A Christopher Morley Christmas
As the dear patrons of our little blog know, the Bryant Library’s Local History Collection contains a veritable trove of Christopher Morley’s authored works, personal manuscripts, ephemera, and other odds and ends that pertain to the Roslyn Estates writer. Known for his wry sense of humor and witty way with words, Morley wrote several holiday essays and tales over the course of his long career.
While exploring ways to present our readers with a decorative missive of holiday cheer, our Morley archives revealed a capsule collection of Christmas-themed writings. Together, these works form a deeply dimensioned assortment that covers the wide spectrum of yuletide sentiment, from the jolly tales of the canine Mr. Gissing to the gentle melancholy of The Tree That Didn’t Get Trimmed.
Morley’s 1918 essay, “Old Thoughts for Christmas,” is a light-hearted yet sobering reflection on the meaning of the Christmas season. Written in the wake of the Armistice that ended World War I, Morley describes the intertwining spirits of surprise and kindness that seem more evident during the holiday season:
"Surprise is the most primitive joy of humanity. Surprise is the first reason for a baby’s laughter. And at Christmas time, when we are all a little childish I hope, surprise is the flavour of our keenest joys. We all remember the thrill with which we once heard, behind some closed door, the rustle and crackle of paper parcels being tied up. We knew that we were going to be surprised - a delicious refinement and luxuriant seasoning of the emotion!"
"We let our kindness ramble and explore; old forgotten friendships pop up in our minds and we mail a card to Harry Hunt, of Minneapolis (from whom we have not heard for half a dozen years), “just to surprise him.” For a short period of time, “the stupid, harsh mechanism of the world runs down and we permit ourselves to live according to untrammelled common sense, the unconquerable efficiency of good will. We grant ourselves the complete and selfish pleasure of loving others better than themselves.”
In the aftermath of a worldwide conflict that took so many lives, Morley concludes:
“And now humanity has its most beautiful and most appropriate Christmas gift - Peace. The Magi of Versailles and Washington having unwound for us the tissue paper and red ribbon (or red tape) from this greatest of all gifts, let us in days to come measure up to what has been born through such anguish and horror.”
Several years later in 1925, Morley published the aforementioned story, The Tree That Didn’t Get Trimmed. The gloom and despair of older works such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fir Tree as well as The Little Match Girl are obvious inspirations for this sad little tale about a young rejected Christmas tree. However, unlike the sorrowful conclusions of the Andersen stories, this spiritual successor offers the redemption of repurposing as the tree is purchased by a farmer who uses it to support a clothesline: “And the very first thing that was hung near the top of the Christmas pole was a cluster of children’s stockings."
One year after the publication of this misty-eyed tale, a piece called “Slow Gin” appeared in a collection of Morley’s essays. Five years later in 1931, it was reissued as Don’t Open Until Christmas, a “separate book” that was donated to the Bryant Library by local resident David Marcus, whose oral history interview on Morley resides in our collection. The covers of this thin codex feature a festive, holiday-appropriate pattern of leaping reindeer against a green background.
The book is also inscribed by Morley:
Much different in tone than the works discussed thus far, the subject matter of Don’t Open Until Christmas speaks clearly to Morley’s affection for libational recreation. The story, which was published within the bounds of Prohibition, describes an encounter between Santa and a bootlegger. Recounting the meeting to Mrs. Claus, Santa approached the bootlegger (who he declares is “the real Santa nowadays in New York”) in an attempt to acquire enough whiskey to satiate his “clients’” desires. In seeking “the little miracle of liquid flame that evens man with God,” Santa learns of a special “Slow Gin,” which plays on the name of a real variety of gin flavored with sloe berries. This fanciful spirit has the hallucinatory effect of slowing down time to those who imbibe. Santa’s fascination with the bootlegger’s philosophical musings leads him to ingest this magical substance, the aftermath of which he describes to Mrs. Claus with imagery that alternates between beauty and terror. Though a single line of this description is difficult to isolate as they are all equally seductive in their rich use of sensory language, the following relates a scene that will likely resonate with all who have ever traveled by train into Manhattan:
"I saw the crowd of commuters when the train gate opens at the Long Island Station in the evening. Instead of that multitudinous pour down the stairway, I could see the mass gently lip over the top step and descend as softly gradual as cold molasses."
