Friday, December 14, 2012
Christmas: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse, edited by Robert Haven Schauffler
It’s extremely unlikely that the name Robert Haven Schauffler (1879–1964) resonates in any way with you, but if you are a reader from about 30-to-90 years of age, you have probably read one of his books.
Schauffler was an American writer, musician, war hero and biographer (of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann), as well as editor of a series of books about holidays.
He was born in Austria to missionary parents; his family would later found Schaffler College in Cleveland for Bohemian immigrants who were interested in social or religious work. He would later serve in the Great War and win a Purple Heart.
In 1907 he wrote a book about Thanksgiving, and his publisher recommended a follow-up book on Christmas. (He would later write or edit books on Arbor Day, Independence Day, and the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln.) Now, here’s the amazing thing, the book -- Christmas: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse – was first published in 1907. I have seen editions from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and finally an edition published in the 1970s, which I first read in grade school. Schauffler’s collection is one of scores of “anonymous” books that are in nearly every school library, well-thumbed by children and adolescents, and then cast aside without a second thought. It’s now available for free download from Project Gutenberg or ManyBooks.net.
That’s something of a shame, because Schauffler’s Christmas collection has many good things in it. Aside from the obligatory Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen, Schaffler has tidbits from writers as diverse as Leigh Hunt, Christina Rossetti, Robert Herrick and William Morris. If you desire a Christmas bedside reader, you could do no better.
Here is a snippet from another forgotten author, Hamilton Wright Mabie (1846–1916): The world has been full of mysteries today; everybody has gone about weighted with secrets. The children's faces have fairly shone with expectancy, and I enter easily into the universal dream which at this moment holds all the children of Christendom under its spell. Was there ever a wider or more loving conspiracy than that which keeps the venerable figure of Santa Claus from slipping away, with all the other oldtime myths, into the forsaken wonderland of the past? Of all the personages whose marvelous doings once filled the minds of men, he alone survives. He has outlived all the great gods, and all the impressive and poetic conceptions which once flitted between heaven and earth; these have gone, but Santa Claus remains by virtue of a common understanding that childhood shall not be despoiled of one of its most cherished beliefs, either by the mythologist, with his sun myth theory, or the scientist, with his heartless diatribe against superstition. There is a good deal more to be said on this subject, if this were the place to say it; even superstition has its uses, and sometimes, its sound heart of truth. He who does not see in the legend of Santa Claus a beautiful faith on one side, and the naive embodiment of a divine fact on the other, is not fit to have a place at the Christmas board. For him there should be neither carol, nor holly, nor mistletoe; they only shall keep the feast to whom all these things are but the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.
More on the holidays next week!