Tuesday, December 6, 2011

By the Christmas Fire

Posterity has not been particularly kind to Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927), but we here at the Jade Sphinx have been paging through his 1908 book, By The Christmas Fire with great satisfaction.  This book is happily available for free download to your Kindle or e-reader, and can be had, for example, at Manybooks.net.
Crothers was a Unitarian Universality minister at the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He is the author of many then-popular essays, collected in The Understanding Heart (1903), The Gentle Reader (1903) and The Pardoner’s Wallet (1905).  Crothers was a graduate of Wittenberg College and the College of New Jersey, earning his divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary in 1877.  He was first a Presbyterian minister before converting to the Unitarian church in 1882.
Most of his essays appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and reading them, one has the sense of a profound and sweet soul.  His is the type of gentle intellect and warm-hearted humanity that calls to us at the Christmas season.  (Look at his photo above.  Does he not bear a remarkable resemblance to A. A. Milne, author of the Pooh books?)  By The Christmas Fire is broken up into several essays, including Christmas and the Literature of Disillusion, The Ignominy of Being Grown-up and Christmas and the Spirit of Democracy.  Here is a snippet from The Ignominy of Being Grown Up where Crothers talks of the transition from happy childhood to adulthood:
What becomes of these imaginative, inquisitive, myth-making, light-hearted, tender-hearted, and altogether charming young adventurers who start out so gaily to explore the wonder world?
The solemn answer comes, “They after a while are grown-up.”  Did you ever mediate on that catastrophe which we speak of as being “grown-up?”  Habit has dulled our perception of the absurd anti-climax involved in it.  You have only to compare the two estates to see that something has been lost.
You linger for a moment when the primary school has been dismissed.  For a little while the stream of youthful humanity flows sluggishly as between the banks of a canal, but once beyond the school limits it returns to nature.  It is a bright, foaming torrent.  Not a moment is wasted.  The little girls are at once exchanging confidences, and the little boys are in Valhalla, where the heroes make friends with one another by indulging in everlasting assault and battery, and continually are “refreshed with blows.”  There is no question about their being all alive and actively interested in one another.  All the natural reactions are exhibited in the most interesting manner. 
Then you get into a street car, invented by an ingenious misanthropist to give you the most unfavorable view possible of your kind.  On entering you choose a side, unless you are condemned to be suspended in the middle.  Then you look at your antagonists on the opposite side.  What a long, unrelenting row of humanity!  These are the grown-ups. You look for some play of emotion, some evidence of curiosity, pleasure, exhilaration, such as you might naturally expect from those who are taking a little journey into the world … Growing is like falling – it is all right so long as you keep on; the trouble comes when you stop.
By The Christmas Fire is a little book – it can easily be read in two sittings.  It is common at this time of year for us to fall back into the Christmas novels of our youth – A Christmas Carol, Little Women, The Chimes – but with so much wonderful holiday material out there in the public domain, it seems a shame not to do a little exploring ourselves this holiday season.  Start with By The Christmas Fire – it does not disappoint.

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