Despite its decidedly non-traditional depiction of Santa Claus, Don’t Open Until Christmas effectively conjures the holiday spirit while communicating Morley’s personal brand of eccentric humor.
Though its title does not suggest a plot rife with cheer, The Worst Christmas Story, written in 1939, is a curious publication with the intriguing back matter seen below:
The story referenced in the title is framed within a conversation between a first-person narrator and Dove Dulcet, an individual of indeterminate existence referenced in several Morley works. Set in the timeless landscape of a wintry New York City, the narrator listens as Dulcet, clad in a Santa suit, explains his avoidance of the Christmas cards piled thickly on his tabletop. His story travels back to the Christmas of 1906 when the suffering economy left him and his upstairs love interest, Peggy, shivering in the frost-coated poverty of a Greenwich Village lodging house. Dulcet’s wistful reminiscence reveals a somewhat surprising twist that evokes the plot of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. Published one year before the given date of Dulcet’s in-story recollection, it can be speculated as a direct reference by Morley to this classic short story. Although it describes a time removed from our own by over a century, The Worst Christmas Story portrays a setting that can still be glimpsed in the present day. It additionally imparts a relatable sentimentality for readers with bittersweet memories of young adulthood.
Woven in patterns of whimsical design, the vignette-like threads of I Know a Secret and Where the Blue Begins are flecked with the charm of magical realism in their real-world setting of Roslyn Estates. Though written for children, these books contain a narrative wit that transcends age and reading level. Their depiction of Christmas is seen through the lens of a puppy named Gissing, as he is named in I Know a Secret, who later gains the grown-up title of Mr. Gissing in Where the Blue Begins. The family pet of the “Mistletoe” household (a Christmassy surname from Morley’s collection of pseudonyms), the puppy is the featured protagonist of the I Know a Secret chapter “Gissing and The Telephone”. In this episode, little Gissing uses the upstairs “speaking tube” to directly contact Santa Claus at the North Pole after he has completed his Christmas Eve deliveries. Having misunderstood the timeline, mechanics, and logistics of the holiday, Gissing places the innocent request for “a white china cat”-- one of the few gifts that were left on Santa’s workshop shelf. Though tired from his journey, Santa decides to travel all the way back to Roslyn Estates to deliver the china cat, along with the other leftover toys. This precious scene is illustrated by “Mr. Mistletoe'' in the mirror-image manner which would allow for its insertion into the Magic Lantern, a device that projects the pictures onto a screen or wall:
*Fun fact: In the oral history interview that was conducted in The Bryant Room with Morley’s daughter, author Louise Morley Cochrane, she describes the real Magic Lantern which her father encouraged his three children to supply with hand-drawn pictures from their own imaginations.*
Gissing’s second Christmas-themed appearance occurs in the final chapter of Where the Blue Begins where he entertains his own puppies with a made-up story starring the three eager residents of “Canine Estates”. Of course, these anthropomorphized tail-waggers are written to represent Morley’s three children, as “Mr. Gissing'' now represents the author himself. Though previously depicted in human form, the Santa Claus Mr. Gissing describes to his puppies is “a great big Newfoundland dog with a white beard” who “lives in a frosty kennel in the North Pole, all shining with icicles round the roof and windows.” Those familiar with the Newfoundland will undoubtedly agree that it is the perfect breed for a Santa Claus dog.
The final sprig of Christmas holly pulled from our Christopher Morley collection is not a formal publication but rather a letter to his longtime friend, William Hall. The short composition’s overall theme is more concerned with a defective S key on his “schreibmaschine” (German for “typewriter”) and the “dilution aquae purae” of scotch and gin than the holiday season. However, the Dickensian declaration of “God bless them, everyone” along with the “hand-hued” tree, “rubricated” in the manner of an illuminated manuscript, secure its inclusion among the many literary baubles that adorn Morley’s Christmas oeuvre:
From The Bryant Library Local History Collection, we wish all our patrons a Happy Holiday!