Christmas comes but once a year–and the cynic cries, “Thank God!” And so, perhaps, do the very lonely. But then Christmas is not a festival for either the cynic or the desolate. The cynic is as welcome at the annual feast of turkey and plum pudding as Mr. “Pussyfoot” would be at a “beano”; while the lonely–well, one likes to imagine that there are no lonely ones at Christmas-time; or, if there are–that somebody has asked them out, or they have toothache and so wouldn’t appreciate even the society of jolly seraphims. Christmas, except to the young, is essentially a festival of “let’s pretend”–let’s pretend that we love everybody, that everybody loves us, that Aunt Maria isn’t a prosy old bore, that Uncle John isn’t a profiteer; that everybody has his or her good points and that all their bad ones are not sticking out, as they usually appear to us to be, as painfully apparent as those on the back of a porcupine should you happen to sit down upon one in a bathing costume! And it is quite wonderful how this spirit of good will towards all men can be self-distilled, as it were! You try to feel it, and, strangely enough, you do feel it–at least, up to tea time. The public exhibition of ecstacy you give at receiving a present you don’t want seems to come to you quite easily and naturally on Christmas morning. Even Aunt Maria can pretend enthusiasm quite convincingly at the gimcrack you have given her which her artistic soul loathes, the while she furtively examines its base to discover if peradventure you have forgotten to erase the price. You yourself declare, while regarding the sixpenny pen-wiper, that it is not the gift so much as the thought which pleases you, and you can declare this lie to the satisfaction, not only of yourself, but, more difficult by far, to the satisfaction of the wealthy donor who gave it to you because she couldn’t think what to give you–and because, as she piously declares, “Thank God, you have everything you want!” Yes, indeed, there is something about Yuletide which makes all men benign, and the joyful hypocrisy of Christmas Eve sounds quite the genuine emotion when uttered on Christmas Day. I am bound, however, to confess that the “good will” becomes a trifle strident towards nightfall. Many things conduce to this. The children are suffering from overfeeding; Mother is sick of Aunt Maria, her husband’s sister; and Father is more than fed up with the pomposity of Uncle John. There is a general and half-uttered yearning among everybody to go upstairs and lie down. The jollifications of the coming evening, when the grown-ups come into their own and the children are being sick upstairs, presume the necessity for such a retirement–a kind of regeneration of that charitable energy required for the festival “jump off.” After which the digestive organs begin to realise what sweated labour means, and Father makes a speech about his pleasure at seeing so many members of the family present, and Mother weeps silently for some trouble which always revives over Christmas dinner and nobody has yet been able to sympathise with, because nobody has yet known what it is. And, because Christmas night would otherwise prove somewhat trying even to a family determined to be loving or to die in the attempt, somebody or other has invented champagne. It is quite wonderful how the dullest people seem to take unto themselves wings after the third bottle of Veuve Clicquot has been opened.
So Christmas Day is thus brought to a triumphant conclusion of good will. And the next morning, of course, is Boxing Day–a most appropriately named event. Even if fighting isn’t strictly legal, backbiting unfortunately is. Still, the wise relation seeks the frequent seclusion of his own bedroom during that mostly inglorious day of Christmas aftermath. You see, there is no knowing what sparks may fly when the digestions of a devoted family have gone on strike!
Only the children seem to be able to raise the jolly ashes of their dead selves, phoenix-like from the carcase of the devoured turkey (whose bones in the morning light of Boxing Day resemble somewhat the Cloth Hall at Ypres by the end of the war). Even they (bless ’em!) seem able to recover from the fact that the lovely toys which Uncle John gave them lie broken at their feet because Uncle John would insist upon playing with them all by himself. Children can always become philosophers in half a day. It is their special genius.
Only grown up people have forgotten how to forget. And Christmas, although the most lovable of all the festivals of the year, is also the saddest–and the most lonely, alas! There are so many “gaps”–so many empty places in the heart which the passing of the years will never, never be able to fill. That is why Mother weeps–it is her privilege. And, truth to tell, so many people would like to weep too, only they dare not–they dare not. So they throw themselves into the feverish jollity which Christmas seems to demand for the sake of the children, and for the sake of the young people who, because they were so young, will never realise the aftermath of loneliness which to-day elder people know meant war! So they say to themselves, “Let us eat and drink and appear merry because to-morrow . . . to-morrow–who knows?–peradventure we may all meet again!” Thus the true spirit of Christmas is always as a benediction.