Robertson Davies on Christmas Books

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The following by Canadian literary giant Robertson Davies appeared in the New York Times in December, 1991:

There are many people — happy people, it usually appears — whose thoughts at Christmas always turn to books. The notion of a Christmas tree with no books under it is repugnant and unnatural to them. I had the good luck to be born into such a family and, although my brothers and I were happy with such insubstantial gifts as skates, toboggans and the like, we would have been greatly disappointed if there had been no books. My father expected the latest Wodehouse, and some vast wad of political recollections — “The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page” when I was very young, and the awesome six volumes of Lloyd George’s war memoirs much later, were the sort of thing that he, and he alone in our family, could read — and my mother wanted and received novels of idyllic rural life by Mary Webb or Sheila Kaye-Smith.

For me, a standby for years was the annual collected volume of the English boys’ magazine Chums, through which I chewed greedily, consuming the historical serial (the boy who did wonders in the army of Wellington or the navy of Nelson); the contemporary serial (the boy whose mother sacrificed to send him to a good school — these were all boarding schools — and who emerged victorious from some scandal in which he had been accused of theft or secret drinking, and carried the school to victory in the great cricket match); the comic serial, about disruptive groups of boy conjurers, boy ventriloquists and boy contortionists who reduced their schools to chaos and their masters to nervous prostration by their sidesplitting japes and wheezes. These wondrous boys were not in the least like the boys I knew in Canada, but that merely gave them the appeal of the exotic. In between the pages of the serials, I read the articles about careers (civil servant, church organist, veterinarian) and about how to make a serviceable violin out of a cigar box and some picture wire.

I particularly relished a column of comic backchat between two wags named Roland Butter and Hammond Deggs. Here is a sample of their wares. R.B.: “Why did the djinn sham pain and whine?” H.D.: “I dunno.” R.B.: “Because the stout porter bit ‘er.” H.D.: “Oh, crumbs!” It was not until much later in life when I came under the spell of Demon Rum that I savored the full richness of that one.

Before Christmas there was always a period of expectancy during which my parents urged me to read Dickens’s “Christmas Carol.” Every year I tried and every year Christmas Day arrived to find that I had got no further than the appearance of Marley’s ghost. I was a slow reader, moving my lips and hearing every word, but I knew the story. It was inescapable. At school no Christmas passed without several children being dragooned into a re-enactment of the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, for the entertainment of parents. Early in life I developed a distaste for the Cratchits that time has not sweetened. I do not think I was an embittered child, but the Cratchits’ aggressive worthiness, their bravely borne poverty, their exultation over that wretched goose, disgusted me. I particularly disliked Tiny Tim (a part always played by a girl because girls had superior powers of looking moribund and worthy at the same time), and when he chirped, “God bless us every one!” my mental response was akin to Sam Goldwyn’s famous phrase, “Include me out.”

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