The Work of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise

Tag: Christmas

Do Your Christmas Shopping Now!

“Pardon me,” said Jim. “We are doing our Christmas shopping. We were wondering if there were any new things we should see.”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, August 5, 1933.

“Let’s,” said Jimmie Frise, “do something.”

“We are always doing something,” I snarled, “and getting nowhere.”

“By doing something,” said Jimmie, “I mean something unusual. Something we ought to do. Something that has to be done anyway.”

“Such as paying our bills, you mean?”

“Never!” cried Jimmie. “I mean just the opposite. Let’s buy something. Let us, for instance, do our Christmas shopping.”

“In August?” I cried. “With our collars wilted and our shirts creeping up our backs?”

“Let’s do our Christmas shopping early,” said Jim. “Let’s shop early and avoid the rush.”

“The heat has affected you,” I said.

“Why wait until the last mad rush?” cried Jimmie. “Now is the time to do your Christmas shopping, when the stores are not crowded and the salespeople are at liberty to attend to your wants.”

“You sound like an advertisement.”

“Buy now and put your gifts away until Christmas,” went on Jimmie, who really did look as if the heat had touched him.

“The salespeople would think we were nuts,” I said.

“Not at all,” cried Jim. “It would be a treat for them. Think of all those salespeople, fifteen thousand of them in the big stores alone, all toiling away from morning to night with nothing much to amuse them. Then, along we come, doing our Christmas shopping.”

“You can’t amuse salespeople in the summer,” I submitted.

“Listen,” said Jim, tensely, “I’m tired of doing the same old thing. I’m going out and do my Christmas shopping. Are you coming or aren’t you?”

So we went and did our Christmas shopping.

“Where do we start?” I asked Jim.

“We will walk around the stores,” said Jim, “and get some ideas. Take a general survey first.”

We strolled through the big stores. It was a hot day and everything was moving at a pleasant gait. The customers had faraway expressions on their faces, as if they were thinking of canoes and verandas. We walked through the basements and saw screen doors and frying pans, trunks and overalls. We walked through the main floors and saw carving knives and underthings, as Jimmie calls them, and silver trays.

Upstairs we walked through miles and miles of colored cloth, dresses, coats, scarves, bathing suits, furniture, floor coverings, live pets, plumbing fixtures.

“I haven’t seen anything for Christmas yet,” I said.

“Take your time,” said Jim. “Let’s ask one of the managers for some ideas.”

We came upon a gentleman standing in the middle of the main aisle, hands behind his back.

“Pardon me,” said Jimmie. “We are doing our Christmas shopping early. We were wondering if there were any new things we should see. Any novel Christmas gifts on display.”

The gentleman looked sharply at the nearest window. Took out his watch and looked at the time. Then stared shrewdly at us.

“Christmas goods?” he asked. “Did you say you are doing your Christmas shopping?”

“Yes,” said Jim, eagerly. “We are avoiding the rush.”

“I see,” said the manager, “now there is a nice cool place over here where you can sit down and rest while I get somebody to attend to you.”

He led us, walking slightly sideways so as to watch us, over to a bench and left us.

“He’s gone to get the doctor or the store detectives,” I said to Jimmie. “Let’s get out of this.”

“Nonsense,” said Jim. “He’s gone to get one of those shopper’s advisers they have in all the big stores. A pretty girl to guide us.”

But in the distance we saw the manager talking to a man in a derby hat, so we quietly got up and took the stairs down one floor.

“Well,” I said sarcastically, “how about it? Where do we go from here?”

“Let’s sit down somewhere and write out a Christmas list,” said Jim. “Here’s a bench. Now, first the wife.”

And the two of us wrote down the usual list, wife, children, mother-in-law, Bill, Margaret, Art, the Old Man, and so on.

“We’ll do it together,” said Jim. “I buy my wife’s present and you buy yours, and we will be a big help to each other. We will do it methodically. Now I’ll start. I think I’ll get my wife one of those sets of scissors. You know, a leather thingummy, with about four or five assorted sizes of scissors in it. We never can find the scissors in our house.”

“That’s hardly a personal gift,” I commented. “How about mauve silk underthings?”

“You think up your own gifts,” said Jim. “I know my wife’s tastes.”

We found the scissors department and there was a magnificent display of all kinds of scissors, razors, knives, forks.

“We are doing our Christmas shopping,” smiled Jim at the Old Country gentleman in charge of scissors. “I want a nice set of scissors in a leather case.”

The gentleman looked us over and before getting the scissors he stopped to lift four or five carving knives off the showcase and set them out of reach on the back of the counter.

There were sets of three, made in the fashion of storks flying. There were cold, clever-looking sets of four in various sizes. Jimmie looked them over, but said as they were to be a Christmas gift he would like a little fancier leather case. As we walked along the counter we came to the hunting knives.

“Ah,” cried Jim, “here’s the very thing! A beautiful hunting knife! The very thing. I never go anywhere with my wife in the out-of-doors that she doesn’t borrow my old hunting knife. She ruins the edge. She breaks the point. I’ll get her her very own hunting knife.”

Using the Sign Language

The Old Country gentleman lifted two or three carving forks off the counter and stood well back.

“Jimmie,” I cut in, “a hunting knife is hardly a present for a lady.”

“Well, I could give it to John,” said Jimmie.

John is not yet two.

“Jimmie,” I reproached him.

“That is when he gets older,” said Jimmie.

So we took a fine $3.50 hunting knife in a bright leather scabbard, and Jim struck his wife’s name off the Christmas list.

“Now,” said Jim, “your wife next.”

“Underthings,” I said. “Mauve.”

We proceeded to the underthings department, at the back of which is a special sort of half-secret place where the very finest of underthings are kept by the most discreet and understanding of young ladies. They understand what you want by signs. You hardly have to speak. I have been dealing there for fifteen years and they know me and understand my sign language, so that in twelve of those fifteen years I have never said more than good-day and thank you to them.

“You aren’t going in back there?” exclaimed Jimmie.

“Come on,” I commanded.

We marched right into this soft and quiet sanctum and one of the girls remembered me and came forward making signs.

“Christmas,” I said.

She raised her eyebrows.

“Usual,” I said. “Two sets.”

“Color?” asked the girl.

“Mauve,” I said.

She went away and Jim said:

“Gosh, if it’s easy as this I’m going to do it, too.”

The girl came back with mauve things over her arm.

“Christmas,” I repeated.

The girl raised her eyebrows again.

“November,” she said. “New stock. This pretty light. Summer stock. Get later.”

“Right,” I said.

She went away with the mauve things and came running back.

“But,” cried the girl, “have you seen the silk for men? Just new. It’s quite all right to talk about men’s things, isn’t it? We don’t have to make signs now, do we?”

“I think reticence applies only to the ladies’ things,” I said.

“Then come on down here,” cried the girl. “I’ve got some stuff just in from England. Men’s silk. It will be going downstairs to the men’s shop to-night. But it was in our shipment and I want you to see it.”

Scarlet, green, blue shorts of slithery, slippery silk. Orange, polka dot and purple shirts to disagree with the shorts.

It did not take me two minutes to pick three suits, because like most men doomed to wear drab on the outside I like a little color on the sly.

“Will I send it?” she asked.

“Nobody home,” I said. “Our wives are away, so we will have to carry our parcels.”

So I struck my wife’s name off my list.

The next thing we did was the toy department for the children. Jim got his four girls some of the finest fishing tackle any girl ever received, and he got Baby John a dandy little fly rod. I got my boys a silk tent between them, a thing we have always needed. My daughter I got one of those bright umbrellas for the garden, and while she is only two the salesman said the color was a fast dye and would keep.

My mother-in-law I bought a huge set of copper ash trays, each one about as big as a dinner plate, because she is always complaining that I overflow the ash trays at home. Jim tried to get his Aunt Agnes an umbrella, but he couldn’t choose one from so many, so he got her instead one of those sit-down canes for the races.

“I can borrow it from her,” said Jim, “when I go to Thorncliffe.”

By this time our load of parcels was growing and the heat was not diminishing.

“Hadn’t we better leave some of the things till later?” I asked.

“Let’s get it over,” said Jim. “You can never tell when the rush will start.”

So Jimmie bought his cousin Harry a pair of cheap field glasses in case Harry ever got interested in racing, and I got my fishing partner, Bill, a beautiful red cedar canoe paddle.

“Has Bill a canoe?” asked Jim.

“No, but I’ll keep this in my canoe for the times Bill visits us,” I explained.

“There’s one thing about summer shopping for Christmas,” said Jim. “You can think of far more sensible presents for everybody. Near Christmas, you sort of get carried away by the Christmas spirit and you buy the silliest things.”

I got my brother Joe a book on wild birds and their music just to inspire his interest in this beautiful subject, and anyway I would have all summer, autumn and early winter to read it thoroughly before having to give it up. My brother Art I got a new novel I had read some thrilling reviews of in the paper. Jim doesn’t care for reading much. It tires the back of his neck. So he got two sets of “Famous Race Horses of the Past,” twelve handsome colored lithographs of world-famed thoroughbreds.

“I can give half of one set to Jake,” explained Jim, “and the other half of the other set to George. Six is a nice present. Both will be different. Then I’ll have the complete set for myself. You would never pause to figure things out like that in December.”

We were by this time pretty well loaded and our lists were practically exhausted. Jim still had his Cousin Pansy and an old uncle on his list, but try as we would we could think of no suitable gift for either of them. I had one or two on mine, but they were the sort of people you could leave to the last minute and then give them a box of cigars when they called on you Christmas afternoon.

Everybody was very helpful. It was extremely hot and we dropped things quite a bit as the afternoon wore on, but, as Jim said, how much nicer to get this over with now, even with the heat, than suffer all that struggling and bumping and hey-ing of sales girls in December.

With our families away, there was none of that hiding and concealing. For example, we set up the colored umbrella in my garden and then we tried out the silk tent. As the children wouldn’t be home till September we decided to leave them up, as with the tent you could get quite a kick by pretending you were camping.

Especially as Jimmie brought over his wife’s hunting knife and his daughter’s fishing tackle to try out, with Baby John’s rod.

“I’ll just keep them in my own tackle box,” said Jim, “so I’ll know where they are.”

With the paddle and the field glasses and the sit-down cane and so forth draped around the tent and us sitting under the striped umbrella, I reading and Jim gazing lingeringly at the lithographs of the horses, you could easily see how much better a thing it is to do your Christmas shopping in August.


Editor’s Notes: A store detective, was much more common in the past. They would walk around the store (usually big department stores) on the lookout for shoplifters.

Thorncliffe Park Raceway existed from 1917-1953. It used to exist in the location of the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood in Toronto today.

