gorgeous carpet, from the lofty chandelier. Christmas evergreens, with their shining berries, are wreathed about the picture-frames, and branches of fir loop back the heavy curtains. There sits the grandsire, with the child of his favorite daughter clasped to his heart, even as she had nestled in her babyhood; and the last namesake of his wife has crept to the good lad’s knee, with the confidence of an assured favorite.
     “Bless the child!” says the good dame to the mother, who is complacently listening to the praises of another juvenile member of the group. She can scarce believe that her own Mary is now the sedate, matronly woman, who counsels her young married sister with sage experiences in “teething” and the “whooping cough.” But so it is; and Annie has also little ones growing up beside her, who cling about her neck, or stand quietly at her side, with the shy, half timid air, that grandmamma can so well remember in their mother.
     And no one heeds the lovers. They are as much alone as though only their low whisper broke the silence of the room. And Lillian blushes and looks down, while those fond words are poured into her ear. She is thinking that, when another Christmas arrives, she will be among those who “come home” for its festivities. It is not a sorrowful thought—oh no!—but her heart flutters when she thinks of the bridal veil and the marriage service, and she heartily wishes it were all over.
     Her cousin Marie has also her own reveries, there close to grandpapa’s easy-chair, her favorite station. She knows she is not beautiful, and is less attractive than any of those by whom she is surrounded. But she is young and hopeful, and she is wondering if any one will—can love her well enough to overlook her lack of beauty, and cherish her for the earnest nature hidden under this plain exterior. Ay, dream on, maiden, for the meek and quiet spirit which cheers the lonely hours of old age so unselfishly, is an ornament outshining many graces, and sooner or later it shall have its reward. The orphan shall find a new home, and be loved for herself alone.
     Some one has said: “Christmas may well be the holiday of children, for it is the anniversary of that blessed day when our Lord became as one of them.” Little Alice has heard this, and as she basks in the firelight, with the kitten in her arms, her thoughts are far away from the pet she is caressing, or the gambols of old pussy at her feet. She has been trying to recall all that Aunt Lillian has said about Christmas this morning, and the beautiful tales she read from the large, old-fashioned Bible, with those curious pictures. It is a great thing for the little ones when they are permitted to look into that family relic, where their own birthday is recorded below that of their parents. “How beautiful it must have been,” thinks Alice, softly, “to look up into the sky and see all those angels, who came to tell that our Saviour was born! Oh, how sweetly they must have sun; like Aunt Lillian! I think she must be an angel, sometimes. And then our Saviour was laid in a manger, when my little brother has such a beautiful cradle, with white pillows instead of the hay. I wonder why he was not rich, when he might have been with wishing it!”
     Dear child, she will learn as she grows older, the lesson of our Master’s humility, and that he was the friend and the companion of the lowliest. And perhaps this is the reason why Christian people, on whom heaven has showered the gifts of fortune, feel a deeper sympathy, when this happy morning arrives, for the sufferings of those who “do lack, and suffer hunger,” for the wanderer and the homeless, who, like Him, “have not where to lay their heads.” It may be the remembrance of His poverty that opens their hearts to devise liberal things, to clothe the shivering little ones that have almost lost the image of His blessed childhood in the want and squalidness by which they are surrounded; to comfort the desolate mother who, like Mary of Bethlehem, watches over a new-born babe—though still unlike, inasmuch as she has no joyful hope, no blessed anticipations.
     Ah, yes, it must be this; and those who chide the celebration of this high Christian festival, or pass its social hours without a thought abstracted from the dull routine of business toil, have never felt their hearts beat high with the glow of gratitude and benevolence which such contemplations bring. They gather up the wealth of this world, but lose its keenest enjoyments; and while they forbear to recognize the coming of our Master as a little child, they are likewise in danger of forgetting, while the season brings it home forcibly to other hearts, that He has said, “The poor ye have always with you.”

“The Christmas of 1888” by John Greenleaf Whittier

The Christmas of 1888
John Greenleaf Whittier

Low in the east, against a white, cold dawn,
The black-lined silhouette of the woods was drawn,
And on a wintry waste
Of frosted streams and hillsides bare and brown,
Through thin cloud-films a pallid ghost looked down,
The waning moon half-faced.

In that pale sky and sere, snow-waiting earth,
What sign was there of the immortal birth?
What herald of the One?
Lo! swift as thought the heavenly radiance came,
A rose-red splendor swept the sky like flame,
Up rolled the round, bright sun!

And all was changed. From a transfigured world
The moon’s ghost fled, the smoke of home-hearths curled
Up to the still air unblown.
In Orient warmth and brightness, did that morn
O’er Nain and Nazereth, when the Christ was born,
Break fairer than our own?

