A Wavian Christmas, or Two

Magnus Linklater begins his Christmas column in The Times by looking at how noted diarists from the past have marked the holiday:

Christmas does not always bring out the best in us — but did it ever? Diarists of the past found it, more often than not, a gloomy day. Sam Pepys, on Christmas Day 1661, noted mournfully: “Dined at home all alone, and taking occasion from some fault in the meat to complain of my maid’s sluttery, my wife and I fell out, and I up to my chamber in discontent.”

Evelyn Waugh, on December 25, 1919, wrote: “A poor Christmas Day . . . like birthdays, Christmas gets duller and duller. Soon it will be merely a day when the shops are most inconveniently shut.” He was 16 at the time, but did not grow much cheerier in later life: “Christmas Day always makes me feel a little sad . . . a dreary day.”

Harold Nicolson came close to despair in 1941 (but then who wouldn’t?): “Vita [his wife] gives me books and an alarm clock to wake me up. But it stops at once. I sit indoors all day, feeling rotten.” Sir Henry Channon, who relished the gossip and foibles of high society, was equally miserable that same year, as Christmas came and went. “I am profoundly unhappy and lonely, really,” is his diary entry. “My life is a mess.”

Waugh’s best-known description of Christmas is probably that (or those) in Brideshead Revisited. There are at least two at Brideshead Castle that I can recall (1960, rev. ed. pp. 139ff and 169ff), neither particularly joyful but reflecting some humor, mostly at the expense of Mr Samgrass. Later (p. 306), Charles describes the Ryder family Christmas Day celebration at the house of his uncle (Cousin Jasper’s father), where Charles joins his wife, Celia, and their children before he returns to Julia with whom he has been living at Brideshead Castle for the past two years:

…here among the holly and mistletoe and the cut spruce, the parlour games ritually performed, the brandy-butter and the Carlsbad plums, the village choir in the pitch-pine minstrels’ gallery, gold twine and sprigged wrapping-paper, [Celia] and I were accepted, whatever ugly rumours had been afloat in the past year, as man and wife.


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