Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT, by WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS



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THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: About the end of august, one hot day
Last Line: His voice came back, and I—awoke, of course.
Alternate Author Name(s): Howells, W. D.
Subject(s): Christmas; Santa Claus; Nativity, The; Nicholas, Saint


I

About the end of August, one hot day,
As on the new-mown rowan grass I lay
Under the ash whose flickering foliage made
A crazy-quilt of sunshine and of shade
For that soft bed, there came up from the sea
A curious figure floundering on toward me.
His coat looked somewhat like a coat of mail,
And somewhat like a weather-beaten sail;
His fluffy hair and beard were white as foam
That crests the curling breakers when they comb
Upon the beach, with glints of that cold green
Which through the water's shattering bulk is seen,
Showing itself within; and all without
His head was rudely garlanded about
With what at first seemed sea-weed. In his hand
He bore, to help his steps, a sturdy wand,
And as he wavered up my ragged lawn,
He looked like Neptune with his sea-legs on,
Using his trident for a walking-stick;
And then my vision played itself the trick
Of finding hitched below my sagging pier
The god's sea-chariot with its team of queer
Sea-horses resting in the gentle surf,
And browsing on the edges of the turf
There tangled with the tresses of the moss
That round the wave-worn ledges sway and toss.
All this I saw with half-shut, dreamy eyes,
To which it did not bring the least surprise,
And without troubling to get up and greet
My unexpected visitor on my feet,
"Chaire, Poseidon!" I began to speak,
Lazily hailing him in his native Greek
(Chaire, I will interpret, means Hello,
Or at least Arnold's First Book taught me so),
And then as he came staggering through my clover,
"Sit down, old fellow; you seem half-seas-over,
Even on the shore," I added for a joke,
Always acceptable to seafaring folk.
But suddenly, to my astonishment,
Up-straightening from the staff on which he leant,
He thundered, after an indignant pause,
"Poseidon nothing! I am Santa Claus!"

II

The thunder of his tones was somewhat cracked,
But otherwise I cannot say he lacked
A certain majesty, and I own he made
Me involuntarily sit up. Dismayed,
But bound he should not think he had frightened me,
I forced a laugh, and answered mockingly:
"What are you giving me? At this time of year,
You, Santa Claus! What are you doing here,
Full four months before Christmas? Ah, come off!"
He faltered, as if daunted by the scoff,
And I pursued: "Neptune, this will not do;
If you are Santa Claus, and are not you,
Where are his emblems?" "Where are his emblems, man?"
With renewed self-possession he began,
"If these are not his emblems, what are these?
This stifling beard and wig, and, if you please,
This wreath of ground-pine? This fur overcoat—
White rabbit edging on a ground of goat?—
And these abominable rubber boots
That stumble with me on your rowan roots,
Worse than they ever do through drifted snow?
And this long whip-stock? And down there below
Under your pier, whose faithful reindeer wait,
With whose accustomed sledge and well-known freight
Of Christmas goods?—the same old sweets and toys,
For those same everlasting girls and boys!
Which is their best way up?" I looked again,
And saw that he was right. It was as plain
As could be to that second glance, and I
Humbled myself to make a fit reply.
I owned the break that I had made, but pleaded,
With somewhat more prolixity than needed,
How the remarkable resemblance had
Deluded me. Yet it was not so bad:
Neptune was of an ancient family,
And there were several much worse gods than he.
"A heathen god!" Santa Claus frowned and puffed;
But I perceived that he was not so huffed
As if't had been some low-down demi-god.
"Of course," I said, "but it was not so odd,
Here by the sea-shore," and I tried to make
The saint confess the logic of my break;
And when I thought I had him pacified,
I said 'twould always be a source of pride
With me that he had called upon me here
At this—for him—unpleasant time of year.
What did I owe the honor—With a bellow,
"Have you forgot?" the violent old fellow
Demanded, and although I well could pardon
Much to the heat, and would not have been hard on
Any one who had lost his temper on a day
Like that if dressed in his peculiar way,
Still, it makes one always feel rather rotten
To be reminded that he has forgotten.
I roared, "Forgotten what?" in fierce disdain,
And then was daunted when he came again.
"Forgotten? Well, I am glad to have you hear it:
You were to write about The Christmas Spirit
For the next Christmas number of the WEEKLY.
And I would counsel you to take it meekly.
I come as editorially appointed,
And I do not propose to be aroynted."
"All in good time," I answered, hardily.
"As to the promised paper, I agree.
But why should I write of the Christmas Spirit
In the hot heart of midsummer, or near it?"
"Because," he said, "if you will keep your patience!
They have arranged for copious illustrations,
And these take time, as you yourself must own,
Even with reproductions in half-tone,
And still more time if they decide to print
The illustrations in some sort of tint.
Bring out your kodak-fiend, then, and I'll get
My team of reindeer up out of the wet."
He seemed to think that he had made a joke,
And his old bleared eyes twinkled as he spoke,
And turned to go for them. And I arose,
And leaning on the tree, assumed a pose.
But "Wait!" I said. "One moment, my dear friend!
You may be Santa Claus, as you pretend.
You look it, somewhat, but as Santa Claus
You are no nearer than Poseidon was
To the true Christmas Spirit. Oh, I know
What you will say about the new-fallen snow,
And stockings by the chimney, and the trees
Hung with the tinselled overflow from these,
Mistletoe, ground-pine, holly wreaths, and all
The garnish for the transoms and the hall;
Presents of every sort, and Christmas geese
And turkeys for the poor, to leave in peace
The rich man with his conscience; for the bowl
Of wassail general liquors, and the whole
Catalogue of your holiday paraphernalia
Borrowed for Christmas from the Saturnalia
You used to riot in, you ancient fraud,
Who turn your nose up at a heathen god—
Look at your nose!" The feat was difficult,
And he attempted it without result;
But I looked at it, and I made it turn
From purple-red to crimson-red and burn
To a dull ashen-gray in the fierce blaze
Shot from my highly concentrated gaze.
"Look at your cheeks!" I shouted, "with that net
Of pimples and congested veins that fret
Their surfaces; and if you would despise
Yourself as you deserve, look at your eyes,
Bloodshot with drunkenness and gluttony!
Then drop your glance, in utter shame, and see
The tremulous, pendulous paunch that has displaced
Anything like the semblance of a waist
You ever had! You old, profane buffoon,
With a face like a dissipated moon,
You dare to call yourself the Christmas Spirit?
Off of my grass! Get your reindeer and clear it
Off of my beach, before I go and bring
Action against you all for trespassing!
You call yourself the Christmas Spirit, you
Who never imagined anything to do
At Christmas-tide, except on Christmas eve,
Mock with bright dreams the children who believe
That you come down the chimney, and then fright
Their surfeit with nightmares all Christmas night;
And at those awful early family dinners
Inspire the saints to gormandize like sinners,
And in the riot to which you have won them
Lose all the good the sermon might have done them;
Who fill the Christmas week with every folly,
And bring the New Year in with melancholy
Thoughts of bills payable, and the ruinous rifts
Made in men's pocket-books by Christmas gifts
Not blessed to her who thought she had to give
More than they were to him who must receive!
And do you fancy that you are the type
Of that which was fulfilled when time was ripe,
And peace was promised upon all the earth,
And unto men good-will with that great Birth
Which angels, thronging from the upper skies,
Prophesied in their glad antiphonies?
Off, hoary trifler! What have such as you
With sacred memories like these to do!
Poor, pagan outcast, derelict forlorn!
Back, with the perished gods and creeds outworn
From which you came, back into eldest night!
Or, if you still must haunt this age of light,
Look well about you, see what has been done:
How life smiles everywhere beneath the sun;
See the whole world at peace, from the Transvaal
To the far Philippines, one rapture all
Of peace with freedom. Ev'n the Europeans,
By the decision of their kings and queens,
Are getting ready to lay down their arms.
The sea no longer quakes at the alarms
Of the embattled fleets: each fell machine
Embodied in the mercantile marine,
The Trusts' rich products bears from shore to shore,
And blesses lands it bullies now no more.
No more the poor toil for starvation's wage;
No more the incorporate employers rage
At strikes, and outside hints of arbitration:
Prosperity is shared by the whole nation.
No famishing woman now need sell herself,
No man part with his principles for pelf
To bribe the wolf that used to haunt the door.
Especially, in the Southern States, no more
The little child watches the whirring loom
Weaving into the web its life's young bloom;
No more at Newport by the sad sea wave,
Divorce digs in the sand love's soon lost grave.
"Can you look round on such a state as this,
And fail to see how much you come amiss?
How utterly superfluous you are
In the economy of this happy star?
Away with you! Or, if you still would choose
To stay, and try to make yourself of use,
Amidst a world of busy people, each
Striving to practice what the others preach,
Lay off these foolish symbols with your coat
(I'm glad you were frank enough to own it goat),
Leave guttling, guzzling, set a good example—
You'll find the opportunity is ample,
For with the spread of our prosperity,
We are all in risk of victualling too free—
Put from you far the homes of wealth and pride,
And spend your days doing good on the East Side.
From your old ways return, reform, repent,
And be what the true Christmas Spirit meant!"

