Christmas. Bess Streeter Aldrich. Keeping beauty in perspective regardless of present circumstances. (Dec. 2014)

Susan's Thursday morning note December 18, 2014
Bess Streeter Aldrich "The Drum Goes Dead" 
Keeping beauty in perspective regardless of present circumstances

Good morning!  Awakening to a covering of snow.  Silence and light snow.  Coffee.  The gift of a new morning again gently handed to me from my angel of dawn.  I can’t help but add a description of the different “tablecloths” laid upon earth’s surface by Bess Streeter Aldrich to begin her short story I’m going to be writing from today, The Drum Goes Dead…”There are few changes in the ensemble from year to year.  Only the tablecloth is different.  There is a vivid green one for spring, a checkered green-and-tan one for summer, a mottled yellow-red-and-brown one for autumn.  Just now – the day  before Christmas- Nature, the busy housekeeper, had dressed the table in a snow-white cloth for the first time.  It was thin, however, as though she must patch it soon with more white.”  With so much despair and sadness this week in the news I want to write out of a short Christmas story on the mental decision we must make as adults to see the beauty.

My favorite author ever (grinning) from Nebraska, Bess Streeter Aldrich, has a collection of Christmas stories, with one entitled, The Drum Goes Dead.  This title taken from a line in a Christmas story written in 1626 by Nicholas Breton in his novel Fantasticks.  Bear with me on the wording.  How Bess Streeter Aldrich pulls it all together later is what captivated my thinking.  On the ability of a human soul to conquer thoughts of despair in the midst of the beauty of life.

“It is now Christmas, and not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl, and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pastry: cards and dice purge many a purse, and the youth show their agility in shoeing of the wild mare: now, good cheer, and welcome, and God be with you, and I thank you — and against the New Year provide for the presents — the Lord of Misrule is no mean man for his time, and the guests of the high table must lack no Wine: the lusty bloods must look about them like men, and piping and dancing puts away much melancholy: stolen venison is sweet, and a fat coney is worth money: pit-falls are now set for small birds, and a woodcock hangs himself in a gin: a good fire heats all the house, and a full alms-basket makes the beggar’s prayers: — the maskers and the mummers make the merry sport, but if they lose their money their drum goes dead : swearers and swaggerers are sent away to the ale-house, and unruly wenches go in danger of judgment: musicians now make their instruments speak out, and a good song is worth the hearing. In sum it is a holy time, a duty in Christians for the remembrance of Christ and custom among friends for the maintenance of good fellowship. In brief I thus conclude it : I hold it a memory of the Heaven’s love and the world’s peace, the mirth of the honest, and the meeting of the friendly. Farewell.”

Back to The Drum Goes Dead by Aldrich.  This short story is on the the thoughts of one particular character throughout one day in the Christmas season.  His feelings of despair as he sees so much surrounding him being sad, depressing, overwhelming to comprehend.  During his conversations throughout this particular day he begins with an older man who talks a lot.  This man tells of his Christmas memories.  The conversation switches the thoughts of our main character.  He then proceeds with his meetings to ask each person he works with, “What is your favorite memory of Christmas?” and begins to listen to each tell their story.  Following is the conversation bringing in the line from 1626:

…Old Professor Shellhorn came in, his cane thump-thumping across the little lobby, with George muttering under his breath, “And what is the subject of our lecture today, professor?” 

“Merry Christmas!”  The old man nodded gravely to them all.  “Christmas time again, good friends”  He spread out his arms in theatrical gesture, quoted grandiloquently: “’Now good cheer and welcome.  Not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bake house and the pastry.’  You see, I have been reading again as I have for many years the Christmas customs of old England.  Those were merry days, according to authentic information.”  The pedantic old man!  “It was several centuries ago that this was written anent the Christmas season:

The maskers and the mummers make the merry sport…But if they lose their money, their drum goes dead.’

“I have been telling my daughter-in-law that while the original thought was not quite the same as my modern application, it had held good for these hundreds of years.  We are all more or less like that, are we not?  We’re maskers and mummers having a merry time but if we lose our money or our crops or a friend, the drum goes dead.  It takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened, does it not?”

