It’s a scene that is easier to imagine this year than any other time in the recent past.
A writer sits down on a bleak, cold Christmas Eve to pen a remembrance of bright, golden memories of past Christmas Eves when everything seemed simpler. The pull of nostalgia drawing us back into happier times.
This writer, a correspondent for the Luzerne Union newspaper of Wilkes-Barre, sat down on December 24, 1861 as their nation was engaged in a brutal civil war, sending millions into uniform, and leaving battlefields strewn with the dead. It was a Christmas unlike any seen before it in American history.
It sent the writer back into the annals of their memory to bring forth happier Christmas memories. But with those memories came the sad longings for those who were gone and the knowledge that those times were gone forever. This is a happy remembrance, but in a time of great grief, uncertainty, and death, it is strongly tempered with the ever-present reality of suffering.
In our own troubled Christmas season, as a global pandemic ravages our country, leaving more than 300,000 people dead – half as many died in four years of our bloody civil war – and with a bitterly divided nation, this short “sketch” from Christmas Eve 1861 rings down the years to us in 2020.
We, too, find ourselves lost and grieving, musing on memories of a simpler time.
For the Luzerne Union.
Back – back through long years – back over days and nights of turmoil and sorrow – back over forgotten hopes and ills, how the mind goes wandering to those Merry Christmas eves far down upon the highway of life, where it is smooth and even, leading through flowers, free from the dust and thorns which obstruct it farther on up the hill.
Christmas eve in the “old grandmother’s kitchen:” the solemn old clock ticks loudly in the corner, and we listen in childish awe to the weird pulsation which has haunted us through years, and “Time which teaches to forget.” The logs are piled high on the hearth: the old grandfather dozes in the corner, while the wrinkled hands of grandmother, which many long years ago (how many it seems to us) were plump and dimpled like our own, are busy with the mysteries of mince pie and doughnuts.
Jimmy is there, too, with his tray of apples, two of which he sets carefully before the fire to roast for grandma. Old Carlo closes his great brown eyes and sleeps undisturbed at grandfather’s feet, for it is Christmas eve and everybody is good natured.
Yes! It is Christmas eve, and our stockings are carefully suspended from the ceiling with the firm conviction that Kris Kingle [sic] will fill them with many a dainty: and we lie awake hours after the family are all sleeping, listening for the sound of his bells and the prancing of his… horses under the window.
Morning comes and sure enough Kris Kingle [sic] has been here, and has brought us candies… a tin whistle, and a doll, and we wonder how we could have slept so soundly that we did not hear him. Then we run to tell grandma what we have got, and we keep the old cottage in a tumult till grandfather says “he wishes the tin whistle was in the bottom of the ocean, for what does a girl want with a tin whistle?”
O those old blessed days, men and women that we are now, before we scoff at the remembrance and say “we have put away childish things,” let us ask ourselves which have been the happiest, those innocent childhoods or the days of striving, toiling, and sinning, which we have now.
Would we go back? Yes! A thousand times Yes! O! Just for tonight could we stand on the “big hill” and look down toward grandmother’s cottage, knowing that the same little group were there to welcome us, we would not exchange it for every good things which has been in our life since.
But Jimmy has grown to manhood, made a home of his own, and has “begirt [surrounded] with growing infancy, daughters and sons of beauty,” and we never see them anymore. The old grandfather and grandmother are “gathered to their fathers.” The place where the old-fashioned cottage once stood is grown over with weeds, and we never go up the “big hill” anymore, for we have learned to walk in the dusty thoroughfares of the world, and the old days are almost forgotten.
Christmas in the old house at home – Christmas eve in the halls of the old Seminary – who of us can go back to many and many a merry Christmas eve? We envy not the man or woman who cannot. Some of us from far off lands; some of us from the very spot have the happy hearts, which made our Christmas eves so merry, have faded out and gone down quietly to rest on the churchyard; some of us in new homes built upon the ruins of the old ones, are looking back to other and happier Christmas eves; and some of us look yearningly back to the homes we have left forever and cry in our anguish –
Home! O, heaven that word!
The name without the thing;
Like many a sad and lonely bird,
My home is on the wing!”
Christmas eve! With what a myriad of recollections art thou laden! Weird-like imagining the morbid imagination, melancholy signs of the dead look up from the grave reproachfully – sadly – because we have forgotten them so soon, and filled the vacant chairs with new and smiling faces!
We sit quietly in the glow of the firelight, and imagination goes out in search of the happy hearts who sat with us last Christmas and the Christmas eves gone before, and our hearts come wearily back again with a shadow upon them, for they are all scattered and gone.
Those dear ones! Some are lying low
Beneath the white untrodden snow,
And some are toiling still,
In scattered homes – in distant lands,
On inland plains and prairie stands,
By shaded glen and hill.
And some on Sabbath mornings still
Come down the lawn and up the hill,
As in those sinless years;
But time and change have left their trace
Upon the brows – upon the place,
And smiles have turned to tears.
And some strike boldly for liberty and right beneath the Southern palms, and tonight how must their hearts fly northward in the loving faces gathered together in the cherished homes they have left.
Christmas eve! Thou bringest happy memories as well as sad ones; memories of smiling brows, bring words, and the gold and royal and purple of life, ere one link had been broken in love’s chain.
But our Christmas eve is verging toward morning, and we must away, wishing all the friends of the Union a merry and a happy Christmas.
Featured Image: “Christmas Eve” – An undated postcard from the Library of Congress collections