Who’s Got Christmas?

We could find no sad young men. We saw any number, in fact hundreds of young fellows in uniform, brown, blue and navy. But they were far from looking lonely.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 24, 1943.

“Do you realize,” demanded Jimmie Frise, “that this is the fifth war Christmas?”

“I not only realize it,” I stated, but I have been worrying about it more than I can tell you.”

“I wonder how many million men – and women,” pursued Jim, “will be absent from their homes this fifth Christmas! Millions of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Canadians, millions of British, millions of Germans, Russians, Japs – not that they care….”

“I’ve been very uneasy this past few weeks,” I submitted, “watching Christmas approach. I’m a superstitious guy. All these December sunsets we’ve been having. I have looked at anxiously for fear I might see a fiery chariot come riding down.”

“We’ve got this on our side,” pointed out Jimmie, “that at least we are fighting to preserve Christmas on earth. If millions of us are blaspheming Christmas by merely being absent from our homes and hearths, at least it is because we are fighting the forces that have openly announced their intention of destroying all that Christmas stands for.”

“I’m sorry, Jim,” I stated, “I can’t agree with you. We did our blaspheming against Christmas in the 20 years this war was brewing. Back in those ugly terrible days when we sat fat and cosy in our little world letting all the rest of the world go to hell. Back in the days when we could not raise enough public funds to give more than a dirty little dole to our own unemployed, right here in this very city. We could not find a few of our soiled millions to give work, in government-owned projects, to a million Canadians quietly starving.”

“Just a minute,” said Jim.

“Just a minute you,” I insisted. “We had our Christmases then, remember? We who were comfortable – and eight million of us were comfortable – arranged through public charities for Christmas banquets for the homeless, down in the big empty hostels in the warehouse district. We gave to the public funds for Christmas gifts and Christmas hampers. But we had our own Christmases! Sure, sure. Around our sacred little burning trees, we cherished our children, and our wives, and the old, old tradition.”

Who’s Hiding It?

“Just a minute,” said Jim.

“But where,” I cried, “have all these billions come from, in little Canada alone, these billions, not millions, these billions and billions of dollars to be poured out into war? Who had those billions? Where were they in 1933, 1935, 1937?”

“You don’t understand,” said Jim. “It is a problem of economies. It is a question so complicated….”

“So complicated,” I sneered, “that even our greatest brains can’t grasp it. All right then, if you can’t say who had all those billions that we have found for war, can you say who has got Christmas? Where is Christinas? Who’s hiding it from us?”

“How do you mean?” inquired Jimmie indignantly.

“All I say is,” I muttered, “that wherever there is an absent man or an absent girl in a house in all this world today, there is no Christmas. We had our Christmases back in those years when we did not care a pin for all the rest of the world. Now our Christmas is taken away from us to pay the debt. Because Christmas is not a thing for individuals. It is not for you and me. Is it for one family and not for another? Christmas is for all mankind. And all I say is, those of us who presume to make Christmas our own personal and private affair are blaspheming it.”

“You mean,” said Jimmie, “that all this mess we are in is our own fault? Our own fault, each and every man.”

“Nothing comes of itself, Jim,” I explained. “Everything is brought. This Christmas is a tragedy to millions of us on earth today only because it was not a little tragic to us in the Christmases past. We celebrate the birth of Jesus in the greatest and most selfish and personal and private holiday of the year. We forget, on Christmas, to remember the death of Jesus.”

“It is not what He was born for,” suggested Jim, “but what He died for that is important.”

“Yes, and so long as we forget that,” I submitted, “I guess we too will keep on dying, on crosses of a kind, through all time.”

“What do you think!” inquired Jim, since we are both old soldiers who have never had much time to think about religion, “what do you think was the one essential thing Jesus taught?”

“That God is our father,” I submitted, “we are his beloved children.”

“The brotherhood of man,” muttered Jim.

“No other faith” I said, “can save us, forever.”

So again we sat and thought, about socialism and Communism and the C.C.F. and the labor movement and all the religions and all the social service enterprises and the Rockefeller Foundation and the countless, countless things men have tried, in centuries past, and in this bloody and grimmest of all centuries, to figure out the brotherhood of man. But we are so choosey.

“One thing,” said Jim slapping his knee, “we’ve got to do some little thing, no matter how late it is, to make Christmas a little less personal this year. For example, soldiers. There are sure to be some kids marooned in town this Christmas in the army or air force. We ought to look after two or three of them.”

“I keep thinking,” I said, “of the kids who have been five Christmases away.”

“That doesn’t make it any less lonely for these kids away for the first one,” said Jim. “How do we go about finding them? Could we call up the ‘Y’ hut at the camp or the Salvation Army hut?”

“It’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “Downtown it will be jammed and crowded. Among the throngs will be sure to be some kids in uniform wandering about pretty forlorn, trying to capture, from the very multitude, some feeling of Christmas – maybe looking for one face from back home. Do you know what my hunch is? Let’s drive downtown and walk in the crowds and pick up two or three of them and bring them home.”

“On Christmas Eve?” inquired Jim. “I thought of having them to share Christmas dinner tomorrow.”

“Christmas Eve is the best,” I explained. “Don’t you remember Christmas Eve when you were a kid? Let us go and pick up two or three of these youngsters and use them as symbols for all the others in the ends of the world. It was Christmas Eve, mister, that there was no room at the inn.”

“H’m,” muttered Jim.

And into the night we backed Jim’s car, which is in better shape than mine, besides he having seven more gallons left than me, and we drove down along the waterfront and up Yonge St. into the last-minute throngs of Christmas shoppers. We parked and went on foot into the midst.

But such is the mystery of human nature, eternally in hunger for whatever joy is offered, we could find no sad young men. We saw any number, in fact hundreds of young fellows in uniform, brown, blue and navy. But they were far from looking lonely. Most of them had a girl on one arm and a pile of parcels in the other. For all the war, there were no unhappy faces here. Up at the main corner between the two big department stores, we saw two soldiers leaning against the wall watching the throngs boil by. We spoke to them.

“How are you boys fixed for Christmas?”, I inquired heartily.

“Pretty good,” they said. “Why?”

“Well, we are a couple of old soldiers,” explained Jim, “and we just thought we’d take a last-minute look around downtown to see if we could find any of the boys that were left out in the cold that we could give a little Christmas cheer to.”

“Thanks very much,” said one of the two “But the fact is, we’ve been sent down by our families to try and pick up somebody the same way.”

“Good hunting,” said Jim.

“Good hunting, sir,” replied the boys.

It is pretty tough going in these Christmas Eve mobs, so Jim and I took the inside track along the store fronts, and shoved our way patiently along, because after all, a high resolve is not to be so lightly abandoned. And presently, I leading against the wind and hastening herd, we were held up by a small figure flattened against the bricks of one store front.

“Christmas cards,” he said, in the gloom. “Christmas cards.”

We, too, flattened ourselves against the bricks.

“Christmas cards,” said the weak voice. “Christmas cards, five cents.”

We could see him now, a small elderly ragged little man, his hat pulled down and his collar up so that he seemed to be calling out from a cave.

“Christmas cards.”

Nobody but us paid any attention.

“Speak up, man,” I said to him quietly. “Make them hear. Like this: CHRISTMAS CARDS!”

And I let it go good and round.

But nobody even looked.

“There’s Your Answer”

I saw the little man smiling out at me from the cave of his hat and his collar.

“See?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “anyway, I’ll take a few. How many have you got?”

“A dozen,” said he.

“I’ll take the whole lot,” I said, “I was just going in to buy some. You always forget somebody at the last minute.”

“They’re not much good,” said the little man, drawing a frowsy packet from his pocket.

“Call it dollar,” I said, handing him the bill.

“Thanks,” said the little man eagerly. “Thanks a million.”

We could now see him quite distinctly as the three of us huddled in the falling dusk amid the whirling throngs. He opened his ragged overcoat to secrete the dollar somewhere within his clothes and my eye caught a glint of a button on his lapel.

“Hey,” I said harshly, seizing the old boy’s coat. “What’s that!”

But I knew what it was. It was the bronze button with the Union Jack in the shield, the proud old bronze button that we got in that other war, and which marks us as veterans…

“Old soldier?” demanded Jimmie sharply.

“Oh, yes,” said the little man, buttoning his coat. “Oh, yes.”

“Listen,” I said, dropping my grip from his coat front, “we’ve got a proposition to make to you, brother. We’re old soldiers ourselves. We’ve got an idea….”

But just as I started to fumble with the idea, a great, a strange, a hard, a disturbing Idea, an idea shaking my Christmas to its very core, from the white Christmas table cover, from the bright candlesticks, the red crackers, the steaming turkey on the blue platter, the little man, like a gnome, vanished. Somebody jostled us. And when the jostle ended, he was gone.

“Hey, Jim….”

Jim fought upstream, I fought down. I ducked in and out of the mob. I came back along the curb, outside the throng. I heard Jim call me.

“He was gone,” said Jim.

Together we hurried up the block and watched. Together we went and watched the main corner. But he was gone.

“Mister,” and Jim to me, “there’s your answer, whatever it is.”


Editor’s Notes: The C.C.F was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which became the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. It was a socialist-labour party in Canada.

The Rockefeller Foundation is an American private foundation for philanthropy that was created by the Rockefeller family in 1913, and still exists today.

They used Jimmie’s car since he had more gas, as gasoline was rationed during the war.

Those Other Christmases

By Gregory Clark, December 20, 1919.

The regiments are disbanded.

Their banners droop in the dusty shadows of silent churches.

Forty-eight battalions of infantry and a thousand guns, Canada’s historic army, scattered and stilled; and the comic lords of Peace decree it shall never assemble again, that it was a temporary army for a temporary war; and that its memories and its comradeships must be washed out, to make way for the gallant militia–

But to-night, and the coming four nights till Christmas Eve, those mighty battalions and shouting guns live again in the hearts of three hundred thousand men.

In the little homes and the great homes, men are sitting by the firesides, seeing visions.

They see again the narrow thoroughfares of Houdain, or Mazingarbe, Poperinghe, or Camblain l’Abbe.

The winter evening is falling. The little grey shops begin to glow with furtive lights. There is snow on all the steep roofs.

Men in khaki, muffled in greatcoats or leather jerkins, stamp over the frosty cobblestones. At the door of a crowded estaminet, a little group, amid much laughter and jovial profanity, gathers in a circle to sing a Christmas carol, entitled “Mademoiselle from Armentieres,” or perhaps “I Want to Go Home.”

A French girl, muffled in a huge scarf, with a basket on her arm, shuffles down the cobblestones.

