“Then came the time when, inseparable from one’s own birthday, was a certain sense of merit, a consciousness of well-earned distinction. When I regarded my birthday as a graceful achievement of my own, a monument of my perseverance, independence, and good sense, redounding greatly to my honour.”—Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller.
The great Boz was born on this day in 1812. I commend to your attention the following excerpts from my book Victoriana:
In a radio broadcast on her twenty-first birthday in 1947, Her Majesty The Queen—then Princess Elizabeth—told the British Commonwealth and Empire, “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” She acceded to the throne on February 6, 1952, seventy years ago today. That makes her the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee.
Generations have come and gone within her reign. I was born a few years after the Silver Jubilee and am now middle aged. Not since Queen Victoria could anyone have said the same. During that time she has given us the very model of a life of service.
Several Christmases ago I wrote about the bygone tradition of New Year’s Day “calling” in New York, when rounds of visits were paid to friends and acquaintances and every house was open to guests. It was the social highlight of the holiday season from the time of the Dutch settlers until the custom faded in the 1870s and 1880s.
This year I want to revisit the topic with some contemporary descriptions of the event. The first comes from Mrs T.J. Crowen, who offered instructions for hostesses in her 1847 book, The American System of Cookery. She wrote:
In New York City, where it is the custom for ladies to remain at home to receive the calls of their gentlemen friends, there is not time nor occasion for dinner; should it be desirable, it would be similar to that for Christmas, or instead—a cold roasted turkey (bone it if you can), cold boiled ham or tongue, a large glass salad-bowl of pickled oysters, or an oyster pie with dressed celery or a chicken salad, with jelly puffs and tarts and small mince pies, blancmange, de russe and jellies and ice cream and fancy cakes, with syrup water and orgeat or lemonade for temperance, or wines and punch. The manner of celebrating New Year’s day by calls, is a peculiarity of our own, and having so few which are ‘native here,’ many of our wisest and best, have wished that this might in no wise be slighted. Many a feud-divided family have been united, and misunderstanding friends have been brought together, under the all-pervading hospitality and genial influence which distinguishes the day.
Mrs Crowen’s book was obviously a primary source for the Lotus article I quoted in the aforementioned post, which lists many of the same dishes.
A number of first-hand accounts give us a sense of the experience of the day. In her diary for January 2, 1850, later published as Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, ten-year old Catherine Havens wrote:
Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents. We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and write all their names down on it. We have to be dressed and ready by 10 o’clock to receive. Some of the gentleman come together and don’t stay more than a minute; but some go into the back room and take some oysters and coffee and cake, and stay and talk…The gentlemen dropping in all day and until long after I have gone to bed; and the horses look tired, and the livery men make a lot of money.
Mr. Woolsey Porter and his brother, Mr. Dwight Porter always come in the evening and sit and talk a long time. They are very fond of one of my sisters.
As the latter comment suggests, match-making and romance were part of the appeal for the younger generations.
The artist James Edward Kelly was a young teenager in the late 1860s. He reminisced on the tradition of calls at that time in an unpublished memoir, later released in the collection, Tell Me of Lincoln. He wrote:
There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day. Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it…New Year’s morning, with shutters closed, and blinds drawn down, gas lighted, the young ladies prepared to receive their guests. All seemed to reflect the glow and color of the pendant prisms on the chandeliers and candelabra…The girls in full dress with flowers in their hair, clustered around a long table. Its glistening silver coffee urn, liquors, etc., with the usual turkey and other substantial things, which they served to the groups of merry friends who had driven up in their cutters…Most of the guests seemed anxious to make a record for the number of calls they made—as the girls were anxious as to the number of calls they received by counting their visiting cards—but others evidently came to stay judging from the way they clustered around the beautiful young girls.
The end of New Year’s Day calling in Gotham can be dated definitively to the 1880s, with The New York Times recording the last vestiges of observance in 1888. An article entitled “A Very Quiet New Year’s; Very Few of the Usual ‘Calls’ Made Yesterday,” appeared on January 3rd. The Times reported:
But by far the most noteworthy circumstance in yesterday’s history was the almost complete death of the ancient custom of call-making.
Some of the ‘old boys,’ however, could be seen yesterday in their spotless kid gloves and shiny ties making the rounds as solemnly as they did 30, 40, or 50 years ago…In none of the brownstone districts yesterday were the familiar sights of other New Year’s Days to be encountered…Not even the acknowledgment of a basket for cards was shown either on Fifth or Madison avenue of the cross streets.
Few carriages were observed bearing the gentlemen about on a pilgrimage of good wishes, and as a matter of fact the ladies themselves did not even deem it necessary to inform their friends that they should not receive. It was taken for granted that they would not.
Pictured above: “New Year’s Calls—The Knickerbockers of 1650 and 1873” by Sol Eytinge. Published in Harper’s Weekly (January 4, 1873).
The image above is taken from a print in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it is described as: “photograph of man making a snow sculpture resembling Queen Victoria, unknown photographer, ca. 1890.” The sculptor is quite talented. Can he be identified?
The only account of Her Majesty sculpted in snow that I could find was in The Harmsworth London Magazine from December of 1901. An article describes the “young art students of Brussels…moulding statues in the snow.” The previous year “some twenty-six different statues were on show at the Royal Park in Brussels.” The entries were judged and “the moulder of the statue of the late Queen Victoria was awarded a prize.”
Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York was the subject of a post I made in July, one of two experiments with video so far. I filmed the footage during a visit to the site in April. You can watch it here at the blog or on YouTube.Below is a transcription of my field notes which formed the basis for the narration of that video.
