Collection of wit, wisdom puts season in perspective

December 19, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III

ADD THIS TO the perennial babble about secularizing Christmas.

"Noel," the festive robin cried,

When he the heavenly babe espied,

But Santa said "Enough of that!"

And with the Yule log squashed him flat.

The robin, one assumes, not the heavenly babe.

One of my favorite books related to Christmas is a collection of interesting observations, quotations, literary passages and letters assembled over the years by Lord John Julius Norwich in a catalog he calls Christmas Crackers.

In his Still More Christmas Crackers, published by Viking in 2000, Lord Norwich, a distinguished English scholar, historian, former diplomat and prolific author, attributed the above quatrain to the publisher Leo Cooper.

It follows a prayer, noted by Samuel Butler, in which, for no apparent reason, youngsters in the Strang family utter their own version of the Lord's Prayer, with, "Forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us."

Now, I am a Christian, and I obviously do not object to Nativity scenes, Santa Claus, his reindeer, his elves and the music and songs and other trappings of the season. Neither, though, do I object to manifestations of Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa or any of the great variety of other religious and ethnic festivals celebrated in America. They are part of the nation's rich culture. It is astonishing that anyone would object to the reverence, the reliquary and the revelry that accompany these holy days.

But back to Lord Norwich and his Christmas Crackers. His lordship, now 75, early in life developed what he describes in the introduction to Still More Christmas Crackers as "the habit of noting down short passages that had, for one reason or another, caught my fancy."

About 30 years ago, he decided to assemble some of the choicest passages into "a sort of glorified Christmas card." Some of these were put up for sale and were quickly bought. As the popularity of this idea grew, a full book was published containing a decade's worth of Lord Norwich's collected passages. Christmas Crackers became More Christmas Crackers, which was followed by Still More Christmas Crackers, the passages collected from 1990 to 1999.

Most of the passages take up less than a page. I keep my copy in a place where it can be read standing or sitting.

One hilarious passage of only two lines appears alone on a single page. Also appropriate to the holiday season, it is purported to be Shirley Temple's recollection of the day she stopped believing in Santa Claus:

"I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was 6. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph."

From his 1990 cullings, Lord Norwich lists a couple of marvelous snubs:

The Fifth Earl of Dysart, reacting to a suggestion that King George III wished to be invited to his stately home: "Whenever my house becomes a public spectacle, His Majesty shall certainly have the first view."

Talleyrand to a young man boasting of his mother's beauty: "C'etait donc monsieur votre pere qui n'etait pas beau." (Very loosely translated, he said, "So, sir, your father must have been ugly."

Here's one that I have passed along occasionally to individuals beginning their careers as foreign correspondents for this newspaper, not to be taken seriously, of course:

It was Hester up in Chester, it was Jenny down in Kent;

Up and down the motorways, the same where'er he went.

In Luton it was Sally, quite the nicest of the bunch,

But down on his expenses, they were petrol, oil and lunch.

There are many far more serious and intellectually provocative passages in the collections of Christmas Crackers.

One in Latin seems ideally suited to the tedious uproar about Christmas. Inscribed in marble over the entrance to Cardinal Chigi's Villa Cetinale in Tuscany, it reads, "Quisquis huc accedes/ Quod tibi horrendum videtur/ Mihi amoenum est/ Si dilectat maneas/ Si taedet abeas/ Utrumque gratum."

"You who come here whoever you are, what may seem horrible to you is fine for me. If you like it stay. If it bores you go, I couldn't care less."

G. Jefferson Price III is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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