“Merry Christmas, mamzelle!” cry all the troops

A limber comes clattering out of the darkness. It is laden with huge sacks. Atop sits the post corporal, who shouts:

“Nothing but parcels, boys! Seventeen bags of parcels from home!”

“Merry Christmas!”

Suddenly, a bugle thrills the crisp air. It is not “retreat,” nor “last post.” It sounds the “fall in!” But this unusual call seems to be expected, for the estaminets empty as if by magic, the cobbled street is crowded with men hastening to their company parade grounds.

The street becomes deserted. A silence descends. Then, from down at the village square, the sudden clear music of the regimental band rises up.

Presently the band comes closer in the darkness, and swings past, playing a rousing march. Behind it comes “A” company, and then “B.” The men are singing and laughing as they pass. They are without arms or equipment. To the French people who have come to their doors to see the sight, the boys cry out greetings, “Oo, la lal” and “Voulez-vous promenade?”

The battalion marches to the far end of the town. Spirits mount. There is a note of expectancy over all.

Band still playing, the battalion halts outside a great red-roofed barn rising out of the dusk. And, forming single file amid much loud, confused shouting of commands, the troops begin to enter.

Inside is fairyland. A thousand candles light up the scene. Long tables fill the great barn. The padre has garnished the bleak walls and cross-beams with evergreen. Flags and bunting drape the corners. And a smell, O! an overwhelming smell of roast pork and apple sauce, of plum pudding and rum punch, fills the cold bar with warmth.

Then up jumps the padre on a barrel. Silence is called for. And the padre, says that brief Army grace: “For what we are about to receive, thank God!”

The band plays “God Save the King.” In tumble the sergeants and corporals laden with steaming dixies. And the Christmas banquet is on.

Faint echoing crashes come from afar, but are drowned by the band and the singing. Green and white flashes flicker along the eastern sky, but the boys are safe in the light of the thousand candles.

There is pork and apple sauce and music. There is rum punch and speeches and more music. Then the band plays some of the old tunes and everybody sings. The smokes are passed around. A boy from “C” company with the voice of an angel sings “Roses of Picardy,” and everybody, even the old regimental sergeant-major, harmonizes on the refrain–

Outside, a pallid moon smiles down on the wintry little grey village, and the old village smiles back. For in a thousand years these two have looked upon many a company of soldiers singing by the wayside; not the same songs, but the same sentiments with the same hearts and the same high fellowship of romance.

Down this cobbled street Francois Villon has ridden, soldier, adventurer, poet; and Villon, four hundred years ago, sang-

“Where are the comrades of yesterday?

The winds have blown them all away.”

Have they? Not to-night!


Editor’s Note: This story comes a year after the end of World War One, with a few popular songs of the time mentioned, Mademoiselle from Armentières, I Want To Go Home, and Roses of Picardy.

Carols

“Louder,” said Jimmie in my ear

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 16, 1933.

“There’s an idea!” shouted Jimmie Frise, jamming on the brakes and bringing our car to a stop. In the night, grouped under a street light in the quiet residential neighborhood where we live were four men.

They were singing Christmas carols.

“Now,” said Jim, “that’s more like! Singing. The waits. There’s a dear old custom for you.”

We wound down the car windows and listened to the four voices singing “Good King Wenceslas.”

“It’s better,” I said, “than a cornet. A cornet wakes all the babies in the block.”

“This,” said Jimmie, “would soothe a child. Even a sick person would love to hear such sweet melody in the night.”

We sat in silence until the little choir concluded the rousing old tune of “King Wenceslas.” Then they dispersed, in four directions, to call at the doors for the artist’s reward.

“Let’s wait and hear them again,” said Jimmie. “I love to hear men singing. Not that new fangled jazz stuff. But a kind of barber shop quartet singing old songs.”

“I’m in no hurry,” I admitted. So we eased back and waited, while the dark figures passed from door to door.

“You know,” said Jimmie, “there is no music in the world as fine as a quartet of men singing old-fashioned songs, like ‘Sweet Adeline’ and ‘Way Down Upon the Swanee River.'”

“Yet I don’t care for these concert quartets,” I submitted.

“I know what you mean,” said Jimmie. “Singing deep sea songs, with silly choruses about the sea, the sea, the sea, the sea, THE SEA, in an enormous bass voice, with all the tenors and the baritones repeating the sea, the sea, the sea, the SEEEAAAA!”

“Precisely,” said I.

“Well, all I can say,” said Jimmie, “in these days of sob-sissy tenors, and wuh-duh-duh husky baritones that would have got the hook at any burlesque show when we were boys, nobody knows the beauty of a quartet singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ on all the street corners, under the arc lights, all the way home.”

“The trouble nowadays,” I pointed out, “is that we are all listening to singing, but none of us sing.”

“And the important part of singing,” added Jim, “is not the hearing of it, but the doing of it.”

A Cold Reception

The shadowy figures of the carol singers were still humbly and hesitantly passing from door to door up the block.

“So much that is old is dying,” said Jimmie sadly. “We are removing all our roots out of the solid earth. We no longer play lusty games. We sit in grandstands. We no longer sing. We listen to the radio.”

“These lads here,” I said, “are probably Englishmen. They are likely unemployed. Maybe they can’t afford cornets and musical instruments. But likely they have sung carols over home, down the streets of old towns, like Stow-on-the-Wold, or Glastonbury, or St. Erth.”

“Or,” said Jimmie, remembering the glimpse he had, when he was a lad and a soldier, of a sweet far old land, “Winterbourne Bishop, or Newton Valence, or Pocklington.”

“In these towns,” I went on, “these men have sung carols, down crooked old streets, with lights in leaded windows glowing, and for their singing, the door would open, and they would be handed out sixpence and shortbread and porty wine.”

“And what do they get here?” asked Jim, peering out of the car up the chilly street, where the singers were coming now, slowly, rejoining into a group. “They might get a crack of the door open and a dime handed out in a cold hand. Or they might get nothing. I hear they are making great strides in the study of heart disease. I guess one of the things that is being corrected nowadays is the soft heart.”

“Here they come,” I said.

The four carol singers, all in a group. with hands in pockets and heads down against the winter wind, came walking by.

I stuck my head out the car window.

“Aren’t you going to sing some more?” I called to them.

They halted and looked at us.

“No,” said the tallest one. “Not any more.”

“Don’t they want you to sing?” called Jim.

“They said they didn’t hear us,” said the tall one, who had a bass voice. “When we called at the doors, they didn’t know what we wanted. I says, ‘Something for the carols?’ And they says, ‘What carols?'”

“Didn’t you get anything?”

“Not so far,” said the tall one. The others just pulled their necks down into their collars, and looked impatient to be off.

“Maybe you didn’t sing loud enough,” I suggested.

“The radio drowns us,” said the tall one, adding apologetically, for his companions, “a thing I didn’t think of.”

Appreciation is Curious

“Well, let’s be going, George,” said one of the others dryly.

“Wait a minute, boys,” said Jimmie. “Us two liked your singing. We’ll gladly pay you for it. How would you like to sing that ‘King Wenceslas’ for us once more?”

“If there’s something in it,” said the tall one. The others reluctantly grouped themselves around him. Lifting his hand, George sang a key. They sang:

“Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the Feast of Stephen

When the snow lay all about

Deep and crisp and even;

Brightly shone the moon that night,

Tho’ the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight

Gathering winter fuel.”

Quietly they sang, with Jim and me sitting in the car and they standing on the kerb in the night. Strange how quickly tears will spring to the eyes at the call of certain old words, though all about us the facts of life touch never a pool of them!

They sang softly, but without spirit, because it was strange to be standing on the kerb of a great city, singing into the window of a car to two men, while other cars hissed by and people, passing, paused to stare. And their hearts were not in it anyway.

But appreciation is a curious thing. Maybe they saw the tears in my eyes in the street light. Maybe they saw the way Jimmie stared through the windshield. But in the second verse, they seemed to get a grip of the ancient song. They didn’t have good voices, as voices go. Their words were sung with quaint accents. But there was a simple breathlessness in their feeling.

When they ended on the last queer chord, Jim and I dug down and gave them some money.

“Thank YOU,” said the carolers. “Thank you very much!”

“I think we could give the gentlemen “The First Nowell’,” said George, the tall one, heartily. And eagerly they closed together again, setting themselves the way all good singers do.

“The First Nowell the angel did say

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay,

In fields where they lay keeping their sheep

On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell.

Born is the King of Israel!”

How they sang! How they fled the voices all sweetly in together. How they held the last Nowell, harmonizing it, moulding it, coloring it!

Taking the Gents On

By this time, a number of people who walked past had halted and listened and crept back. A little gathering was forming. A car ran by, slowed and backed and the doors opened for the people inside to hear the better.

They finished “The First Nowell’ and stood embarrassed, wondering whether they should go now. But a lady who had come back to listen asked:

“Didn’t I hear ‘Good King Wenceslas’ a little while ago?”

“Yes, mam.”

“I wonder …?” she said. So the lads grouped together again and gave ‘Good King Wenceslas.’

There were fifteen of us by the time they ended. George took off his hat and everybody put something into it.

“You see,” said Jimmie, as George leaned over to say good-night to us, “if they can hear you, they love it. The trouble is, to be heard. There should be more of you. A regular choir. With lots of strong voices.”

“Ah, it’s hard to say,” said George, shaking his head.

“Well, now, my friend and I,” said Jimmie, “are both very fond of singing. Old-fashioned singing. If you will get in the car with us, and we could go to a neighborhood where we aren’t known, we’d be glad …”

“Jimmie!” I hissed.

“We’d be glad to join our voices, just to show you,” said Jim.

“Do you sing?” asked George.

“Well, we know the tune, and we can sort of hum with our mouths open,” said Jim. “You know, Doo-doo-doo-de-doo-de-dum, da-de-dad-de-tum-tum.”

George looked doubtful. One of the smaller ones, the tenor, I think it was, cried:

“Take the gents on, George, a ride in the car will do us good anyways!”

So we loaded the four of them in the back seat and drove five or six blocks north, and parked up a pleasant side street with those nice $7,000 homes on it, where young married people live, with small children’s sleighs and hockey sticks on the verandas waiting for the morning.

“I am sorry,” I explained to George and the boys, “I don’t sing at all. I have a loud voice. But there is not much tune in it, if you understand.”

“It will attract attention, anyway,” interrupted Jimmie. “That’s all we need. You fellows can do the singing, after we have added our volume to the music and attracted people from their radios. Understand?”

Artistry Runs Wild

“Yes, sir,” said George. “Personally, I think it’s a splendid idea. First rate.”

We walked up a few doors and grouped under a street light.