III

At these stern words I looked to see him shrink
Struck through and through with bitter shame, and sink
Before me. And at first he did seem taken
Rather aback, and turned, a good deal shaken,
As if in silence to depart; and then
He turned and meekly fronted me again;
And as he spoke he seemed to gather force
And held with rising dignity his course.
"The Christmas Spirit did I say I was?
I only said that I was Santa Claus!
And very likely, if your supposition
Holds, I am but a childish superstition;
Yes, very probably, I used to be
No better than a pagan deity,—
Not one of the swell gods, but of the sort
That went about the country to resort
Among the lanes in rustic neighborhoods,
The meadows, and the depths of twilight woods,
Befriending the poor husbandman and shepherd
Whose fields and folds and homes the wild things jeopard.
But I have been converted and baptized,
And I should be considerably surprised
If some born Christians had a better claim
Than I can urge—not boast—to wear the name.
I will not speak of any good I do—
I leave all that to moralists like you;
But, in the course of pleasure, once a year,
I come to bring men's hearths a little cheer;
To scatter here and there a little kindness;
A little deafness and a little blindness
To one another's faults among you mortals;
And not distinguishing between your portals—
Or chimneys, rather—in my rounds I try
To visit rich and poor alike; for I,
Strange as it may appear, have found, indeed,
Every one living lives somehow in need
Of help, of comfort, and even of that jollity
You seem to have no use for in your polity.
Since you are virtuous, shall there be no more
Of cakes and ale? Aye, but there shall, galore!
I will see to it, with both meat and drink—
Oh, by-the-way! Now that I come to think,
What are your virtues?" Here the saint broke off
With what appeared a very sinful scoff
Lurking in bearded mouth and winking eye.
Ere I could frame a suitable reply
He turned, unceremonious, on his heel,
And stumbled through the rowan with a peal
Of mocking laughter, downward to my beach,
Which with few giant strides he seemed to reach.
There at my pier his reindeer team he twitched
Loose from the pile to which they had lain hitched,
And clucking to them swung his whip; and they
Sped seaward out across the shining bay,
Beating the brine into a diamond dust
Beneath their hooves, while in a final thrust,
"Au revoir 25th December!" hoarse
His voice came back, and I—awoke, of course.





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