Our festivals come rather too near together, since we have so few of them;—Thanksgiving, Christmas-day, New-Years'-day, and then none again till July. We know not but these four, with the addition of a "day set apart for fasting and prayer," might answer the purposes of rest and edification as well as a calendar full of saints' days, if they were observed in a better spirit. But, Thanksgiving is devoted to good dinners; Christmas and New-Years' days to making presents and compliments; Fast-day to playing at cricket and other games, and the Fourth of July to boasting of the past, rather than to plans how to deserve its benefits and secure its fruits.
We value means of marking time by appointed days, because man, on one side of his nature so ardent and aspiring, is on the other so indolent and slippery a being, that he needs incessant admonitions to redeem the time. Time flows on steadily, whether he regards it or not; yet, unless he keep time, there is no music in that flow. The sands drop with inevitable speed; yet each waits long enough to receive, if it be ready, the intellectual touch that should turn it to a sand of gold.
Time, says the Grecian fable, is the parent of Power, Power is the father of Genius and Wisdom. Time, then, is grandfather of the noblest of the human family; and we must respect the aged sire whom we see on the frontispiece of the almanacs, and believe his scythe was meant to mow down harvests ripened for an immortal use.
Yet the best provision made by the mind of society at large for these admonitions soon loses its efficacy, and requires that individual earnestness, individual piety, should continually reinforce the most beautiful form. The world has never seen arrangements which might more naturally offer good suggestions than those of the Church of Rome. The founders of that church stood very near a history radiant at every page with divine light. All their rites and ceremonial days illustrate facts of an universal interest. But the life with which piety first, and afterwards the genius of great artists, invested these symbols, waned at last, except to a thoughtful few. Reverence was forgotten in the multitude of genuflexions; the rosary became a string of beads rather than a series of religious meditations; and the "glorious company of saints and martyrs" were not regarded so much as the teachers of heavenly truth, as intercessors to obtain for their votaries the temporal gifts they craved.
Yet we regret that some of those symbols had not been more reverenced by Protestants, as the possible occasion of good thoughts, and, among others, we regret that the day set apart to commemorate the birth of Jesus should have been stript, even by those who observe it, of many impressive and touching accessories.
If ever there was an occasion on which the arts could become all but omnipotent in the service of a holy thought, it is this of the birth of the child Jesus. In the palmy days of the Catholic religion they may be said to have wrought miracles in its behalf; and in our colder time, when we rather reflect that light from a different point of view than transport ourselves into it, who, that has an eye and ear faithful to the soul, is not conscious of inexhaustible benefits from some of the works by which sublime geniuses have expressed their ideas?—in the adorations of the Magi and the Shepherds, in the Virgin with the infant Jesus, or that work which expresses what Christendom at large has not begun to realize,—that work which makes us conscious, as we listen, why the soul of man was thought worthy and able to upbear a cross of such dreadful weight,—the Messiah of Handel.
Christmas would seem to be the day peculiarly sacred to children; and something of this feeling is beginning to show itself among us, though rather from German influence than of native growth. The ever-green tree is often reared for the children on Christmas evening, and its branches cluster with little tokens that may, at least, give them a sense that the world is rich, and that there are some in it who care to bless them. It is a charming sight to see their glistening eyes, and well worth much trouble in preparing the Christmas-tree.
Yet, on this occasion, as on all others, we should like to see pleasure offered to them in a form less selfish than it is. When shall we read of banquets prepared for the halt, the lame, and the blind, on the day that is said to have brought their friend into the world? When will children be taught to ask all the cold and ragged little ones whom they have seen during the day wistfully gazing at the shop-windows, to share the joys of Christmas-eve?
We borrow the Christmas-tree from Germany; might we but borrow with it that feeling which pervades all their stories, about the influence of the Christ-child, and has, I doubt not (for the spirit of literature is always, though refined, the essence of popular life), pervaded the conduct of children there.
We will mention two of these as happily expressive of different sides of the desirable character. One is a legend of the saint Hermann Joseph. The legend runs that this saint, when a little boy, passed daily by a niche where was an image of the Virgin and Child, and delighted there to pay his devotions. His heart was so drawn towards the holy child that one day, having received what seemed to him a gift truly precious, a beautiful red and yellow apple, he ventured to offer it, with his prayer. To his unspeakable delight the child put forth his hand and took the apple. After that day, never was a gift bestowed upon the little Hermann, that was not carried to the same place. He needed nothing for himself, but dedicated all his childish goods to the altar.
After a while he was in trouble. His father, who was a poor man, found it necessary to take him from school, and bind him to a trade. He communicated his woes to his friends of the niche, and the Virgin comforted him like a mother, and bestowed on him money, by means of which he rose to be a learned and tender Shepherd of men.
Another still more touching story is that of the holy Rupert. Rupert was the only child of a princely house, and had something to give besides apples. But his generosity and human love were such that, as a child, he could never see poor children suffering without despoiling himself of all he had with him in their behalf. His mother was, at first, displeased with this; but when he replied, "They are thy children too," her reproofs yielded to tears.
One time, when he had given away his coat to a poor child, he got wearied and belated on his homeward way. He lay down a while and fell asleep. Then he dreamed that he was on a river-shore, and saw a mild and noble old man bathing many children. After he had plunged them into the water, he would place them on a beautiful island, where they looked white and glorious as little angels. Rupert was seized with a strong desire to join them, and begged the old man to bathe him also in the stream. But he was answered, "It is not yet time." Just then a rainbow spanned the island, and in its arch was enthroned the child Jesus, dressed in a coat that Rupert knew to be his own. And the child said to the others, "See this coat; it is one which my brother Rupert has just sent to me. He has given us many gifts from his love; shall we not ask him to join us here?" And they shouted a musical "Yes!" and Rupert started out of his dream. But he had lain too long on the damp bank of the river without his coat, and cold and fever soon sent him to join the band of his brothers in their home.