“Now, we’ll do ‘King Wenceslas’ first,” said George, “as these two gentlemen seem to know that tune the best.”

He held up his hand. Sang the key.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the Feast of Stephen …”

It was fine. I could sing the first few words, and then I resorted to daw-de-daw-daw-daw. You know. Like in church.

“Louder,” said Jimmie in my ear.

I let it out. My voice was trained in the army. At Napier Barracks, near Cheriton, when I was a raw recruit, I had to stand by the hour roaring commands at a drill sergeant standing scornfully a quarter of a mile off. He saw possibilities in my voice, and made the most of them. It is, if I may say so, loud.

“Let her out all the way,” shouted Jim in my ear.

I let it out all the way.

Jim was doing pretty good himself, although the only way he recognizes the tune of “God Save the King” is when everybody stands up and takes his hat off.

George and the boys were resolutely singing, with George standing apart, beating time for us and patting one hand in the air as if to signal me not so loud.

But certainly we were attracting attention. Doors opened. Lights went on in upstairs windows. Men and women even came out on the verandas.

“That’s the stuff,” cried Jimmie in my ear. “They’re coming!”

Though I am not a singer. I can appreciate the inspiration it must be to artists to behold response.

The third verse, I really shook loose the barnacles of the years that had been gathering in my lungs, the wrinkles and crows feet, the dust and ashes, and I gave them the old stuff, the real old roar that once upon a time could be heard all the way from Mount St. Eloi to Villers au Bois. Of course, I did not know the words of the third verse, so I had to resort to daw-daw-daw, interspersed with dee-dee-dee.

When you sing, or otherwise engage in a wholehearted artistic endeavor, you are temporarily blinded to what is going on around you. You see this in a bird. It pours out its whole soul, deafened to any other sound around it. Caruso must have felt like that as he leaped into the passionate arias of “Pagliacci” or that’ excited bit in the “Barber of Seville.” I must say I did notice some confusion amongst my fellow-singers. All but Jimmie. He stood right by me, apparently singing for all he was worth, but of course I could not hear him, because I had, what you might say, turned it on.

Maybe the Crooners are Right

By this time, all the houses were lighted, veranda lights were snapped on. Groups of people were not only assembling on the verandas but were coming out on the sidewalks. It was a triumph indeed.

It seemed to me, as I let go the last line of the third verse that there was a sort of scuffle amongst George and his pals, and the next thing I knew, I saw a man with a golf stick in his hands, and iron, a niblick, I think they call it, with a thick, twisted iron head, crouched down and advancing on me with cat-like tread.

I cut that last, choice chord of the last line, I cut it right off. Jim had me by the elbow and we were bounding, in long easy strides, down the street toward the car.

Jim slammed me in and leaped to the wheel. I saw, far up the street, the vanishing forms of what I take to have been George and his pals. They were running.

So Jimmie drove rapidly away, in the other direction, and after twisting and turning around several blocks, we slowed down and Jimmie gasped.

“Well,” he said. “It didn’t work!”

“You shouldn’t have encouraged me,” I said, miserably.

“I had no idea you had such a foghorn,” said Jim.

“Was it pretty awful?” I asked.

“Honestly,” said Jim, “I never heard such a noise in my life!”

“It’s funny,” I mused, “what a little encouragement will do to a man.”

“I guess every man,” said Jimmie, “thinks he can sing, deep down in his heart.”

“I can sing,” I protested. “But you said what we needed was loud singing.”

“Maybe the crooners are right,” said Jim. “Perhaps the popular taste these days is for that wuh-duh-duh stuff, that snuggle singing.”

So we went back to my house and up to my den where I have one of those old music boxes with the big steel discs with holes punched in them, that I got from an old relative of mine, and we spent the evening playing “The Mocking Bird” and “Darling Nellie Grey.”


Editor’s Notes: Sweet Adeline and “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River“) were songs from 1903 and 1851. When they were complaining about the song with “the sea, the sea, the sea,” it was likely “By the Beautiful Sea” from 1914.

A $7,000 house from 1933 would be $139,000 in 2021, though you could not find a house in Toronto for that price.

Metal disc playing music boxes pre-dated phonographs, where you could swap out the discs with different songs.

Christmas Crush

Before the astonished eyes of the attendant we skidded forth off the escalator.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 18, 1937

“So help me,” said Jimmie Frise devoutly, “I’ll never get caught in this last-minute Christmas rush again. So help me.”

“Millions and millions of people all over the world,” I informed him, “are saying the same thing, this same minute, in a hundred different languages.”

“So help me,” declared Jimmie firmly.

“You said it last year,” I stated. “You will say it next year. And so will all the other millions and millions.”

“Never again, so help me,” reiterated Jim, fiercely.

“There wouldn’t be any Christmas,” I said, “if there were no Christmas rush. That is what Christmas has come to mean. A time of crowding and gathering and jostling. A time of joy and weariness, of feasting and visiting. Of buying and selling.”

“Yeah, commercialized,” accused Jim.

“No, not commercialized,” I corrected. “That’s an easy sneer at Christmas. But suppose Christmas were nothing more than a holy day on the calendar, can you imagine how it would go by? Just as unremembered as any other holy day. Do you recall what you did on Good Friday three years ago? Certainly not. But you can remember what you did three, five, ten Christmases ago; who was at your house; how the children acted, especially the youngest one. You can count back. You can count back ten Christmases, when your youngest girl was three. And close your eyes, and there you can see it, as clear as if it were yesterday. Why? Because that was the year she crashed the Christmas tree in her new scooter, or something. And then, bit by bit, the whole dear, tender picture returns to you, and you’ve got something. A memory.”

“That’s all very well,” protested Jim, “anybody can get sentimental over Christmas and try to gloss over the evils of it. But I say, this Christmas crush is getting tougher all the time. And believe me, I’m through with it.”

“Tougher?” I cried. “My dear boy, nowadays it’s nothing compared to what it was a couple of thousand years ago, the day all this is supposed to commemorate. Don’t you remember that it was so crowded there wasn’t any room at the inn, and Joseph and Mary had to find a manger, in a stable?”

“Aw,” said Jim.

“Crowded?” I continued. “The streets jammed with people from miles around, and donkeys and camels, their bells tinkling and their drivers shouting and complaining and the inns roaring with trade and all the little shops filled with fighting people, trying to get waited on. Crowded? And detachments of Roman soldiers down from Jerusalem to help the tax enumerators do their work, and them in all the best billets in the little town. And the government men turning the front rooms of the inn into offices to work on their tax rolls, and outside, all the lineage of David lined up in queues and wanting to be away home again about their business. Crowded? Jimmie, Christmas has to be a kind of panjandrum, in memory of that day.”

“What Have You to Get?”

“Well, we’ve succeeded,” agreed Jim. “And Christmas has become the worst-tempered season of the whole year. Everybody tired and worried over money, and shopgirls so gaunt and white looking, and delivery men sloshing through the night, and factory girls working overtime, and store keepers dizzy for want of rest, and everybody’s nerves on edge and ready to crack any minute.”

“Fine,” I exulted. “Glorious. Instead of camel drivers shouting, we have car horns yelling impatiently, and instead of Roman soldiers lounging around keeping the crowds moving, we have extra police on duty. It’s a perfect representation.”

“Have you finished your shopping yet?” demanded Jim, grimly.

“No, siree,” I assured him. “I’ve still got a few things to get. And I’m proceeding with it in the spirit of the season. I’m going to be shoved and pushed and tramped on, and camel drivers are going to shout me out of the path, and Roman soldiers are going to thumb me on my way imperiously. I will rub shoulders with all my brethren, poor and rich. I will see, thrust close to mine, faces I have never seen before, thousands of them, my brothers in life. I will be full of pride and contempt and anger, all of them warm, healthy feelings. I will be conscious of my own importance, as I am pushed around by people far beneath me in money and clothes. That too is a nice sensation. There will be a great hum and roar of low sound, the sound of a multitude, and to men, so afraid of being alone, that great sound is always curiously comforting. There will be buying, selling, choosing, selecting, deciding. There will be possessing.”

“What have you to get?” inquired Jim.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” I assured him, “which is another grand part of the whole business. That glorious aimlessness with which the multitude wander through the stores and along the streets, undecided, indecisive, at a loss, bewildered. That’s the true spirit of Christmas, too.”

“That’s what makes me so mad,” disagreed Jim. “Me trying to go direct to the ladies’ glove counter and having to fight my way through a solid scrimmage of people who don’t want to go anywhere, or else don’t know where they want to go. That vacant stare, mixed with weariness and crankiness, that’s the expression of Christmas.”

“Wouldn’t it be dreadful,” I argued, “if at Christmas, everybody went trimly and smugly and smartly direct to what they wanted? How cold, practical, chilly, the whole business would be. No, Jim, it’s that complete breakdown of everything sensible and reasonable that makes Christmas what it is, the pinnacle of the year.”

“Well, if you don’t know what you want,” said Jim.

“Oh, I know roughly,” I explained, “that I want something for a boy of thirteen something for an elderly lady and something for a man, a tie or a cigarette tray or something casual.”

Everything Seems to Bulge

“We may as well go together,” said Jim, wanly. “I’ve got to get something for two of my girls and some other odds and ends. When you have somebody with you, it doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Come along,” I said.

And we entered the downtown streets which, even at nine a.m. are already congested and which, by four p.m. are just a hopeless slow tangle. Where do they come from? Are all the offices and desks and work benches abandoned, these last few days before Christmas? Is everybody shopping? The pedestrian traffic is trebled and the wheel traffic at least doubled.

Everything seems to bulge. The streets are congested, the windows are congested. Doorways are not wide enough and from the wagons and trucks parcels project perilously. People cannot pass one another, even in straight walking, but have to pause and bunt and wriggle around. At every doorway, there is confusion.

Nobody seems to have his mind on what he is doing, a general uncertainty prevails. People are all looking up, looking left, right or down. Their mouths are slightly open, as if listening to something inside them. They halt suddenly, turn around and return the way they had come. They burst into little trots. At the intersections, they impatiently attempt to cross against a red light, change their mind, stand dreaming, and then, when the green light comes on the people behind have to push them to get them started.

Jim and I got into the tide and drifted with it, storewards.

“How about an air rifle for that boy of 13?” said Jim, helpfully.

“No,” I said, “he got one two years ago. How about one of those nice needlepoint vanity cases for your girls?”

“No, they’ve got all that stuff,” said Jim. “Could you get your boy one of those metal hammering outfits?”

“He’s got one,” I replied. “Say, I saw some of the swellest ski outfits the other day for girls. Little helmet things….”

