“In less than 30 seconds, the first of the intruders were pushing in our door.”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 19, 1942.

“Well sir,” said Jimmie Frise, “I never felt less like Christmas in my life.”

“Maybe this is the way our folks felt,” I submitted, “on the fourth war Christmas in the last war, when we were over there.”

“Fourth Christmas!” exclaimed Jim. “Is this the fourth war Christmas?”

“Thirty-nine was the first,” I reminded him. “This war has been a lot longer than you think.”

“The counterpart of this Christmas, then, “figured Jim, “was Christmas, 1917.”

“And a pretty grim one it must have been,” I recalled. “The Germans were still lodged solid in France. We had staged a couple of battles, like Vimy and Passchendaele – how small they seem now. On a front of a couple of miles, we hammered and raged, and advanced a mile. In a whole battle.”

“We were proud of those battles,” declared Jim.

“Yet on Christmas, 1917, which was the fourth Christmas, like this one,” I said, “it looked as if the war might go on forever.”

“I wonder if we dare hope,” sighed Jim, “that next Christmas will be like Christmas, 1918?”

“Well, if those of us who want the war to end,” I proposed, “will work and fight harder than those who don’t want it to end, it might well be over by next Christmas.”

“Those who don’t want it to end?” demanded Jimmie hotly.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “We must not overlook the fact that there is a pretty powerful element, all over the world, in all countries, who will look with regret on the war’s end.”

“What monsters!” scoffed Jim. “Surely…”

“Oh, they’re not really monsters.” I explained. “They don’t consciously want the war to keep on. They don’t deliberately plan to keep the war going. It is a passive thing in them, not active. But scattered and hidden though they be, in all countries, they are a power and a force to be reckoned with.”

“Fifth columnists,” muttered Jim.

“Not at all,” I countered. “For example, in all armies, everywhere, among the generals and big shots are a few who are having the time of their lives. They were insignificant squibs before the war, they have risen to be persons of great importance now. And they know in their hearts that the minute the war is over, they are going right back to obscurity. They look with dread on peace.”

“It can’t be,” Jim exclaimed.

“Oh, yes,” I assured him. “Then, consider all the people, in all countries, people of importance and power, who are afraid of what is coming after the war, socially, economically and industrially. Those people are mighty worried. It looks, right now, terribly unsettled to them. They are talking about it, this very hour, in clubs and board rooms, in offices and mansions, trying to see into the future, trying to organize their security. Do you imagine such people would not, in some quiet, unconscious way, try to prolong the war a little while until they can see a little farther?”

“Utter monsters,” declared Jim.

Winds of Opinion

“They didn’t get rich and powerful,” I pointed out, “by fretting about the mass of mankind. But besides them, there must be people, in all countries, who are definitely far better off than they ever were before, due to war industry. The minute the war ends, they feel, in their hearts, that they are going back to the weary, tricky, hazardous life of unemployment and insecurity. These are people drawn from all classes, professional, managerial, workers. To suppose that a number of such people does not exist is simply silly. And it is the job of all of us who want the war to end victoriously as soon as possible to be alert for them. Because, sooner or later, at some stage of the victory, circumstances might arise that would allow these people to gang up and actually interfere. Public opinion is a funny thing. It is like the breeze. Mostly it is a vagrant breeze, idly flowing this way and that. Often, it sets strongly in one direction, like a west wind or an east wind. Sometimes it blows a gale. But there are also little unexpected winds of opinion that blow -like, on a fine day, an east wind rises, and in no time, there is a thunderstorm. Or. on a pleasant summer day, suddenly a sharp gust sweeps up, and canoes and sailboats out on the shining water are upset, and tragedy stalks in our midst.”

“That is exactly,” agreed Jim, “like public opinion. Each part of the country has its different prevailing winds; like Ontario, Alberta, and so forth.”

“In this strong gale of war,” I concluded, “we’ve got to keep our eye skinned for the little currents of adverse wind that might deflect it. In the hearts and minds of people there are areas of high and low pressure, just the same as in the atmosphere, which make the winds of opinion.”

“People who would try to keep the war going, so much as by one hour, one minute,” said Jimmie, “are monsters.”

“The tragic part is,” I explained, “they are utterly unconscious of their influence. They believe themselves to be as true patriots as anybody. No man ever really knows what he is up to, any more than the wind knows where or why it is blowing.”

“I wish,” said Jimmie, “I knew how to celebrate Christmas this year. Should I have a Christmas tree? Should we decorate our houses?”

“Oh, I think so,” I offered. “After all, Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. In untroubled times, we forget all about that and make Christmas the high celebration not of Jesus’ birthday but of our own prosperity. We’re pretty humbled these days, so maybe if we keep in mind what Christmas really is, we can decorate our houses modestly and go ahead with as much of the spirit of Christmas as we can decently afford. This might be the chance to revive a whole lot of the forgotten and old-fashioned Christmas customs.”

“Like waits1,” said Jim.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Each family could organize itself into a little choir and practise up a few carols and go and serenade its friends and neighbors.”

“Isn’t it a pity,” said Jim, “the modern family has no musical talent, like when we were kids. The radio and the phonograph finished that. But when I was a youngster, every home had one or two musicians amongst the kids. My first great possession in this world was a saxophone. Do you remember the saxophone craze around 1910?”

“I once owned a cornet,” I confessed.

“Well, well, well,” cheered Jimmie. “I had no idea we had musical interests in common.”

“I played in the school band,” I announced.

“And in Birdseye Center2,” stated Jim, “we had a very snappy little dance orchestra of five pieces. I played sax.”

