Thursday, 24 December 2009

Unknown correspondent



While Dr Johnson was compiling his Dictionary someone unknown to him contributed the origin of 'curmudgeon' as a corruption of the French coeur méchant, i.e. 'wicked heart'. Accurate or not, this notion took Dr Johnson's fancy. He included this derivation, acknowledging its source as an 'unknown correspondent'.

Some years later a Dr Ash, a rival and lesser lexicographer, discovered this while plundering Johnson's dictionary for good things to put into his own. Reluctant to allow Johnson any credit, however, he announced that 'curmudgeon' was derived from coeur, 'unknown', and méchant, 'correspondent'.*

I only put this in to slake my own Christmas curmudgeonliness. It's not a case of Scroogeism, of bah, humbug. Enjoy what you can while you can, I say. Carpe diem. I just wish, I just wish, I just wish I could share it without pretending. I hated Christmas as a child. Z's (over there on the right) beautifully written Christmas memoirs reveal worlds unknown to me: I feel like a tousled orphan furtively staring in through a gap in the curtains, ashamed of my beggarly status.

It's not that people were ungenerous, quite the reverse. There were presents galore. I really didn't care for opening them very much: so many presents connoted an obligation to the giver, an intrusion into my independence. I hated the food, which was perfectly good, well cooked and imaginatively presented Christmas fare. My earliest memories of being sick stem from Christmas time. Lifelong dislikes mostly originating in Christmas won't go away, however hard I try: dates, brazil nuts, stuffing, bread sauce, potatoes, dark chocolate, especially the sort you got in gold foil-wrapped 'coins'.

I carried this uncomfortable burden with me into adulthood. I was afraid of passing it on to my children. However hard you try to mask them, certain hereditary phobias always get through. Working in schools didn't help: the end of the Christmas term was always so frantically active, especially in Scotland where it wasn't unknown to break up on Christmas Eve, that there was no energy left for Christmas at home.

Twenty years or so ago I tried to get this out of my system by writing what I decided was to become the definitive novel about Christmas. It was never finished and I don't expect it ever will be, now. In an early chapter the hero attends a watchnight service. While waiting for proceedings to start he tells his pew-neighbour Mrs Woods, who has brought her cat to the service in a basket, about St Francis of Assisi and the origin of Christmas cribs. St Francis, a very great saint indeed, once created a life-size stable, manger and all the rest of it. Into it he drove cattle, donkeys, poultry and maybe - who knows? - cats as well. His Mary was about 13. He wanted to show the dirt, darkness, stink, squalor, poverty and unwantedness that Jesus was born into, and to invite his parishioners to draw their own conclusions.

I don't know where this story came from. An unknown correspondent, probably. As for me, please don't worry. I'm a happy little soul really, and I do try hard not to be a skeleton at the feast. But I shan't be sorry when it's all over. Happy days, everyone!


* Mustn't fall into the same trap: I got this story from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, ed. James Sutherland, OUP London 1975

...to cheer everyone up after this lead-weight of dismalness here's an extraordinary piece of truly seasonal music.


13 comments:

Dave said...

And a Happy New Year to you.

Vicus Scurra said...

As ever, I enjoyed that. Let me get into the seasonal mood by saying that I didn't think much of the music, and I very seldom enjoy what is called "animation".
I don't think you should have to apologise for not joining in the annual madness. I certainly shan't.
Please call in to North East Hampshire over the holiday period. We will be pleased to see you, and will not say anything traditional.

zIggI said...

I rather liked the animation, thank you, looked like it was meant to do something else and the music was a happy coincidence - perhaps it was invented by Bergholt Stuttley Johnson.

Wishing you eh...a pleasant week of indulgence.

Rog said...

I think you'll find it was invented by a very busy dog.

Cur=dog Muchon=very busy.

Happy Christophermas!

Geoff said...

The food is over-rich and leaves a very unpleasant irritable feeling. And the giving and receiving of presents leaves an awful empty feeling. And then there's the guilty feeling that Christmas is not such a family time as it used to be and we're all partly to blame for this.

Still, it's only once a year.

Chin up!

Z said...

I had a puzzled feeling of not belonging all through my childhood. And I hoped to enjoy Christmas, but it always vaguely disappointed. Fortunately, I knew what I was missing, so filled in the spaces when my own children were growing up - or most of them - still a few gaps being filled via grandchildren. It may be that the Blue Kitten will teach you with the simplicity of her joy.

My son Ales is really uncomfortable with receiving presents, by the way. Maybe you and he would understand each other.

I'm good with pretending. Sometimes, one can even convince oneself. And if not, it still beats glowering in a corner.

Happy Christmas, dearest Christopher, and thank you for your kindness.

Sarah said...

I can't bear what Christmas has turned into...I would much rather leave the country, but work commitments won't allow this. I hate the hype, the way people stock pile food, the way the shops are full of crap, and I particularly hate the way that most people celebrate it without so much as a thought for what it stands for. I keep my head down and try and muddle through.... you are not alone!

Dave said...

It's all over. You can come back now Christopher.

Christopher said...

Dear friends, thank you.

Dave, it's so good to see you back again, even if it means 3 minutes less in bed each morning.

Vicus: Thank you - we've no plans to visit the UK in the next few months, but we're very happy to return your kind invitation: any time you find yourself in the Languedoc and in need of tea and improving conversation, just ring the bell and you won't find us hiding under the stairs.

Ziggi: What a pleasure! Thanks for dropping in. Excellent company here, as you see, martyrs to indulgence every one. B.S. Johnson? Very likely (tho' - ahem - I had to look him up. Oh dear.)

Rog: Dr Johnson would have con-cur-red, while addressing you as 'Sir', and quite right too. I think we should all address you as Sir.

And Sir Geoff, too. Goes without saying, really.

Z: May I rely on you to be on hand with the improving conversation when Vicus comes round?

Sarah: I know, I know. One year when the children were small - I don't know if they remember - we just had cheese and tomato sandwiches for Christmas dinner, clearly over-indulging in Dog in the manger rather than Child in the manger. The elderly neighbour we used to take in at Christmas-time was black affronted.

Dave: Safe now, is it? Thanks: I seem to have survived. I even had a small roast potato yesterday. Just shows what can be done with will-power.

Z said...

I shall simply tell Vicus he's right. Completely disarms people.

Christopher said...

You're quite right, Z. I agree unreservedly.

Z said...

I find any of the first three hard to believe - just too convenient to back up her point - however, I read the article and thought of you.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6968566.ece

Christopher said...

Thanks, Z. Yes, rather contrived, the opening, but there was meat enough in what followed.

It's really good to be thought of!