Spirits of the Season
By Richard G. Johnstone, Jr.

Richard JohnstoneTis the season to be jolly. Falalalalalalalala. And a delightful season it is, too, with Thanksgiving and Chanukah and Christmas and New Year’s. Even in an era brimming with unimaginable prosperity, it is still a world of woes, in need of hope and kindness and peace. This season — filled with crunching leaves and crackling fires and gatherings with family and friends — brings out the very best "spirits" in people. In our last issue of 2000, we’d like to share with you brief passages from some of the most beautiful stories and essays about the season. Each passage evokes a different spirit.


The Spirit of Giving ...

Then up through this drunken train of thought surged the sharp figure of his landlady and her three skinny children. He thought of them sitting in their basement room. The cheer of Christmas had passed them by. This image got him to his feet. The realization that he was in a position to give, that he could bring happiness easily to someone else, sobered him. He took a big burlap sack, which was used for collecting waste, and began to stuff it, first with his presents and then with the presents for his imaginary children. He worked with the haste of a man whose train is approaching the station, for he could hardly wait to see those long faces light up when he came in the door. He changed his clothes, and, fired by a wonderful and unfamiliar sense of power, he slung his bag over his shoulder like a regular Santa Claus, went out the back way, and took a taxi to the Lower East Side.

—John Cheever,
"Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor,"
from The Stories of John Cheever

 The Spirit of Family ...

The spectacle of thousands of lovely firs and pines chopped off above the roots and set out for sale like so many shivering orphans, destined to adorn garbage trucks a few days afterward, horrified us. Our three boys groaned at the prospect of not having "a real tree," but we went to a nursery anyway, not far from our home, and bought one we could plant in the ground after Christmas. Our tree was scarcely three feet high and had sprouted perhaps 20 spindly branches in all. With lights, it would look like the skeleton of some tropical electric eel, but we thought it had lots of promise, jutting so bravely from that ice-glazed burlap sack as I strained to lift it into the car.

—John Neary, "Our Crafty Little Christmas,"
from Long Island Newsday, Dec. 24, 1972

The Spirit of Hope ...

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rimes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
"In Memoriam A.H.H.," 1833

The Spirit of Nature ...

We sleep, and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within. The stillness of the morning is impressive. The floor creaks under our feet as we move toward the window to look abroad through some clear space over the fields. We see the roofs stand under their snow burden. From the eaves and fences hang stalactites of snow, and in the yard stand stalagmites covering some concealed core. The trees and shrubs rear white arms to the sky on every side; and where were walls and fences, we see fantastic forms stretching in frolic gambols across the dusky landscape, as if Nature had strewn her fresh designs over the fields by night as models for man’s art.

—Henry David Thoreau,
"A Winter Walk"

and, finally,

The Spirit of Simplicity

The miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart — over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion ... This week, many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star, seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas — and the sheep quiet, and the world waiting.

—E.B. White,
"The Distant Music of the Hounds,"
from The Second Tree from the Corner,1949.


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