“No, no,” cried Jim. “They’ve got so much ski stuff. I think that’s what keeps the snow away. I wish I had boys to buy for. They’re so much easier to choose for than girls.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” I assured him. “I can go right through a department store without seeing a single thing fit for a boy, and every place I look, I see something a girl would just love.”

“You wouldn’t think so,” said Jim, “if you had girls to look after. It’s just the other way round, as a matter of fact. The stores are simply bursting with stuff for boys, but there hasn’t been a new idea in the line of Christmas presents for girls in the last ten years.”

Going With the Current

 “You certainly are cockeyed, Jim,” I assured him, as we joined a great herd and charged across an intersection, bunting and shoving.

We arrived at the big stores. What had been the Niagara rapids of traffic here became Niagara Falls. Clinging together like mariners wrecked, we went with the raging currents, timidly daring to steer a course, whenever an eddy permitted, towards the elevators but ending up at the escalators instead. Trying to catch the up one, we were inexorably forced on to the down one, which took us to the basement, and there, by skillfully pretending not to want to reach the elevators, we succeeded in arriving there and caught one almost empty which took us to the seventh floor before we could battle our way free. By putting on an expression of joy as if the seventh floor were really seventh heaven, where we had been trying to get for years, we had hardly any trouble getting to the stairs, and we walked down three flights to the sporting goods department. Jimmie and I find one thing about the sporting goods department. In case we do get marooned there, we have something to look at.

“Roller skates,” cried Jimmie. “The very thing for your boy.”

“The very thing for your girl, you mean,” I corrected. “Anyway, they can’t roller skate in winter.”

One of the young temporary salesmen they have at Christmas, one of those boys with the expression of a mischievous wire-haired fox terrier in his eyes, overheard my remark.

“Let me show you, sir,” he said, “the latest thing. Here’s a floating power skate, a ball-bearing, knee-action roller skate that is so pleasant to use, a boy will ride on it winter, summer, in the rain, at night, all the time.”

Very skillfully, like a cowpuncher herding steers, he manipulated us out of the swarming traffic into a kind of pocket. And he handed us each a very fancy looking roller skate.

“A kid,” said the enthusiastic young salesman, “will be asking you for messages to go, if he has these skates, see? He’ll be out in the fresh air, taking easy, natural exercise all day long. They’re like velvet. They’re soundless, smooth, like floating in a canoe. Like blowing along on the wind. In fact, I’m saving my money to own a pair of those skates myself. sir.”

We examined them. They just looked like roller skates to me.

“I’d be having,” I said, “to buy new rollers, new wrenches, all the time. They’d leave marks all over the hardwood floors.”

“Just sit down here, sir,” said the young man. “Just sit here one second.”

I am always glad to sit. So is Jim. We sat. The young man squatted down and skillfully snapped a skate on to my foot.

“See?” he cried. “Modernized. A patent device. It just snaps on. Nothing to fall off or work loose. Just a second.”

He snapped the mate on.

“Now, sir,” he said, “just stand up on those.”

I stood up, cautiously, the young chap holding my elbows to steady me. He rolled me a foot or two.

“Did you ever,” he demanded, “feel anything so airy, so smooth, as the action of those skates?”

I took a couple of cautious slides, holding to the counter edge. It was certainly an eerie sensation. Floating is the word. I shoved myself pleasurably along the counter. When I turned, also cautiously, I saw that Jim had been outfitted with them and, being more leggy than I was trying a few slow curvy strokes with them, amidst the crowd swerving past.

“Slick, eh?” said Jim, whirling over to me and doing one of those skating carnival halts.

“How much are they?” I asked.

“I didn’t ask,” said Jim, and we looked for our young man, who, in the true spirit of Christmas, was already waiting on somebody else, letting us soak, as it were, on our skates.

“I think I’ll get a pair,” said Jim.

“I’d imagine they’re pretty high,” I said, “Did you ever feel anything so smooth?”

Watching for a Break

Holding each other, we took a couple of slides along the counter. We came to the main aisle. Jim was being a little too expert and his weight carried us out into the driving storm of doggedly moving humanity.

“Hey,” I said, missing my grab for the counter. “Hey.”

But how was anybody to know we were on wheels? We held fast to each other, as the thick, packed throng moved us pleasantly away, waiting for an opening or else a chance to seize hold of a pillar.

We had become involved, however, in one of those solid swarms that slowly shuffle, hour by hour, through the great stores these final festive days, and, since we were so tightly packed neither Jim nor I could stoop down to undo the skates from our feet, and since it would have been ridiculous to try to explain to the uninterested people pushing from behind or leaning back against us in front, we just let matters ride, until we got a break.

“Don’t struggle,” warned Jim quietly. “If we upset, we might start some kind of a panic. Take it easy.”

We took it easy. The ones behind shoved, the ones ahead laid back, and there, as snug as steers in a cattle car, we moved effortlessly along.

“Jim,” I confided, “this is an idea. I bet we could sell this idea to the big stores. Roller skates for rent, to make Christmas shopping easy.”

We rolled once around the sporting goods and twice around the toys. A couple of times, I thought I saw the chance to climb over small children and get a grip on a counter edge, but Jim’s grasp on my sleeve prevented me.

“Jim,” I said, “try to signal that young brat that is waiting on us.”

But the tide set out to sea and we started leaving the sporting goods.

“Jim,” I muttered, “turn your toes a little to the right, and try to steer us to the side. We’re getting out of the sporting goods into the hardware.”

We both turned our toes right, but it made no difference. We were just lightly and easily rolled along, at the pace of the throng.

“One thing,” said Jim, “we can’t fall down and be trampled to death.”

“Hardware passing,” I said. “Linoleums next.”

We slowly rolled through the linoleums, past the coconut matting into the hooked rugs.

“Watch for a break,” I advised, “and see if you can make a grab. Once we get out of the crowd, we can fall down and take them off.”

But through the hooked rugs we slowly floated, and suddenly a dreadful presentiment assailed me.

“Pssst,” I hissed, “the escalator!”

“I’m afraid,” said Jim, “we’re for it.”

We could hear the dull rumble of the escalator. We tried to thrust out of the throng, but with nothing to grip with but our hands, all we succeeded in doing was irritating people whose arms we clutched, and they glared at us haughtily. Slowly the throng thickened, packed, pressed together and leaned hard over, in the general determination to get to the escalator. It was hopeless. When your turn comes to the escalator, you take it, willy nilly. We took ours.

Clinging to the fat rubber rails, we kept upright. I tried to raise one leg in order to unfasten one of the skates, but my knee bunted the lady ahead of me in an undignified fashion and she turned and hissed–

“Don’t get fresh!”

So, swiftly, inevitably, we reached the bottom of the escalator without having any time to plan or organize our arrival. And on the shining steel plate which bottoms all escalators our feet rolled forth and our helpless hands had to let go the fat rolling rubber railing and, ingloriously we skidded forth before the astonished eyes of the attendant and such shoppers as had enough interest left in life to bother looking.

The attendant helped us take the skates off. He did not, as I suggested to him, suppose we were trying to steal the skates.

“Not a tall, not a tall,” he assured us. “Things like this are happening all the time during the Christmas rush.”

So we took the skates slowly back to the young temporary salesman, who had not noticed our absence, and told him we would think the matter over.


Editor’s Notes: This story serves as a reminder to anyone who bemoans that Christmas has become commercialized. Long before Charlie Brown complained about the commercialization of Christmas in 1965, people were complaining about it even earlier.

Old roller skates were metal and had to be strapped to your shoes. Since “one size fits all”, you needed a skate “key” to adjust the length to fit to your feet, and tighten and lock it.

High Life

He came from behind and pushed the box between my stilts…

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 8, 1934

“How,” asked Jimmie Frise, “do little short men like you manage to do your Christmas shopping? How do you catch the attention of the salesgirls?”

“As a matter of fact, Jim,” I replied, “you have touched on a very sore spot. We small people don’t talk much about our size. It’s a sensitive subject. And I may say we all observe the approach of Christmas with a good deal of misgiving. It is strenuous enough pushing and shoving your way through the stores even if you are six feet tall and weigh 200 pounds. But when you are handicapped!”

“We ought to get the stores to advertise,” said Jim, ” ‘Small people do your Christmas shopping early.'”

“Better still,” I enthused, “let us ask the big stores to set aside a certain week, in the month before Christmas, as small people’s week. It would be a swell idea.”

“Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” said Jim, “would be ‘small folks’ days’ and the doormen at the entrances of the stores would respectfully stop all large people from coming in.”

“And Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays,” I finished, “would be large people’s week.”

“And the doormen,” reminded Jimmie, “would respectfully stop all small people from going in on those days, so as not to be a nuisance to the large people by getting tangled up in their feet all the time and stumbling over them.”

“Well, I hardly think that is a polite way of saying it, Jimmie,” I protested. “But the idea is a dandy. We ought to take it up with the big stores right away.”

“I’d hate to be short,” said Jim.

“It has its advantages,” I demurred. “For example, in sleeping car berths. And in wars. Small people are usually quicker than big people. They are handier around the house, too. A great big man must be terrible bother around a house, lumbering around and making everything creak and wearing out the furniture.”

“You take elevators,” I said. “I hate getting into a crowded elevator. It is the most undignifying thing in the world. For one thing, nobody makes room for a small man. Yet when a big man comes charging at crowded elevator, everybody moves over, with uneasy little smiles, like patting a big dog, and squeezes to make room for him. Sometimes, I try to get in an elevator first, to get a good place. But sure as fate, some great big man gets in after me, turns his back and pushes his large anatomy right into my face. If I wait, to escape that indignity, I have to wiggle and squash to try to get in at all.”

“I never noticed those things,” said Jim. “After this, I will try to stand edgeways to any little men in the elevator.”

“And street cars,” I continued. “One reason I have worked and toiled in this world to make money was to own a car so that I would never, never have to ride in street cars. The way they shove you aside as you try to get aboard. The way they push and shove you, once you are in. I have had tall men rest their evening papers on my hat. I have had tall girls rest their elbows on my shoulder. Too lazy to hold on to the strap or rail above them, these big people just sag in the crowd, and let their swaying and lurching be taken up by the lesser people. And, naturally, by the law of ultimate consumption, it is us smallest people who take up the slack.”

“You move me deeply,” said Jim. “I had no idea.”

“I don’t like sport,” I said, “because big men stand up in front of me at the crucial moments of the rugby or hockey game. I may say I never saw a goal scored in my life.”

“Mercy,” said Jim.

