Mr. Dickens labored hard to convince the world that at this time of year there is only one unfailing test of a man’s character. If he is a good man, he will give away a large quantity of presents. If he is a bad one, he will despise all the amenities of the season, and avenging ghosts will scare him out of his wits on Christmas Eve. This method of trying the depths of one’s moral depravity is scarcely more conclusive than the natives have in some parts of India of detecting a thief.
They bring up all the suspected persons in a row, and give to each a handful of rice to chew. If the rice comes out of the mouth wet, the accused is pronounced innocent. If it should be dry, the unlucky chewer is condemned without further ceremony.
Mr. Dickens’ device for analyzing character is fallacious, for there are some people still alive who have no money and no friends, and under those circumstances it is extremely hard to come up to the proper standard. It is an established principle that everybody shall be free-handed and “merry” at Christmas, although a certain proportion of the human species is absolutely incapacitated from complying with either condition. And even when a man is willing and ready to distribute good gifts among friends, who never appreciate him so well as at that moment of generosity, it is not easy to choose the right thing for the right person. The newspapers very kindly make themselves into so many hand books on the subject, but the lavishness of their suggestions, and that superb indifference to expense which is a glorious attribute of the modern journalist, are sometimes apt to render their guidance somewhat embarrassing to all but millionaires.
Like everything else, the art of choosing presents cannot be acquired without time or trouble. Some people will, of course, take anything they can get, and be thankful, but the truly appreciative person is not to be “pleased with a rattle” or “tickled with a straw.” We all know men and women who will go and buy for a trifling sum an article which is sure to be prized by the recipient far beyond more costly gifts. The reason simply is that it has been selected with some attention to the tastes of the person for whom it was destined. The ideas of most people run in conventional channels on the subject.
A popular young lady, for instance, would tell us that the larger part of the presents made to her are very much of the same kind. Her admirers all go in a beaten track. No doubt it is one of the hardest things in the world to give anything to a spoiled child of fortune which somebody else has not given her before. But there is no absolute necessity to make a run on scent bottles, albums, writing desks and boxes of candies.
The other sex suffer in a similar degree from the poverty of invention among present givers. A man who is lucky enough to be a favorite gets as many smoking caps as if he were an idol with a hundred heads, and slippers enough to open a shoe shop with. They are among the articles which no really sagacious person would ever dream of giving away; for, in the first place, an embroidered smoking cap makes most men look extremely miserable and ridiculous, and home-made slippers are generally very uncomfortable.
A very little trouble would enable any one, male or female, to choose a gift which would be neither hackneyed nor common place — and in default of everything else, a good book is seldom thrown away, and it is likely to be preserved when most other objects are out of date or forgotten.
To children Christmas is really what it has ceased to be to most of their seniors, and for their sakes alone it would be well worth while to keep up the innocent delusion that the whole world is full of rejoicing at this particular season. But even in deciding upon a gift for a child, there is room for a wise discrimination. Some people go upon the simple theory that the more noise a toy makes the more pleasure it will afford. They would turn every house into a sort of beer garden.
Children now-a-days are not quite so young as children were in old-fashioned times, and their toys are made to match. A harmless bag of sawdust or bran used to do duty for the inside of a doll, but now there is an elaborate machinery for making the plaything utter unearthly noises or cry when it is laid down, or squeak something which is intended for “mama” and “papa.” Moreover, the doll must be dressed up like a lady, and its owner puts it to bed in full panoply, or is too knowing to put it to bed at all. Then there animals given to children must all make noises after their kind. The hideous uproar that goes on in some houses in consequence, passes all belief. Formerly, children were very glad to have wooden animals which open not their mouths. Now the sheep must bleat and the donkey bray loud enough to rouse a village. The old Noah’s Ark, or the menagerie, or the wonderful box of games gave quite as much pleasure in their day, but the world is not so foolish now, and naturally they toy-makers have tried to keep progress with the rest of us.
The reality of Santa Claus, however, is one touch of romance still left to the children, and it is productive of more delight to them than any of our modern inventions. Every child values a toy more when she has written to Santa Claus for it, and put the letter up the chimney, and received the answer in due time through the same convenient post-office. All our “Pneumatic dispatches” and underground railroads cannot equal the chimney as a mode of communication between Santa Claus and his young friends. It is to be hoped that this remnant of old-world fables will be allowed to linger for some time yet, for it forms one of the household traditions which soften the memory of childhood in the year when all seasons become pretty much alike, and when great pleasures are chiefly matters of recollection. The charming custom of children giving presents, no matter how trifling, to their parents, is another of our possessions which we should be sorry to see laughed out of existence by practiced philosophers.
Titusville Morning Herald (Titusville, Pennsylvania) Dec 23, 1870