Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (December 29, 1860)


Christmas has come upon us with a severity and rigour which could scarcely have been looked for after our experience of the last quarter. For nine months of the year which is now at its last icy gasp we were playmates of the Patriarchs who lived in the flood-time; since then we have been indulging in dreams of an autumnal Arcadia. After what we had gone through—Pooh! pooh!—winter with its hearty frost, and its red holly-berries; with its skating schoolboys, and rosy cheeked maidens,—all these were visions of the past.

There was to be no more Spring—no more Summer—no more Autumn—no more Winter—but a sort of ‘slab’ mixture of the seasons—a Hecate’s cauldron of jumbled opposites of the thermometer and the barometer. Old Christmas has come notwithstanding—just as in the days when you, and I, and all of us, good friends, looked forward to his coming, as we have since done to this or that bauble or counter in the game of life. They were good times those—but not better than times since—not better than times now, if we will rid ourselves of mawkish sentimentality—not better than times to come for all who have striven, amidst much stumbling, to do their duty here below. We look back at the ‘good old times’—times present will be the good old times a quarter of a century hence—and that we may be able to think of them as such when we grow old and grey, let us all just now make a store of kindly acts, and warm sympathies with our poorer fellow-creatures. The Alderman in his providence ‘lays down’ port—let us all ‘lay down’ a few dozens of good deeds this Christmas, and we shall see how richly the thought will smack in our mouths twenty years hence, when the memory of them is somewhat crusted, and they are tawny in the flasks of Time. Oh! for the beeswing in a well-spent life!

Let not all such thoughts evaporate in mere emotion. Christmas has come with its joys for the thousands, and its bitter, bitter trials for the millions. When we poke our fires, London is not warm—but, on the contrary, exceedingly cold. For this week it is not our intention to trouble our readers much with the intricacies of European politics, or what Pall Mall calls the eventualities of the coming Session. The human race is not always and necessarily occupied with Parliamentary Bills, nor even with making shrewd guesses at what is passing in the dark caverns of Louis Napoleon’s skull. There is something in the Journal of Life, besides the leading article. Therefore, if there be a passage in the Chronicles of Last Week over which we would linger, it is that description which has been given us of the homes of the rural Poor—illustrated as it has been by corresponding pictures of the destitution of London, and of our great cities.

There the evil is—what is to be done? Clearly promiscuous alms-giving is not the remedy—clearly one may be a subscriber to many societies, established on principles of the purest philanthropy, without much real benefit to anybody but the bland secretary and tidy matron. Fie, on this society work!—what slovenly Christianity it is!—what a lazy way of obtaining admission to Paradise as a Life Governor! What an easy thing it is to sign a cheque—what a difficult thing to get to the Heaven of good men! Yet would we not that our counsel should be given in mere empty phrases which do not point to definite action. Everyone who reads these lines knows well of a score, or of a dozen of his fellow-creatures to whom he might be of use if he would but give himself the trouble. We cannot furnish each of our friends with a list of her or his outpatients, but each of us has such a list printed in very efficient type upon his heart of hearts.

There is the old man who claims from us the tribute of respect—the old lady who is young again when the young honour her—the child craving for its frolic—and the poor starving creatures in the three-pair back, who would be happy with a blanket and a morsel of food. Can you fancy the “Pauper,”—that is the term of art,—who enjoys a well poked fire, as the late Lord Hertford would have enjoyed a Suprême de Volaille? Let us who are able-bodied, and in the prime of our strength, see what can be done for each one of these needy classes, for that one of our fellow-creatures who craves but for a smile, as well as for him who asks but for a crust. Above all things let us avoid thinking of the neediest amongst them as of “cases.” To be sure we are all “cases” in one sense, and the best among us is a very doubtful “case” indeed; but the jargon is unsafe; it savours of the workhouse, and leads to hardness of heart. Once again we add, Old Father Christmas is here, not only with his jollities, but his terrors. When the faggots burn brightest, and the blue flame flickers clearest over that rich pudding which is so frequently concocted towards the latter end of the month of December—think of the Fleet stocking—think of the poor debtors for whom no puddings are boiled, for whom no crackling faggots give out their cheerful roar. Think, in short, at Christmas time of all who need sympathy and help!

And there are some amongst us just now who do need sympathy from every British heart. It had been our intention for this our Last Week to make no reference to political or to public events, as thinking that for Christmas week in every year there was a pause in all such matters. But the memory of our fellow-countrymen basely betrayed and cruelly tortured to death by barbarian hands in China comes between us and the innocent mirth of these Christmas times. For some there is no hope—for some hope has flickered down to a small and vanishing point indeed. Had they perished in fair battle for their country’s cause, we should have mourned them less, but still it would have been, as Englishmen say when they clench their teeth—“all right.” But the thought of Anderson and De Norman so foully murdered—and we fear of Bowlby and Brabazon and their companions, whom we can scarce hope to see in life again, comes across one with a shudder. It is as though some one had stepped over one’s own grave, as the old superstition is. Christmas has come to us all—save to the afflicted families of these our unfortunate countrymen. What can we do to succour them?