“Motor cars are all made for big men,” I declared. “Golf sticks, telephone booths, mirrors in hotel bathrooms, counters in lunch rooms, are all made for big men. There are stand-up restaurants in Toronto, over which just my head shows. I wouldn’t eat there for a thousand dollars. Seats everywhere, seats in street cars, hotels, church, are all made for big men, so that my feet dangle in the air. I don’t go to church. If I try to buy a ready-made coat, and have it shortened in the tail so that my feet show, the pockets are slung so low down I have to bend to reach them.”

“The advantages in this life,” said Jim, “are all on the side of the tall people.”

“Agreed,” I admitted bitterly. “A big man is showered with respect and honor wherever he goes. He gets waited on immediately in stores and restaurants. He has his path cleared for him wherever he goes. The world pays respect and honor to big men, no matter who or what they are. Whereas a little man has to conquer the world, like Napoleon, before he can win the world’s respect.”

“And not always then,” put in Jim. “But what are you going to do about Christmas? Why not just do your shopping early? You small people know your own difficulties. Why don’t you act on that knowledge?”

“Because I don’t think it is fair,” I stated. “Because I have my rights, just the same as any two hundred pounder. Because I have as much right to be waited on in a store as any policeman in captivity!”

“Why don’t you use stilts?” asked Jim. “Just make a pair of stilts that would lift you up to about seven feet tall. I bet you would have no trouble doing your Christmas shopping then.”

“Jim,” I gasped, “what a peach of an idea …”

The Secret of Success

“The only trouble would be carrying your parcels on stilts,” said Jim.

“I could have everything sent,” I said, “All I would do would be to carry my stilts until I got to the department where I wanted to buy something. Then up on my stilts, make my purchase and then dismount. I wouldn’t even have to pay money. Just have the stuff sent c.o.d.”

“You certainly could see what was on sale,” admitted Jim. “One of my troubles is seeing what is for sale.”

“I’m going to patent this idea,” I cried, “and then sell it to the big stores. They could have a department near the main entrance, the stilt department, where stilts would be hired out for a normal sum to all short people. They could then hobble about the store, making their purchases as easily as anybody.”

“That would lose you the whole advantage,” argued Jim. “The first thing you know, big people would get tired of being crowded out by little people on stilts and then they would begin using stilts, and where would you be? No, sir. Use the stilts yourself and see how it works. In this life grab every advantage you can think of. That’s the secret of success.”

Jim assisted me in making the stilts in my cellar. We used seven-foot lengths of what the timber dealers call two by two. Three feet from the ground we nailed on two cleats for my feet to rest on. When we got them done that far I mounted the stilts and wobbled around the cellar.

“Hooray,” cheered Jim. “They’re perfect. And you’re a natural born stiltsman.”

It was exciting. We then put some fancy trimmings on them, such as pieces of rubber from an old tire, on the bottoms, and we put linings of more rubber on the cleats so that my feet would not slip when I was “up.” as they say in the racing world. I gave them a nice coat of varnish and set them to dry.

“I’ll come shopping with you,” assured Jimmie, “in case you want any of your parcels carried.”

“You’re the sort of partner,” I thanked him heartily.

I went home early two afternoons and did some practice on the stilts. By taking several small boys along with me I pretended I was showing them the fun of stilts. And by letting all of them try the stilts I was able to work in a lot of showing-how, which gave me plenty of practice until I became, if I may say so, quite handy.

We chose Friday afternoon for the shopping day.

“Make it the most crowded time of all,” said Jim. “It will be a real test of your genius.”

When we arrived at the main entrance of the big store, I carrying the stilts and nobody paying any more attention to me than if it were an umbrella I was carrying. Jim drew me aside.

“Look,” he said, “are you really going ahead with this stunt?”

I was amazed.

“Because,” said Jimmie, “people will think you are nuts.”

“Jimmie,” I retorted, “during these three weeks everybody thinks everybody is nuts. This is Christmas month. Anything goes.”

“Well, I warn you,” he sighed.

But he came with me. We walked through the soaps and the magazines. We passed the purses. We drew near the jewelry, I carrying the stilts at what soldiers call the high-port.

Invention of the Ages

“What are you going to get first?” asked Jim.

“Three pair of silk stockings,” I said, “in a gift box.”

The stockings counter was just a midway. Just a veterans’ reunion. Just a fight. Women were three and four deep around the counters, they were wedged one in beside another and, standing on the floor, I could not see the top of even a tall salesgirl.

“Now, Jim,” said I, “let me show you something.”

Standing well back from the melee, I mounted the stilts. With the skill of an old hand I waddled forward toward the stockings counter. Now I could see right over the heads of four rows of ladies, and up into my face stared not one but eight or nine salesgirls. Their expressions were wide-eyed and delighted. In an instant that tired Friday afternoon look vanished. Life became interesting to them once more.

I waddled down the counter, looking at the piles of stockings with the prices set in cards above them. Three of the girls left their customers and followed me anxiously.

“How much are those with the frilly top?” I asked.

“Eighty-nine cents,” said all three girls.

“May I have three pairs, please? Send them c.o.d. and in a gift box,” said I giving them my address.

Forty or fifty indignant female customers were by now glaring angrily up at me. Up, I say, and I mean up. I now realize the feeling a tall man must have in a theatre line-up or in a crowded elevator. It is a swell feeling. I felt like thanking Heaven.

“Yes, sir,” said the girl who had got her book open first.

“Thank you,” said I dropping easily off the stilts and resting them on my shoulder like a skier.

Jimmie, who had been concealing himself behind a pillar, came out sheepishly.

“Well I never,” said he.

“Jim,” I cried, “it’s the invention of the ages. I never in my life shopped so quickly or was treated so politely. You can have no idea of the power, the authority, the ease it gives you to be standing looking down on everybody. Especially a mob of indignant women.”

“I imagined you’d be mobbed,” said Jim.

“Now for the toy department,” said I.

We went up the elevator to the toys. Such a pandemonium you never saw. Dolls were my first concern, so I mounted my stilts in the rear of the mob in front of the doll counter. Most of the crowd thought I was one of the clowns hired to wander about the toy floor, and they laughed merrily while I waded in and gave my order for a nice fat doll. It didn’t take one minute to complete the deal. Then I hopped down and rejoined Jim.

“Try it, Jim,” I begged him. “Get up on them and try them.”

“I can see all right,” replied he.

“Now for ladies’ gloves,” said I.

“Main floor.”

The congestion was terrific.

“You’ll come to grief here,” said Jim. “Better wait until early to-morrow morning and order your gloves from the ground level.”

“I know the color, the size and the price I want,” I retorted. “Just stand aside watch.”

I mounted. I moved through the crowd. Two or three ladies elbowed my legs as I passed them. But as usual the salesgirls, seeing me towering above the throng, greeted me with sudden bright and interested glances.

“So,” I thought to myself, “this is the eye the tall boys get, is it?”

Speaking in a deep voice that fitted my height, I ordered the kind of gloves I wanted, the girl held them up for me to see, and I was in the act of leaning slightly forward to look at the quality of the leather when one of those boys they hire only for the Christmas rush, shoving one of those large boxes on wheels which you never see except during the worst of the Christmas rush, came from behind and pushed the box between my stilts.

Naturally it was impossible to foresee such a contingency. Not knowing what was spreading the stilts, I dropped off backward and fell into the parcel wagon the boy was shoving. There were a number of parcels in the little wagon, but not enough to prevent me falling deep into it. The boy, being a new boy and anxious to hold his job, kept right on pushing through the crowd, while Jimmie, appearing beside the wagon, said to the boy:

“Go right ahead, boy, deliver him.”

And over by the south elevators, where the crowd was not so thick, Jim helped me out.

“Get my stilts,” I insisted. “I’m not through.”

“You’re through,” said Jim, handing the boy a quarter.

“Did you, by any chance,” I asked icily “pay that boy to upset me?”

“I would spend far more than a quarter for an old friend,” said Jim.

“You’re jealous,” I cried, “You’re just jealous, because I was higher than you. Now I see through it all: you tall people are just childishly jealous of anybody taller than you.”

“You looked like a sap,” said Jim.

“Because you have always been used to looking down on me from a height,” I said. “Jim, I think this is mighty small of you.”

“Let us stay the way the Lord made us,” said Jim. “The expression on your face, up there on those stilts, was ridiculous. You thought you were a duke or something.”

“Jim, I felt good,” I admitted.

“It takes years,” ended Jim, “to grow the way we are. A sudden change ruins us. If you keep your feet on the ground I’ll help you with your Christmas shopping. I’ll come along and lift you up so you can see what’s on the counters.”

“Very good,” said I. But the pavement seemed stiflingly close.


Editor’s Notes: Buying something c.o.d., meant “Cash on Delivery”. The store would sent the item to your home, and you would pay full price on receipt.

This Is It!

By Greg Clark, December 21, 1946

“How,” demanded Jimmie Frise,”is your Christmas spirit?”

“As good as the next fellow’s,” I replied guardedly.

“I mean,” expanded Jim,” “have you got the true spirit of Christmas? Or are you just one of those people who go along on the Christmas bandwagon because they can’t escape?”

“Jim!” I expostulated very shocked. “You shouldn’t say things like that. To vast numbers of people, Christmas is the most holy day of the year.”

“It certainly doesn’t look like it,” declared Jim. “It’s far from holy for what looks to me like about 99 per cent of the population. It’s the business peak of the year. More cash registers clang during the four weeks before Christmas than during any other four-month period of the year. More people are exhausted as the result of sheer acquisitiveness on Christmas Eve than on any other day of the year.”

“I know, I know,” I protested. “Anybody can see that we have made a carnival out of Christmas instead of a holiday. Holiday means holy day. But how else would you celebrate Christmas?”

“Well, millions among us DO regard Christmas as the most sacred day of the year, and act accordingly,” said Jimmie. “But millions more of us can’t hear the church bells because of the racket the kids are making in the living-room or because of the hustle and bustle in the kitchen while the turkey cooks….”

“I think,” I submitted, “that the great majority of those of us who look upon Christmas as a carnival rather than a holy day still have a consciousness deep in our hearts as to what it is all about. All this giving of gifts. All this gathering of the family all this feasting and merrymaking.”

“I doubt it,” muttered Jim.

“Look here,” I demanded, “what are you getting at? What is all this leading up to?”

“Well,” said Jim, in that sweet humble air he adopts when he is about to take us both for a ride, “as a matter of fact, I was just wondering if the good old Christmas spirit had affected you to the point that you might be willing to make a small sacrifice…”

“Of time?” I queried. “Or money?”

“Neither, really.” Assured Jim. “One of my nephews from the country – just a kid, he is – got the bright idea this Christmas of making a little money by selling Christmas trees off the farm. They’ve got a big swamp full of spruce and balsam, you remember?”

“That’s a good swamp,” I agreed. “Full of rabbits.”

