Tuesday, December 22, 2015
I want to wish a Merry Christmas to my entire readership and indeed to the conceivably even larger whole of humanity of which I sometimes sense my readers may be but a portion. If you absolutely insist, feel free to emend that greeting to one of “Happy Holidays”. Among the several reasons I find “Happy Holidays” such a feeble bromide is that the generic seldom has the interest or conviction of the specific. If I walk into a good restaurant, consult the extensive menu, and ask the waiter for a couple of recommendations, I do not want to hear “Well, I’d go with the Food.” You don’t have to be Jewish to bask in the good will of someone’s “Shabbat shalom”, nor do you actually have to file for French citizenship to enjoy dancing in the streets of Paris on Quatorze Juillet.
I am also partial to old words that survive only in certain immemorial and ossified constructions: the quick and the dead, by hook or by crook, and so forth. The adjective merry is among such words. It’s an Old English word without many cognates in the other Germanic languages. Merry meant something between joyous and hilarious, with a definite possibility of the excessive or the transgressive. The phrase “merry England” meant something on the spectrum between “A nice place to be” and “Let the good times roll”. A “merry Andrew” was a clown or court jester or a dark prankster in the Owlglass tradition. I recommend the page on “merry” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The nominal form mirth, which after a fashion survives in modern English, has lost the darker overtones it has in the biblical “house of mirth” taken as the title for Edith Wharton’s brilliant novel.
So it is with a slightly edgy sensation that we shall set out a little later today on a merry holiday adventure of nearly a week’s duration. The old dogma that old dogs cannot learn new tricks is a piece of proverbial misinformation that must find its origins in some particularly unfriendly quarter of the feline world. Should you actually happen to be an old dog you will know precisely how absurd the slur is. We are learning new tricks all the time, often as a matter of survival. In fact most of the Old Trick programs have been so savaged by budget cuts and would-be reformers that we don’t have a whole lot of choice. What is true, perhaps, is that old dogs learn more slowly than they once did, and they must bow to a humiliating reversal of the natural order of things by being instructed by their own pups. The specific New Trick we are about to perform under these conditions is that of the New York City Christmas.
For the first time in many years all three of our adult children will be merry-making in distant parts. Under these circumstances we briefly considered various possibilities of which we had read in books. These in effect boiled down to two. One was to get on an airplane and fly to somewhere sunny and warm. The other was to get into a car and drive somewhere north or west into a snow-covered forest. Then two other ideas came into our minds. The first was that it is the heart’s desire of upwards of a million of our fellows world-wide to spend the holiday amid the bright lights of New York City. The second was that a generous but galavanting daughter was temporarily abandoning a handsome apartment on Washington Square, thus maximally facilitating a most appealing parental New Trick. So armed with pre-arranged theater tickets, a restaurant guide, a dozen “Friends of X Museum” cards, and some good walking shoes, we are about to be whisked to the Big City in time for a celebrative dinner with the family of our Brooklyn son before they all fly off to Tennessee. This will be followed by several days of mainly pagan indulgence—though partially redeemed, we hope, by Christmas Eve Mass at Saint Luke’s in the Fields. I am sure you can understand the feelings of exhilaration the Old Dogs are enjoying under the circumstances.