Dec. 24, 2013

The Journey of the Magi

by T. S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

"The Journey of the Magi" by T.S. Eliot from Collected Poems 1909-1962. © Faber and Faber, 1974. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Christmas Eve, once called the Vigil of Christmas — in religious terms, the culmination of the pre-Christmas Advent season, which began four weeks ago. Many denominations have midnight services: a "communion service" for Episcopalians; a "vigil" for Eastern Orthodox churches; and the Catholic midnight Mass — which in former times was called, in Latin, a missa in nocte, or "Mass at night." (This Mass is the first of three Christmas Masses priests are permitted to say, and is — or used to be, in more formal days — a resplendent service, with the celebrant arrayed in white and gold vestments.) The timing of midnight services reflects the belief that Jesus was born near that hour. Protestants sometimes celebrate Christmas Eve at midnight, but more often hold a vesper service earlier in the evening. Evergreens and poinsettias typically decorate churches; candles are lit; excerpts from Frederic Handel's Messiah are performed; Christmas carols are sung; and often a re-enactment of the Nativity story is presented — with young children playing some or all of the holy family, shepherds, livestock, and Wise Men bearing gifts. In many European countries, Christmas Eve is the main focus of the holiday season, and includes the opening of gifts. In Denmark, a bowl of rice and milk is often left out to appease the Christmas gnome — a tiny bearded old-timer wearing gray, with a red pointed cap, who lives in the attic and decides which residents should be awarded good or bad luck. In France and Italy, setting out a family crèche or presepio — a manger scene complete with angels, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, farmyard animals, and shepherds — is a traditional Christmas Eve event. The French often follow midnight Mass with a réveillon or late supper.

At 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit the first national Christmas tree outside the White House in the area known as the Ellipse. The tree was a 48-foot balsam fir, a gift from the president of Middlebury College in Coolidge's home state of Vermont. Unfortunately, the bottom 10-foot section of the tree was damaged during shipping, so branches from another tree were tied on in place of those that had been broken. The tree was lit with more than 2,500 electric lights in red, white, and green, which Coolidge lit by pressing a button at the base of the tree. The use of electric lights on Christmas trees was still a new phenomenon, as was electricity in general — Coolidge's hometown of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, still didn't have electricity. A partner of Thomas Edison had first put electric lights on his home Christmas tree in 1882, but it took a long time for the public to trust the idea, especially since the lights themselves were expensive and you had to hire an electrician to rig them up.

On Christmas Eve, about 6,000 people gathered to watch the tree-lighting ceremony. There were musical performances by the U.S. Marine Band and the Epiphany Church choir. After the ceremony, the First Congregational Church choir was scheduled to sing Christmas carols, and first lady Grace Coolidge had invited the public to come sing along on the White House grounds. Music and lyrics for the carols had been published in The Evening Star so that people could clip them out and take them along, and they were encouraged to carry a flashlight as well. At midnight, after the official festivities had wound down, the city's African-American community was allowed to view the tree, and they held a 40-minute ceremony.

The media — excited about the national tree — had been following the Coolidge family's every move for several weeks, reporting in-depth on their shopping trips. For Christmas, Coolidge gave his wife 25 one-dollar gold pieces. But he forgot to buy a card, so he reused one that he had received from a friend a few days earlier, which unfortunately still had the original guy's name on it.

On this day in 1936, novelist George Orwell was on his way to Spain to join the cause of the Spanish Civil War (books by this author). He wrote: "I had intended going to Spain to gather materials for newspaper articles, etc., and had also some vague idea of fighting if it seemed worthwhile, but was doubtful about this owing to my poor health and comparatively small military experience."

On December 15, Orwell handed in the manuscript for his new novel, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). He left England about a week later. On the way to Barcelona, he stopped off in Paris to meet the novelist Henry Miller. The two men had never met, but they had corresponded, and Orwell had written an admiring review of Miller's Tropic of Cancer in a prestigious magazine, even though Miller was an unknown novelist and Tropic of Cancer was widely banned for obscenity. Orwell went and found Miller in his Paris apartment. It didn't take long for talk to turn to the Spanish Civil War, and the two men totally disagreed — Miller thought it was stupid to get involved in a political conflict, and Orwell was amazed at Miller's total lack of interest. They ended the night amiably, and although Miller was totally broke, he gave Orwell one of his corduroy coats to keep him warm in Spain. Orwell wrote about Miller: "What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot. He could understand anyone going there from purely selfish motives, out of curiosity, for instance, but to mix oneself up in such things from a sense of obligation was sheer stupidity. In any case my ideas about combating fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney." Despite Miller's objections, Orwell continued on to Spain. He was 6' 3" with size 12 feet, so he brought his own boots, knowing they would be hard to find. He walked into a hotel in Barcelona, boots slung over his shoulder, and asked people where he could enlist. He fought in the front lines until he was shot in the throat by a Fascist sniper, a wound that nearly killed him.

On Christmas Eve in 1906, the first radio program was broadcast. Canadian-born Professor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden sent his signals from the 420-foot radio tower of the National Electric Signaling Company, at Brant Rock on the Massachusetts seacoast. Fessenden opened the program by playing "O Holy Night" on the violin. Later he recited verses from the Gospel of St. Luke, then broadcast a gramophone version of Handel's "Largo." His signal was received up to five miles away.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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