“So,” went on Jim, “he came up to the city and rented a vacant lot, he and a couple of chums. And they’ve cut about 300 dandy little Christmas trees, and have brought them up by truck to this vacant lot. And these past three days, they’ve been selling like hot cakes.”

“Good for them,” I applauded. “I like to see the farm boys exhibiting a little initiative.”

“A Swell Idea!”

“Now here’s the point,” pursued Jim. “They had no idea business would be so brisk. So they want to go back down to the farm tonight and spend tomorrow cutting another couple of hundred Christmas trees. And my nephew asked me if I would be kind enough to stand guard at their vacant lot tomorrow.”

“Why, Jim,” I admired, “what a swell idea!”

“All we’d have to do,” hurried Jim, watching me narrowly, “would be to get on the job good and early and…”

“How early?” I cut in.

“Oh, 8 or 8.30,” supposed Jim. “Maybe even later. Nobody goes out buying Christmas trees first thing in the morning.”

“How about during the night?” I demanded. “Don’t they have to leave somebody on guard during the night? Isn’t there some danger of kids coming around during the night and snitching a few trees?”

“Aw, we could stroll around a couple of times before bed time,” said Jim. “And anyway, there will be a cop on the beat.”

“Jim,” I submitted warmly, “there is something about Christmas trees that appeals to everybody no matter how cold-hearted he may be. I never pass one of those vacant lots crammed with little spruces and balsams, brightening the drab streets of the city with their unexpected little forests, that I don’t slow down and envy the guys who are living there, even for a few hours or a few days, amid the charm and mystery of the woods, there in the heart of the city.”

“It’s the Christmas spirit,” enthused Jim, obviously relieved at my reception of his idea.

“Has your nephew got one of those little shacks on the vacant lot?” I inquired. “You know, a little shelter to…”

“Not yet,” explained Jim. “They’ve got a good big brazier we can sit at. It won’t be cold. They’re going to bring planks for a little shack when they come back with more trees tomorrow night.”

“Aw, well, it’s just for the one day,” I reasoned. “Jim, I think it’s a sweet idea. I’ll be very glad to help out your young nephew. Is it the one we met last winter, rabbit hunting?”

“The same boy,” assured Jim.

“A fine kid,” I said heartily. “I’m glad to see he’s got some get-up-and-go to him. When do they leave for the farm?”

“They’ve left already,” announced Jim. “I just got a telephone call to say they were leaving and asking if we could go out right away.”

“Jim,” I cried, “let’s go!”

On the Job

Personally, I have always envied shopkeepers, especially hardware store keepers and drug store keepers. Those are happy men. There they stand amid their mysterious treasure all heaped about them. Mysterious drawers, secret bins; and all about them piled up and heaped high, the riches of their merchandise. I pity all those who have to stand behind counters and dish out groceries and drygoods. Everything they’ve got is out in the open. The customer can see for himself. But in a hardware store or a drug store, there is a sense of the unknown, the hidden. Every request from a customer is a challenge. And you can see in the eye of the hardware man, for instance, that gleam as his mind darts across the past, his memory exploring, as he accepts the challenge and goes to work to find the thing requested. I am sorry no hardware man or druggist has ever encountered an emergency that required my assistance. Christmas trees, of course, come in the category of groceries or drygoods.

Jimmie and I drove hotly for the residential shopping street where young Lisha, his nephew, had rented the vacant lot. And when we parked in front of it, our hearts rose.

There was still a goodly supply of Christmas trees on hand, though you could see that a large number had been sold. Already half a dozen customers were standing or moving amid the trees, examining them and looking about impatiently for somebody to serve them. In the midst stood a good big brazier newly heaped with coke and sticks, and radiating heat waves on the frosty air.

We hurried to the job.

Each tree had a small price tag tied to it. Some were a mere 75 cents, most of them a dollar, with here and there a particularly choice specimen at $1.50. After a hasty look around, I realized that Jim’s nephew, young Lisha, had inherited some of the artistic sense his uncle had. The $1.50 trees were pure Christmas card types.

“Madame?” I greeted the first lady, who had a couple of kids with her.

“How much is this tree?” she inquired sharply.

I examined the tag, which was in full view. “That’s $1.50,” I informed her.

“A dollar fifty,” she cried shrilly, “for a little old tree? Why, that’s an outrage. Anybody could go and out down a simple little tree.”

“But look, lady,” I explained sweetly, in the best merchandising tradition, it had to be cut. It had to be brought in a truck from the country. This vacant lot had to be rented…”

“Oh,” she said. “So you want to argue, do you? Well, there’s lots of other Christmas trees around this district…”

And she marched out of the lot, her two kids glaring back at me indignantly.

I saw the two ladies Jim had first approached just leaving him with their shoulders squared.

The next lady I approached had a tree in her possession. She was dragging it out toward the brazier with the air of someone who had found a bargain hidden away at the back.

“This one,” she stated firmly, “has no price tag. How much is it?”

I examined the tree. It was a little beauty. A close-packed, dense spruce, its branches standing out briskly in all directions, its top tapered and gay and light is a feather. Obviously a $1.50 type.

“That’s the $1.50 line, lady,” I announced.

“For a little bit of scrub like that!” she snapped. “Scrub that you could pick up along the roadside…”

“Sorry, madam,” I assured her. That’s a very exceptional Christmas tree…”

“It was a way in at the back, there,” she wheedled. “Among the 50-cent ones.”

I went back in among the trees. I looked on the ground. Sure enough, I found it. A price tag, folded up as though some bargain hunting woman had pinched it off the tree. I opened it. It was $1.50.

But maybe the wind blew it off. I shouldn’t be so suspicious.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I stood firm, “that’s our $1.50 line.”

“It’s an outrage,” she shrilled. “The government ought to forbid this racket. “It’s just a racket. A little bit of scrub like this, a dollar fifty!”

I said nothing. I looked over and saw Jim standing by the brazier warming his hands. His customers had departed.

“Look,” said the lady, changing her attitude.” Couldn’t you let me have this for a dollar? I’m just a poor widow. And my little children do so look forward to a Christmas tree…”

“Just the Salesman”

She didn’t look like a widow to me. She looked like a woman regularly accustomed to bulldozing and wheedling a man by turns.

“I’m just the salesman, lady,” I stated. “The price is a dollar fifty.”

“Do you deliver for that price?” she asked stiffly.

“No, ma’am,” I said. “F.O.B.”

“What does F.O.B. mean?” she snapped.

“It’s French for ‘you got to carry it,'” I explained.

“You keep it,” she said warningly, searching her purse. “My husband will call for it. after supper.”

She paid me the $1.50 and I wrote her name on a piece of paper and tied it prominently to the fine feathery tip of the tree.

Jim had dragged a box up to the brazier and was hunched over the fire.

“It’s a cold job, just standing around,” he sniffled.

“Make any sales?” I inquired.

“No, mine were all just shopping around,” he coughed.

The late afternoon sun had gone down behind the nearby buildings. The December wind eddied around us, wafting the scent of balsam and spruce and the fumes of the homegoing traffic to our crispy nostrils.

A few people paused in passing and looked in at our display, but thought better of it and hurried homeward.

“How late should we stay?” I inquired, from the lee side of the brazier.

“Well, I suppose,” huffed Jim, “we ought to stay until the stores close and the crowds go home.”

A man and wife turned purposefully into our lot, the lady leading.

As I was on my feet, I leaped to the sale.

“Aha, the old racket,” cried the husband jovially, full of the Santa Claus spirit. “How much are the trees? Thirty-five, fifty?”

“Are these all you’ve got?” asked the lady in a quiet, menacing voice.

“Just what you see,” I assured her politely.

“They look awfully skimpy to me,” she said, leaning back. “When I was a girl, Christmas trees were beautiful.”

“We have several varieties,” I explained, “spruce, balsam, but the spruce are the prettiest.”

She walked stiffly around. Her husband joined Jim at the brazier and they engaged in the hearty kind of conversation a city man uses on what he assumes to be a country man.

“This one,” I said, pulling a nice bunchy spruce out of the pile,” is the $1.50 line. These are special…”

“A dollar fifty!” laughed the lady lightly. “I should say it IS special! That’s nonsense. I wouldn’t pay more than 50 cents for any Christmas tree. Why it’s absurd, a dollar fifty … George!”

A Cold World

Her husband came over smartly.

“This man,” she said, “has the nerve to ask a dollar fifty for this Christmas tree. Speak to him.”

George drew himself up and frowned at me.

“A dollar fifty,” he began slowly and loudly.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t own the trees. I am just a salesman. There are plenty more Christmas trees up the street.”

“Tell him who you are, George!” commanded the lady in a low voice.

“I don’t care who you are,” I said loudly. “The price of this tree is a dollar-fifty.”

“That’s the tree I want,” said the lady loudly too. “Give him 50 cents for it, George, and take it.”

George looked critically at the tree.

“Mabel,” he said, “that isn’t a Christmas tree. That’s just a piece of hedge. I want a Christmas tree that sort of…”

“We’ve been over and over that,” cried the lady angrily, “every Christmas for years.”

“I want a Christmas tree,” shouted George, “that you can see through. I want a filmy, sketchy Christmas tree, not one of these thick, stuffed looking…”

“Take this one!” warned the lady in a deep throaty voice.

George looked desperately around and laid hold of one of our 50-cent line, a poor little wispy, droopy balsam.

That’s a Christmas tree!” he grated, shoving his jaw close to his wife’s face. “That’s what WE had for a Christmas tree in MY home…”

The lady grabbed a branch and tried to snatch the tree from him.

They pulled and yanked and yelled at each other.

The lady suddenly let go and ran, stumbling out of the lot, and with fast-tapping feet turned into the home-going crowd along the street.

“Will you take it, sir?” I inquired politely.

He stood for a moment, then flung the little tree away from him.

“Aw, the heck with it!” he barked and strode out.

Jim hadn’t moved from the brazier.

“Jim,” I said, “how long should we stay here?”

“It’s pretty cold,” suggested Jim.

“It’s a cold world,” I agreed.

So we banked ashes on the brazier and put it in a safe place and went home, trusting to the goodness of heart and the Christmas spirit in everybody not to molest young Lisha’s trees.

And after supper, we went and bribed the old boy who cuts our grass in summer to take on the job for the morrow.


Editor’s Notes: $1.50 in 1946 is about $21.25 in 2019.

F.O.B. is a term that basically means that the seller is not responsible for shipping.

Only Twenty Days

By Greg Clark, December 3, 1938

“What the dickens,” inquired Jimmie Frise, looking up from a list he was writing, “can a father give a daughter of 20?”