Balanced Rock is a stone structure consisting of an enormous boulder supported above ground by five smaller stones.
The boulder is an erratic, weighing between sixty and ninety tons: pink granite from the Hudson Highlands. It was deposited at the site by a receding glacier at the end of the last ice age.
But did the glacier balance it, or did men?
Barry Fell believed that Balanced Rock is a megalith of the distinctive dolmen type found in Europe. This would be evidence that European mariners crossed the Atlantic and made inroads in the New World thousands of years before the first Viking expeditions. The megalithic tradition dates to the Neolithic period with dolmen-building activity heavily concentrated between 4000 and 2500 B.C.
From the plaque erected by North Salem Historical Society: “It has been suggested in recent years that this may be a dolmen—a Celtic ceremonial stone used to memorialize the dead.”
A dolmen is the inner framework of a portal tomb, consisting of a base standing stones arranged vertically, with capstone laid horizontally across the top, forming a chamber. Within this chamber human remains would be placed and the whole thing covered over with cairn stones and earth, forming a mound or tumulus or barrow.
It is possible that burial was a secondary feature of these structures, much as it is at a parish church, and they were built for other mysterious purposes. We see them in the British Isles, in Germany, Scandinavia, and France. Where the earthworks have eroded over time only the standing stones are visible.
In his book, America B.C., Dr Fell wrote “… the largest Celtiberian dolmen yet discovered in North America, located at North Salem, New York. The 90-ton capstone is supported on the apexes of five erect peg-stones. Probably the memorial of a Celtiberian king, the North Salem dolmen most closely parallels a similar monument near Dublin.” This is presumably a reference to the Glendruid Dolmen in Ireland.
Of course Dr Fell received a chilly reception for his theory in academia but it is not at all implausible. Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Exeter established similarities between the earliest man-made tools in North America and the tools of the Solutrean culture that inhabited what is now France and the Iberian Peninsula during the Upper Paleolithic suggesting that the Solutreans brought their technology with them across the Atlantic. (See: Across Atlantic Ice by Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley.)
The megalith builders would have come much later but we can imagine successive waves of European exploration in the Atlantic preceding the historical record.
C. S. Lewis dedicated his novel The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of his fellow-Inkling Owen Barfield. She was Lewis’s goddaughter. The dedication itself is worth revisiting. It reads:
My dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you may be too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be,
Your affectionate Godfather,
C. S. Lewis
The point suggested so elegantly here is elaborated upon in the posthumous collection of Lewis’s essays, On Stories. He erases what he considers an artificial boundary between children’s literature and adult. In the essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he contends that, “The whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental.” The genre “gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses.” In the titular essay he writes, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty”. He explains in another essay:
I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.
Indeed we introduce our children to the Grimms, The Hobbit, Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, and of course Lewis precisely because we know, from experience, that they produce a lifetime of deepening enrichment.
Pictured above: an illustration of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by Pauline Baynes.
In Victoriana, I describe a piece of ink-black satire written by the Romanticist, Thomas De Quincey, entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”
“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.
The entire chapter, “Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre,” can be read here on the blog.
In the early 1990s, columnist Samuel Francis coined the term, “Anarcho-Tyranny,” which he defined as:
…essentially a kind of Hegelian synthesis of what appear to be dialectical opposites: the combination of oppressive government power against the innocent and the law-abiding and, simultaneously, a grotesque paralysis of the ability or the will to use that power to carry out basic public duties such as protection or public safety. And, it is characteristic of anarcho-tyranny that it not only fails to punish criminals and enforce legitimate order but also criminalizes the innocent.
Francis was undoubtedly prescient. Anarcho-Tyranny is now a basic operating principle of Western governments.
M.R. James read his ghost stories to friends in the Chit-Chat Club at Cambridge around Christmastime so December seems like a good season for Jamesian housekeeping.
Castle Imprint, the publisher of my book Victoriana, has an annotated edition of James’s 1913 tale, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” available as a hardcover chapbook. The edition is illustrated with engravings of the Punch and Judy show by George Cruikshank throughout. “Disappearance” is the only one of James’s Christmas ghost stories specifically set at Christmas.
During the pandemic, with live theater scarce, I have been enjoying Robert Lloyd Parry’s regular dramatic readings on YouTube and DVD of weird tales, many by James. They remind me of a series that I wrote about in Victoriana:
Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).
The Lee series is hard to find these days. All the episodes were once on YouTube, but not anymore. I have a box set of BBC ghost story adaptations on DVD. Three of the four episodes with Lee are included. However, “The Ash-Tree” is missing for some reason. The only format in which I can find all the episodes is an audiobook. The series is packaged as Ghost Stories with Christopher Leeon Audible, et al. Much of the charm is retained, including Burgon’s music. But if anyone knows where I can find “The Ash-Tree,” do tell.
December 13 is St Lucia’s Day, notably celebrated in the Lutheran countries of Scandinavia, as part of a traditional cycle of observances during the Advent season. The festival honors an early Christian martyr, who died for the faith under Diocletian. The Latin name Lucia means “light.” And because the festival takes place on what was traditionally observed as the shortest day of the year, at the winter solstice, it is marked by symbolism of light and hope in darkness.
The Anglican poet John Donne wrote, “A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day,” around 1627. The first stanza begins:
‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s, Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks; The sun is spent, and now his flasks Send forth light squibs, no constant rays; The world’s whole sap is sunk…
In Sweden each town elects a St Lucia from among the girls. In a household the eldest daughter takes the roll. She wears a white robe and a crown of evergreen boughs surmounted with candles.
Pictured above: an illustration of the headdress by John Bauer, dated 1913.