The end of the short story ends with our main character having to unexpectedly play the role of Santa Claus at a local Christmas pageant in the evening.  He listens to the voices of the little children.

“Yet in thy dark street shineth
    The everlasting Light;  
The hopes and fears of all the years 
    Are met in thee tonight.”

The man who had been feeling that Christmas gifts should be abandoned until the world could give and receive them with better heart was looking into the glowing faces of the children who had just made him a gift of cheap drawing-paper – a priceless gift of heart-warming friendship and trust.  And so suddenly that it seemed a new thought – though it was as old as the silent stars – a bright-colored strand wove itself across the gray warp of his mind.  The world was not in chaos to these children.  Through their eyes it was still the same world of limited dimensions he and these other burdened people had known as children, and because this was so, it was still a good world. 

Humanity must hang fast to its faith and its hope.  It must never let them go as long as there remained in the world a child and a song, a gift and a star. 

Peculiarly, he had a sensation of lightening spirits.  Nothing had changed materially.  The same losses, disappointments and burdens awaited the community outside like dark-omened birds of prey, but they seemed less forbidding now.  He felt mentally strengthened, emotionally comforted.  He could carry on as “helpful citizen, counselor and friend” 

Everyone went home – to the big houses and the little ones, the well-kept ones and those with peeling paint – the homes witch, God be thanked, were still a part of the bulwark of the nation.

The snow was covering the unfruitful corn lands and the green winter wheat with its life-giving moisture, reminding all that another spring would come.  The Christmas stars hung low in the winter sky.  Up the street the high clear voices of carolers were singing “No-el, No-el.”

Why do the Bells of Christmas Ring?  by Eugene Field (1912)

Why do the bells of Christmas ring?
Why do little children sing?

Once a lovely shining star,
Seen by shepherds from afar,
Gently moved until its light
Made a manger’s cradle bright.

There a darling baby lay,
Pillowed soft upon the hay;
And its mother sung and smiled:
This is Christ, the holy Child!

Therefore bells for Christmas ring,
Therefore little children sing.

Children.  Again seeing life from our Creator’s perspective.  Blessed are the children, for they shall see God.  Children.  Children sing.  Children gaze.  Children notice.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children notice the paw prints in the snow.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children look into eyes.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children splash in the mud.  Children purposefully try to step in the puddles of slush for the sheer pleasure of the splash.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children see the baby in the nativity scene.  Children stop to look.  Stop to take in the beautiful scene.  Children hold our hands.  Children trust.  Children don’t look too far into the future.  Children hear the Christmas bells.  Children see the beauty of each moment.  Children forget.  Children forgive.  Children hope.  Children notice beauty.  Children sing.  Children hear the Christmas bells.

Our angel of dawn has disappeared as the sun begins to now make her appearance.  Will we thankfully receive her gift presented privately to each of us?  Will we notice the grains of the sand of time today as they so quickly pass through our sand-timers?  Will we realize no matter how quickly they pass, still only one grain passes per moment?  Will we be able to notice some grains as they slide down?  Will we have any moments handed to us today that are worthy of being inscribed on our epitaph tonight in stone?  Our epitaph of the moments of life we will never be handed back?  Beautiful life.  Beautiful today.  This moment.  A child using wrapping paper to be his fireman pole.  He hears the bells.  A child using his blanket as his cape.  Again hearing the bells.  Seeing life in the beautiful moment.  The bells ring.  Regardless of what is also reality and sad and overwhelming in life, the bells still ring for the children.  Beautiful moments and beautiful life.  Thank you for letting me enter your Thursday again.  Thank you for coming into our store for your gifts.  How we thank you for your friendship and encouragement.  Year after year.  So many of Aldrich’s short stories were on how memories of Christmas’s in our pasts all merge together in our minds.  The one holiday that seems to blend itself.  As we look at our past Christmases may we also realize that there will be more.  More stories.  More bells.  Always more bells will be ringing.  Merry Christmas!  Susan


Latin for this week:
tintinabulum - bells

Works Cited:
Aldrich, Bess Streeter.  Journey Into Christmas and other Stories.  Lincoln. 1985.  University of NE Press.