Over the years I’ve been keeping an eye out for old Christmas essays, but I’ve found only a few. Both Alexander Smith and G. K. Chesterton wrote essays called “Christmas,” but the former hasn’t aged well, and the latter, while charming in its wit, is at core a lament and an argument against extending the celebration back into November, as we are doing here and as our consumer culture has done irreversibly. Hilaire Belloc unsurprisingly remembers better Christmases in “A Remaining Christmas,” and shares some insights about tradition and ritual and, on the other hand, divisiveness in society. Charles Lamb, who often wrote on/about holidays (“New Year’s Eve,” “Valentine’s Day,” “All Fools’ Day”), never made it to Christmas, and Joseph Addison, writing as the Spectator (no. 269), brought us only brief reflections on Christmas via his imaginary friend Sir Roger De Coverley. Scant references to the holiday appear here and there (twice in Montaigne’s Essays, each time as stand-in for “winter” and “cold weather”), yet it would seem that during the preceding centuries, most essayists took the holidays off.
All this preamble will, I hope, serve a double function. First, I am keen to learn; if you know of another classical essay about Christmas, please let me know in the comments. Second, I want to share an essay that’s indirectly “about” Christmas, which I think most people don’t know, and which I love: Louise Imogen Guiney’s “On a Pleasing Encounter with a Pickpocket.”
The plot of the essay is simple: on December 21, 1892, while walking home, Guiney, a struggling Boston poet and postmistress, was pickpocketed and lost some money (payment for some poems) that she’d been hoping to use to pay back a loan and buy presents for her family. But what interests me is her response(s) to the event, which aligns well not only with the seasonal timing but with the Adventine spirit of self-improvement.
The theft caused some consternation, as you might expect. We know this because Guiney wrote a letter to her friend Sonny Day (the photographer who gave us the image above), lamenting:
I write in a melancholy mood. My pocket was picked yesterday…. As for the cash, it is gone, and I have such respect for the inevitable that I would say nothing of it except that it happens to concern you, and Johnny too. George Norton’s bill, a five…was in that bag; and the other five I meant to send you as the last considerable fragment of what I owed you in francs of France. Besides that there were $4.00 extra of my hard-earned own, to be devoted to little Christmas gifts.
Even here she seems resigned, stoical, yet she describes her mood as melancholic, which suits an essayist just fine, but perhaps doesn’t suit the essay. Who wants to read a sob story seeking sympathy? No, in order to essay the experience, she’d have to find or make some other meaning from it. So when she set pen to paper a second time, intending public consumption, she made fun of her distractedness (“I was in town the other evening, walking by myself, at my usual rapid pace, and ruminating, in all likelihood, on the military affairs of the Scythians” she began), and in describing the thief’s ingenious method of escape (no spoilers here), she paused “overcome, nay, transported with admiration and unholy sympathy!” declaring the maneuver “the prettiest trick imaginable.” After the necessary and ineffectual dealings with police, she continued on her way, conversing with Marcus Aurelius, who pipes his wisdom about honor and self-vexing and imperturbability. “Methinks I have ‘arrived’” Guiney concludes, “I have attained a courteous composure proof against mortal hurricanes.”
It is my contention that the very process of essaying combined with and enhanced the writer’s natural (or hard-won) proclivities to bring her to this resolute, peaceful, even wise response, allowing her to “make love to the inevitable” as she says, and I recommend her Christmastime essay here, for your benefit, sure that what Phillip Lopate promises—
The self-consciousness and self-reflection that essay writing demands cannot help but have an influence on the personal essayist’s life.
— works when we read essays, too.
Patrick Madden once took a stroll, in the dead of winter and through shin-high slush, to the very place where Louise Imogen Guiney was pickpocketed (corner of Berkeley and Chandler in Boston). He left a dollar bill hanging temptingly out of his pocket and hoped for the best, but nobody, not even the biting wind, took the bait. When not seeking pickpockets, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He's published one book of essays, Quotidiana, and has another on the way, Sublime Physick, plus an anthology, After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays, which he co-edited with David Lazar, also forthcoming. He curates the online anthology of classical essays www.quotidiana.org.