Various Matters: Presents at Christmas

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 17, 1910

Old customs die hard, and the more absurd they are the harder they die. There is, for example, the custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas. What a lot of discomfort and embarrassment it brings into the world! How many sane men among us really enjoy buying Christmas gifts—save, perhaps, for children? And how many, sane or insane, really like to receive them? The business of buying is fatiguing, nerve-wracking, maddening. It converts a season that should be full of joy and good-will into a season heavy with worry and weariness. It makes most of us dread the approach of Christmas, as a condemned criminal dreads the footfall of the sheriff or a bachelor the fanfare of the wedding march.

Not the expense of the thing, nor even the waste of time and energy, but the social necessity, the impossibility of escape, is the element that makes for discomfort. Those of us who have the normal yearning to be well thought of, and the normal one-eighth of 1 per cent of generosity, are rather fond of making occasional presents to our relatives and friends. It is not much trouble—and it does a lot of good. If an appearance of spontaneity and sincerity is attached to the gift, either authentically or artificially, it may engender a genuine friendliness and work a permanent gain in happiness. But when the giving is by compulsion, when it must be done at a certain season and with a certain public splendor, when it is suggested, not by honest impulse or shrewd policy, but by inexorable and impersonal social law—then it becomes a mere duty, unwillingly performed.

Why, then, do all of us keep up so ridiculous and painful a custom? It would be easy enough, by general consent, or even by a mere majority vote, to abolish it altogether, or at least to confine it to the giving of gifts to children. No doubt fully 60 per cent of all adult women and 99.9 per cent of all men would vote enthusiastically for this reform. Why, then, does it lag so distressingly? Simply because an old custom, by the mere fact of being an old custom, possesses a vitality, a momentum, a horsepower which self-interest, or even race-interest, finds it extremely difficult to oppose.

Man is naturally hunkerous, intransient, fearful of change. A new invention, no matter how obvious its value, is never adopted without a struggle. The telephone, for example, was 25 years in winning its way. And by the same token, a thing that is old hangs on and on. Despite its utter folly and futility we still cling to the custom of exchanging Christmas presents, just as we cling absurdly to the stiff-bosomed shirt, the backless piano-stool, the novels of Charles Dickens, the loose rug, whiskers, the frying pan, political oratory, the cornet, dualism, rheumatism liniments, the avoirdupois weights, the “Poet and Peasant” overture, and all the other lingering relics of an extinct and inferior civilization.

Brigham And The Moralists

Certain noisy ladies of the North grow indignant over the fact that an effigy of Brigham Young, the eminent Mormon theologian and statesman, appears upon the silver service presented to the battleship Utah by the people of the Mormon State. It is scandalous, they argue, for the face of so sinful an old fellow to be set before the brave young men of the navy. Brigham was an unblushing polygamist and polygamy is an unpardonable crime. Better, by far, to put Benedict Arnold’s image upon those sugar urns and wassail bowls, for Benedict, whatever his failings otherwise, at least had but one wife—or, perhaps, it was none at all.

With all due respect—Bosh! Young has been thus honored, not as an eminent polygamist, but as a great American, a conqueror of the wilderness, the founder of a commonwealth, the most distinguished citizen that Utah has ever had. It is idle to deny that he was all of these things. He had the large vision of the empire builder; he made the desert bloom; he introduced law, order and prosperity into a desolate wilderness. An extraordinarily able and ambitious man, he undertook to set up, not only a new religion and a new nation, but a whole new civilization. In carrying out so stupendous an enterprise, it was but natural that he should make errors in detail, and one of those errors in detail, perhaps, was the encouragement of polygamy. But the critic, however moral, must admit here that other men, undertaking like tasks, have made errors just as costly—the New England Puritans, for example, when they established witch-burning.

Most of us are agreed that polygamy as the Mormons practiced it was wrong in principle and dangerous to the race, but not many rational men will presume to argue that it was more wrong or more dangerous than witch-burning. Much may be said, indeed, in favor of plural marriage. It meets a very real need among a small people surrounded by powerful foes and menaced by violent natural forces. It may be quite as moral and uplifting, under easily imagined circumstances, as monogamy. In itself, it is neither right nor wrong. If a man is honestly convinced that he should have two, four, forty or four hundred wives, and does his best to maintain them and their children in comfort after he has married them, it cannot be said that he is a criminal, despite the fact that many other persons dissent from his theory and practice and call him names for not heeding their exhortations. In brief, polygamy is a thing that may be wrong at one time and place, and right at some other time and place, and so its rightness or wrongness at any particular time and place is a matter to be determined by examining the actual facts, and not by howling anathemas.

Not so, however, with witch-burning. No human being has ever advanced a single reasonable argument in favor of witch-burning. It is a custom as utterly abhorrent to right and reason as ritualist cannibalism or the cornet-playing of the Salvation Army. It has been wrong since the dawn of history and it will be wrong forever. Therefore, it would seem to be the part of prudence for persons with the skeletons of witches rattling in their closets to withhold their virtuous bombardment of Brigham Young. He made, perhaps, a serious mistake when he ordered his followers to imitate Solomon, but that mistake of his was not nearly so serious, not nearly so discreditable to the human race, as the mistake made by the good fathers of Cape Cod when they ordered inoffensive old women to the gallows. The one was a mere proof of human fallibility in a difficult emergency; the other was a proof of donkey-like ignorance and wolf like ferocity.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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