These are legends, superstitious, you will say. But, in casting aside the shell, have we retained the kernel? The image of the child Jesus is not seen in the open street. Does his heart find other means to express itself there? Protestantism does not mean, we suppose, to deaden the spirit in excluding the form.
The thought of Jesus, as a child, has great weight with children who have learned to think of him at all. In thinking of him they form an image of all that the morning of a pure and fervent life should be and bring.
In former days I knew a boy-artist whose genius, at that time, showed high promise. He was not more than fourteen years old—a pale, slight boy, with a beaming eye. The hopes and sympathy of friends, gained by his talent, had furnished him with a studio and orders for some pictures. He had picked up from the streets a boy, still younger and poorer than himself, to take care of the room and prepare his colors, and the two boys were as content in their relation as Michael Angelo with his Urbino. If you went there, you found exposed to view many pretty pictures—"A Girl with a Dove," "The Guitar-player," and such subjects as are commonly supposed to interest at his age. But, hid in a corner, and never shown, unless to the beggar-page or some most confidential friend, was the real object of his love and pride, the slowly-growing work of secret hours. The subject of this picture was Christ teaching the Doctors. And in those doctors he had expressed all he had already observed of the pedantry and shallow conceit of those in whom mature years have not unfolded the soul: and in the child, all he felt that early youth should be and seek, though, alas! his own feet failed him on the difficult road. This one record of the youth of Jesus, had, at least, been much to his mind.
In earlier days the little saints thought they best imitated the Emanuel by giving apples and cents; but we know not why, in our age, that esteems itself so much enlightened, they should not become also the givers of spiritual gifts. We see in them, continually, impulses that only require a good direction to effect infinite good. See the little girls at work for foreign missions; that is not useless; they devote the time to a purpose that is not selfish; the horizon of their thoughts is extended. But they are perfectly capable of becoming home-missionaries as well. The principle of stewardship would make them so.
I have seen a little girl of thirteen, who had much service, too, to do for a hard-working mother, in the midst of a circle of poor children whom she gathered daily to a morning school. She took them from the door-steps and the gutters; she washed their faces and hands; she taught them to read and sew, and told them stories that had delighted her own infancy. In her face, though in feature and complexion plain, was something already of a Madonna sweetness, and it had no way eclipsed the gayety of childhood.
I have seen a boy, scarce older, brought up for some time with the sons of laborers, who, so soon as he found himself possessed of superior advantages, thought not of surpassing others, but of excelling that he might be able to impart; and he was able to do it. If the other boys had less leisure, and could pay for less instruction, they did not suffer by it. He could not be happy unless they also could enjoy Milton, and pass from nature to natural philosophy. He performed, though in a childish way, and in no Grecian garb, the part of Apollo amidst the herdsmen of Admetus.
The cause of education would be indefinitely furthered if, in addition to formal means, there were but this principle awakened in the hearts of the young, that what they have they must bestow. All are not natural instructors, but a large proportion are; and those who do possess such a talent are the best possible teachers to those a little younger than themselves. Many have more patience with the difficulties they have lately left behind, and enjoy their power of assisting more than those further removed in age and knowledge do.
Then the intercourse may be far more congenial and profitable than where the teacher receives for hire all sorts of pupils as they are sent him by their guardians. Here be need only choose those who have a predisposition for what he is best able to teach; and, as I would have the so-called higher instruction as much diffused in this way as the lower, there would be a chance of awakening all the power that now lies latent.
If a girl, for instance, who has only a passable talent for music, but who, from the advantage of social position, has been able to gain thorough instruction, felt it her duty to teach whomsoever she know that had a talent without money to cultivate it, the good is obvious.
Those who are learning, receive an immediate benefit by the effort to rearrange and interpret what they learn; so the use of this justice would be two-fold.
Some efforts are made here and there; nay, sometimes there are those who can say they have returned usury for every gift of fate; and would others make the same experiments, they might find Utopia not so far off as the children of this world, wise in securing their own selfish ease, would persuade us it must always be.
We have hinted what sort of Christmas-box we would wish for the children; it must be one as full, as that of the Christ-child must be, of the pieces of silver that were lost and are found. But Christmas with its peculiar associations has deep interest for men and women no less. At that time thus celebrated, a pure woman saw in her child what the Son of man should be as a child of God. She anticipated fur him a life of glory to God, peace and good-will towards men. In any young mother's heart, who has any purity of heart, the same feelings arise. But most of these mothers carelessly let them go without obeying their instructions. If they did not, we should see other children, other men than now throng our streets. The boy could not invariably disappoint the mother, the man the wife, who steadily demanded of him such a career.
And Man looks upon Woman, in this relation, always as he should. Does he see in her a holy mother, worthy to guard the infancy of an immortal soul? Then she assumes in his eyes those traits which the Romish church loved to revere in Mary. Frivolity, base appetite, contempt, are exorcised, and Man and Woman appear again, in unprofaned connection, as brother and sister, children and servants of one Divine Love, and pilgrims to a common aim.
Were all this right in the private sphere, the public would soon right itself also, and the nations of Christendom might join in a celebration such as "Kings and Prophets waited for," and so many martyrs died to achieve, of Christ-mass.