“When I got home from the war,” I said, “my kid brother had been using my cornet as a bugle, playing soldier. It was wrecked.”

“I sold my sax,” related Jim, “to get enough money to come to Toronto and try to get a job as an artist.”

“It would be a nice thing,” I mused, “to be able to play some instrument. How changed the world is! Everything is specialized. We leave music to the professionals.”

“Wouldn’t it be fun,” said Jim, “if we could borrow a sax and a cornet off somebody and go around and serenade our friends Christmas Eve?”

“That is exactly the sort of thing we ought to do, this war Christmas,” I admitted. “We haven’t the right to celebrate it as usual, with the whole world in flames. What Christmas ought to be this year is the greatest religious festival in history. It should be a day of prayer and atonement. The churches should be filled. We should gather our families together not for a feast and a hullabaloo but for a conference and a discussion of the war, of ourselves and of the future. It should be a day of meetings, public and private, of men gathering humbly together to take stock of themselves and the world.”

“And I can’t think of anything,” declared Jimmie; “more fitting than that people like us should forget our proud and foolish ways and go out, as simple, honest men did centuries ago, to sing and play to one another the carols of Christmas.”

“I’m thinking of it,” I protested, “in a broad, general way.”

“And I’m trying,” asserted Jim, “to get down to brass tacks. How about you and me borrowing a couple of instruments and practising up? Maybe there are half a dozen others in our neighborhood who can play horns and things. We might get a regular community band going in time for Christmas.”

“You can’t find musical instruments these days for love or money,” I informed him. “They’re right off the market. And the only people who own them are using them professionally.”

“I saw a sax in a second-hand store window on York St., not three days ago,” declared Jim.

So at lunch hour, we strolled up York St. and looked in the second-hand store windows, and sure enough, not only did we find the sax Jimmie had spotted, but as we stood outside the window, we could hear the strains of a violin being played inside.

The second-hand dealer, when we opened the door, was sitting in a chair at the back of his congested and cluttered emporium, a fiddle under his chin and a sheet of music propped up. It was Brahms’ Lullaby he was playing. He nodded to us and went ahead to the bottom of the page. Then he laid the fiddle down reluctantly and came to meet us.

“Gentlemen?” he said.

“We were wondering,” asked Jim, “if we could rent that saxophone in your window?”

“Ah, it’s not for sale,” said the dealer, “or rent. It is being bought on the instalment plan by a young man who comes every night and practises here on it. He has only $12 to pay until it is his. Meantime, he and I have very pleasant concerts here, each evening.”

“So you’re interested in music?” I inquired.

“It is my life,” said the second-hand dealer. “My passion, my blood, my very existence. But I don’t play very good.”

“We,” said Jim, “were thinking of renting or borrowing a saxophone and a cornet to practise up for Christmas. We were going to serenade our friends and neighbors this Christmas, as an old-fashioned reminder of the lost spirit of Christmas and what it stands for.”

“That is a most delightful fancy,” said the dealer. “Especially this year, since all the regular musicians who go about playing cornets from door to door are more profitably engaged in war work.”

He reached in the window and handed Jimmie the saxophone.

“Please play a few bars,” he invited courteously.

“I haven’t had one of these in my hands,” said Jim bashfully, “for 30 years.”

But he hurriedly took off his gloves and cuddled the clumsy instrument and after a few hot blows on the mouthpiece, puffed out his cheeks and ran up the scale.

He did it fairly well, with only a few blurts and a couple of squawks.

“Good,” cried the dealer. “After 30 years that’s good. What do you play, mister?”

“I used to play a cornet,” I informed him modestly.

He went out through the back and came in with a very large and slightly battered instrument that looked like a cross between a cornet and a trumpet.

“A beautiful Yugoslavian instrument,” he said, “that my late wife used to play.”

I tried it. It was not the same key as Jim’s saxophone and it took some pretty fancy puckering on my part to sound Jim’s A.

Serenaders Practice

The dealer hurriedly picked up his violin and set the Brahms Lullaby up before all three of us.

“One, two…” he said, waving the fiddle bow.

But of course, you couldn’t expect much under such circumstances, and after a bar and a half of riot that caused a policeman to open the shop door and look in anxiously, the dealer rapped with his bow in the approved maestro manner.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “I tell you what we do.”

For the sum of $1 each we could borrow the instruments for the afternoons, with the understanding that we could have full possession of them Christmas Eve and all day Christmas.

There were no cases for the instruments so we wrapped them in newspaper and carried them back to the office, entering by the freight door and up the freight elevator. Nobody noticed us smuggle them into our room. We shut the transom and the window and hastily unwrapped our prizes.

“Softly, now,” I warned.

“Do scales first,” suggested Jim.

But only an artist can play softly. And in less than 30 seconds, the first of the intruders were pushing in our door. And in two minutes, half the staff was crowded outside, until the assistant city editor arrived, with the managing editor’s compliments, and suggested that the paper storage vaults down in the basement might be a better place to work.

So that is where we are practising now, half an hour each afternoon, not counting a few bars of Brahms’ Lullaby up at the second-hand dealer’s each lunch hour and each evening as we return the instruments.

“John Peel3” is our most successful number so far, all except that high note.

But by Christmas Eve, we hope to have “Holy Night.”

And maybe it will be us outside your door.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Christmas waits were bands of street musicians who formed during the holiday season to play carols around their community in hopes of raising money. ↩︎
  2. In stories, they often said that Jim came from Birdseye Center, rather than give his actual birthplace (Township of Scugog). ↩︎
  3. “Do you know John Peel?” is a famous Cumberland hunting song written around 1824 by John Woodcock Graves. ↩︎