Ghosts

Editorial Notebook

December 24, 2005|By WILL ENGLUND

Is the quaintness starting to get to you? There's something about Christmas, isn't there, that just brings to the fore a sugarcoated view of years gone by, with the present suffering by comparison. "Who but turns, when Christmas comes, to take a retrospective view of the past, and in doing so, how numerous are the happy scenes and blissful hours which rise in strength and beauty upon the scenery of the mind."

The Sun said that, in its first Christmas editorial, back in 1837.

Yes, even when the city and the paper were young, there was a sentimental tendency to look backward at this time of year. And, yes, in 2005, the Editorial Notebook finds itself doing the same thing.

Think of quaint, brick-made Baltimore, a city of horses and sailing ships and flowing big coats, a hint of snow in the air, clerks snuffing candles on Christmas Eve to hurry home to be with their families - and maybe even a young lad with a crutch? A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, was still six years into the future, but a look at The Sun from 168 years ago suggests, well, a bit of that sensibility already (at least among the white, native-born population).

And yet on Dec. 24, 1837, all was not sweet in the city.

"Drowned.-The body of a man named John Stricker, was found yesterday morning in the Falls near the city Block. The deceased had been seen in the early part of the preceding evening, wandering about the streets in a state of derangement, supposed to have been caused by the use of spiritous liquors, and it is probable that while in that condition he unconsciously walked into the water and was drowned."

The police report showed three men being hauled in for "drunken and riotous frolic." In the city's Western District, "Merrit Butler, colored man, was arrested for breaking into Adam Stanly's house, and beating his own wife, who had taken refuge there."

Confidence men and counterfeiters abounded. A penniless Irish immigrant fell under a train and had his ankle crushed. There were omens: The Holliday Street theater was presenting a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, featuring the great actor Junius Brutus Booth - whose son, John Wilkes, would be born less than five months later. Secession talk was already in the air.

Yet all was not dark, either. The past is not so easily boxed in. The Sun's Washington correspondent filed a dispatch that began: "Neither of the Houses of Congress are in session to-day, and we are all up to the eyes in making preparations for Christmas. ... I shall wish you of the Sun a merry Christmas, and shall ask you to do me the favor to give my best love and a lock of my hair to all the pretty girls of Baltimore. All of your dear creatures are beautiful, and it will take all the hair of my head to supply them."

The paper's editorial writer rhapsodized over the busyness of a city market on the Saturday night before Christmas - "goodly rows of neat, nice, and clean eatables, sober substantials, drawn carefully forth from the market cart, and deposited with taste and judgment to best advantage on the market stall; and then the chequered liveliness of the place-the bustle, chat and chaffering of purchase, and not unfrequently a pleasant dish of fair flirtation."

The piece went on to talk about an old gentleman in buckled shoes and circular spectacles addressing each turkey he came upon until he found one young enough to roast. Then came a woman swindled of a dollar, and the generosity of the crowd. Finally it recommended that there be no growling or scolding on Christmas, and that every old bachelor have his corns pared so as not to be so peevish.

Quaint? Certainly. It probably was even then. "We advise every body to be cheeerful," said The Sun that day, "and merry." That's still good advice.

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