The morning’s promise noon and eve fulfilled
In warm, soft sky and landscape hazy-filled
And sunset fair as they;
A sweet reminder of His holiest time,
A summer-miracle in our winter clime,
God gave a perfect day.

The near was blended with the old and far,
And Bethlehem’s hillside and the Magi’s star
Seemed here, as there and then, —
Our homestead pine-tree was the Syrian palm,
Our heart’s desire the angels’ midnight psalm,
Peace, and good-will to men!

In the case that I don’t transcribe a work, I source my borrowings. This transcription is borrowed from the following source, and credit goes to their transcribers.

“Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This exceptional poem, written by Fireside Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, has helped me through personal adversity this year. As I listen to it this clear Christmas morning, it recalls my experiences of woe—it also moves me so to reflect upon the blessings I have received. With great trials comes great joy, for we learn to become stronger by our transgressions and misfortune.

When Longfellow wrote this iconic poem, he, too, was in despair. 1863 means he was surrounded by the tragedy of the Civil War. However, what truly called him to write this poem was a stirring turn of events, when his son Charley, a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, was struck by a bullet while fighting, sending him ultimately back home with his father and brother, Earnest Longfellow. According to Robert Girard Carroon in his article “The Christmas Carol Soldier,” “They reached Cambridge on December 8 and Charles Appleton Longfellow began the slow process of recovering. As he sat nursing his son and giving thanks for his survival, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the following poem:

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!” (Source.)

This is also an excellent article, which provides further context of what may also have lead to the penning of Longfellow’s poem, which I feel to be viable in its own right.

Just as Longfellow experienced great loss, yet displayed fortitude when, “…in despair [he] bowed [his] head, / [for] ‘There [was] no peace on earth,” he held true to his faith and reassures both himself and the reader that “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!” Never have I heard such truer words.

I wish you all a very Merry Holiday, whatever you may celebrate. Remember to reach out to your loved ones, whether they be friend or family; and, remember to forgive those who have wronged you, or those whom you have wronged. Today is a day of peace and renewal, and I pray that each and every one of you has a blessed day—or, in the words of Tiny Tim from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “God bless us, every one!”

(On a side note, these are two gorgeous versions of the carol adaptation of Longfellow’s poem. I recommend giving these both a listen if you have the chance, they’re different from each other stylistically and bring something refreshing to the poem. 1) “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”-Casting Crowns, 2) “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”-Jane Monheit.

“A Christmas Carmen” by John Greenleaf Whittier

A Christmas Carmen
John Greenleaf Whittier

I.
Sound over all waters, reach out from all lands,
The chorus of voices, the clasping of hands;
Sing hymns that were sung by the stars of the morn,
Sing songs of the angels when Jesus was born!
With glad jubilations
Bring hope to the nations!
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun:
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

II.
Sing the bridal of nations! with chorals of love
Sing out the war-vulture and sing in the dove,
Till the hearts of the peoples keep time in accord,
And the voice of the world is the voice of the Lord!
Clasp hands of the nations
In strong gratulations:
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun;
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

III.
Blow, bugles of battle, the marches of peace;
East, west, north, and south let the long quarrel cease
Sing the song of great joy that the angels began,
Sing of glory to God and of good-will to man!
Hark! joining in chorus
The heavens bend o’er us!
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun;
Rise, hope of the ages, arise like the sun,
All speech flow to music, all hearts beat as one!

In the case that I don’t transcribe a work, I source my borrowings. This transcription is borrowed from the following source, and credit goes to their transcribers.

“The Mystic’s Christmas” by John Greenleaf Whittier

The Mystic’s Christmas
John Greenleaf Whittier

“All hail!” the bells of Christmas rang,
“All hail!” the monks at Christmas sang,
The merry monks who kept with cheer
The gladdest day of all their year.

But still apart, unmoved thereat,
A pious elder brother sat
Silent, in his accustomed place,
With God’s sweet peace upon his face.

“Why sitt’st thou thus?” his brethren cried,
“It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.

“Above our heads the joy-bells ring,
Without the happy children sing,
And all God’s creatures hail the morn
On which the holy Christ was born.

“Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look.”
The gray monk answered, “Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord’s birthday.

“Let heathen Yule fires flicker red
Where thronged refectory feasts are spread;
With mystery-play and masque and mime
And wait-songs speed the holy time!

“The blindest faith may haply save;
The Lord accepts the things we have;
And reverence, howsoe’er it strays,
May find at last the shining ways.

“They needs must grope who cannot see,
The blade before the ear must be;
As ye are feeling I have felt,
And where ye dwell I too have dwelt.

“But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God’s exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

“I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

“The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

“Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!”

In the case that I don’t transcribe a work, I source my borrowings. This transcription is borrowed from the following source, and credit goes to their transcribers.