“Why ask me?” I retorted. “What can a father give a daughter of seven?”

“For you it’s easy,” said Jim. “Wait until your kids grow up.”

“The older they are, the more sensible they are,” I pointed out. “You can give a young man of 20 something not very spectacular, but full of value. But with young children, you have to make a splash.”

“You have to make a splash with a daughter of 20,” assured Jim.

“Give her a wrist watch,” I submitted.

“She’s got a wrist watch,” countered Jim.

“Give her a diamond-studded wrist watch,” I offered.

“Oh, yeah?” retorted Jim. “Listen, I’ve got a family.”

“Isn’t it the dickens,” I sympathized. “Jim, there ought to be a sort of upper-class social service bureau for Christmas advice. You ought to be able to send for a woman to come into your home, a trained Christmas expert, the same as a trained social service worker. She’d come and live right in your house for a day, studying the children, examining everything they possess and figuring out what they don’t possess and what they need or what they want. And then she’d draw up your Christmas list for each member of the family.”

“Both what they give,” said Jim, “and what they get.”

“That’s it,” I enthused. “It’s a real idea. Maybe we could sell the idea to the big stores. A Christmas advice bureau, with a staff of young women to come and sit in with the family for a day, and then give expert advice.”

“Most Christmas gifts,” said Jim, “are so silly. We think only in terms of Christmas. Of winter. Of December. Now, I’ve wanted a new shooting coat for the past five years. I never can afford one in October, because I’ve spent all my money during the summer. Yet my family usually spends $12 on me, and you can get a swell shooting coat for $12.”

“I’ll bet the total of a man’s Christmas presents,” I declared, “comes to far more than that. I’ve wanted a new canoe for the cottage for years. But who would give me a canoe for Christmas? There’s the fact that it couldn’t be used for six months. There’s the problem of storing it somewhere. There’s the fact that they couldn’t hang it on the Christmas tree. So they don’t get me a canoe. They get me ties and socks and a new pipe and books, and tins of hundreds of cigarettes, and a whole raft of stuff, all of which would equal the cost of a new canoe.”

“For instance,” interrupted Jim, “my wife has been pining for a Persian rug for years. Every time we pass a store with rugs in the window, she just stops and stands paralyzed. She only wants one around $67.50 or something like that. Yet would I consider giving her a Persian rug for Christmas?”

“Why not?” I demanded.

“Because it’s for the house,” mocked Jim. “It’s something for the house, therefore it’s barred from being a Christmas present. Christmas presents have got to be personal.”

To Reorganize Christmas

“Oh, no, they don’t,” I countered, “That’s just a habit of mind a lot of us have got into. I know plenty of people who give new radios for Christmas.”

“Yes,” said Jim. “Childless couples. They can give each other things of mutual interest and value. But the mother of a family deserves something personal. Years ago, she gave up all thought of herself. In fact, the day her first baby was born, she thought her last personal thought. From then on, she has worked and schemed and planned and thought her whole life for others. Christmas is about the only time of year you can sort of square accounts with a mother.”

“You’re right, Jim,” I agreed. “In fact, there’s a thought there. Why not have a Christmas day for giving gifts only to mothers? Nobody but mothers get any gifts. The pleasure everybody else gets is in giving to mothers.”

“That would be a good idea,” said Jim, “only it forgets mothers. Because one of the greatest thrills in a mother’s whole year is the giving at Christmas. Giving for the children, giving the children a whale of a day, giving them a feast… Why, when you come to think of it, Christmas is really mother’s day, because it is the mother’s most giving day in her whole year of giving.”

“Well,” I submitted, “Christmas ought to be different, somehow. It is too seasonable. Too Christmassy. If it is going to be commercialized, and it sure is, then it ought to be reorganized on a better commercial basis. If a woman wants a Persian rug, Christmas ought to give it to her. You can give her something that will make her happy on Christmas, or you can give her something that will make her happy in June and September and all the rest of the year as well.”

“What have you in mind, besides canoes?” asked Jim.

“Well, my wife,” I said, “is always going into trances in front of antique shops. She just loves old wood. Old walnut most of all. She loves chests and highboys and even whatnots. She loves old chairs and petit point and tables, all darkly gleaming.”

“Don’t you buy her any?” asked Jim.

“No, she’s of Scottish descent,” I explained, “and she always remembers the children. Children mar and smash and batter furniture. So we are saving antiques for when our children are all grown up.”

“I love that antique stuff, too,” confessed Jim. “When I think of the kind of furniture we have to live with, all because our kids are noisy and rambunctious.”

“It’s the radio,” I explained. “You can’t imagine a radio playing swing or giving us a new chapter in the daily career of Tough Burke, the boy detective, in a living room furnished in old walnut and lady chairs, such as our grandparents lived in.”

“The dignity of life,” sighed Jimmie, “is vanishing. Our lives have now to be furnished and equipped for sudden wild leaps of boys and sudden outbursts of dancing, and tommy guns firing from behind a barricade of chesterfield cushions piled on the floor, and parties springing up from nowhere, on account of the rapid transit of motor cars, with stains on the table and sandwiches crumbling and cigarette burns on the edges of the mantel.”

“It’s a heck of an age,” I admitted, thoughtfully. “But do you know, I have a hunch that what I’ll give my wife this Christmas will be her first nice little piece of antique walnut? A gateleg table or a chest of drawers.”

“Start in a small way,” agreed Jim. “And the older your children get, the more lovely old stuff you can acquire, so that by the time the kids are grown up you will be furnished throughout with stuff that is dignified and old and graceful and lovely.”

“Yes, sir,” I mused, and I think that instead of a canoe I’ll start dropping hints around about that pair of early American squirrel guns that I showed you. Remember?”

“They’re probably gone by now,” said Jim.

“No, sir,” I said, “I was in looking at them only the other day. Two genuine Kentucky squirrel rifles. Can you imagine how swell they would look, suspended over the fireplace in my den?”

“Fifty dollars, weren’t they?” asked Jim, doubtfully.

“Only forty-five,” I corrected. “And anyway, if I give my wife a walnut colonial table worth $50, shouldn’t she go out of her way a little in regard to my present? Anyway, I’ve worked pretty hard this year, and I’ve given a lot of thought to my children, even if I haven’t been with them much.”

“I saw some rugs in that shop, didn’t I?” asked Jim.

“Yes, you did,” I recollected. “I noticed a big pile of them the last time I was in looking at those Kentucky rifles.”

“Let’s drop over there at lunch,” suggested Jim.

Which we did. And I am unhappy to inform you that the Kentucky squirrel rifles, once in the collection of the famous Charles Noe Daly, were gone. The dealer had disposed of them to a man in exchange for a genuine Sheffield tray and $10.

“Why,” I told him, “I was prepared to go as high as $50 for them.”

“It’s too bad,” said the dealer. “But he took them and sold them to a collector in Chicago. I hear he got $150 for them.”

“Mm, m’m,” I retired.

As I started for the door, Jim hailed me.

“Here’s rugs,” he said. And I wandered back and watched him haul and lay rugs, many of them pretty seedy looking, the good ones being all around $675.

“Come along,” I muttered.

“You go and look at colonial walnut tables and things,” urged Jim, “while I go through these.”

“I think I’ll give my wife something more personal,” I replied. “Lingerie or a house coat or something.”

But Jim went on exploring in the pile of rugs and I wandered amidst the scattered treasures, looking at them without interest. They were the usual old, plain chests, wardrobes, tables, of all sizes; antique chairs, very uncomfortable looking.

Jim joined me.

“I didn’t see anything I liked there,” he said, “at any price I could afford. Do you see anything you like?”

“Those guns,” I muttered. “Did you ever hear of such rotten luck? Imagine the guy selling them for a sheffield tray and $10.”

“Look here,” said Jim, suddenly excited. “Look at that bed!”

It was a battered, dull, knobbly little old bed.

“Isn’t that a trundle bed?” cried Jim, excitedly. “Excuse me, mister.”

The dealer came lazily down the room, the way antique dealers do. Some of the timelessness of their wares seems to enter into the bones of antique dealers.

“Isn’t that a trundle bed?” cried Jimmie, pointing.

“That’s what we call a string bed,” said the dealer. “It is laced across with heavy cord for springs.”

“That’s it,” cried Jim. “At home we called it a trundle bed. See, there are little holes for threading the rope through.”

And holding up the pieces of the old walnut bed, Jimmie and the dealer explained the primitive method by which our great-grandfathers achieved a little comfort. The sturdy four posts of the bed were mortised for the inset of the four boards that comprised the sides and ends. Then a powerful cord or leather thong was laced through the holes in all four boards, back and forth, a few inches apart, making a sort of mesh of cord. Springs, in fact.

“On top of these cords,” explained Jim, enthusiastic and delighted, “you laid a thick feather tick. Boy, what a bed!”

“Did you ever sleep on one of them?” asked the dealer, very polite.

“We had one in the attic of the farm,” cried Jim, and it was my favorite bed. I slept my boyhood away on a bed like this. My, what memories it brings back. Isn’t it a tragedy that we have disposed of all this lovely old walnut stuff, for a lot of brass and cheap plyboard furniture… How much is this?”

“That one,” said the dealer, “not being in very good shape, I can let it go, just as it is, for $18.”

“Eighty?” said Jim.

“Eight-TEEN,” said the dealer, very honest.

The Trundle Bed

“I’ll take it,” said Jim, instantly. “I’ll take it. Of all the dear old things. Just look at it. Look at this old walnut…”

And I had to help him turn the various pieces this way and that and examine them up near the window, to see the lovely grain of the wood.

“Our great-grandfathers,” said Jim, “had no other furniture but this simple, stately, unpretentious colonial, perfect in its design, without ornamentation. Then came the late Victorian era, with everything stuffed and scrolly. They traded their old furniture for bird’s-eye maple and light oak. Then came fumed oak. And all this glorious old stuff was sent to the attic or the cellar or given away to our poor relations, while we went garish and light and ornamented and scrolly, and twisty and altogether ridiculous.”

“In other words, our great-grandfathers were right,” I submitted.

“Now we are paying fat prices to try and get back,” said Jim, “some of the stuff we threw away.”

So Jim paid his $18 for the trundle bed and arranged for it to be sent home. And we walked back to work, me thinking about old Kentucky squirrel rifles and peach-colored lingerie and new ski boots for growing boys and other seasonable thoughts.

After supper, Jimmie telephoned me. In a very low voice.

“Listen,” he muttered, “have you mentioned that bed I bought to anybody at your place? Anything about the price?”

“No,” I said, truly, for I hadn’t thought of it since.

“Well, I’m in a bit of a jam,” said Jim. “That bed I bought IS my bed. It’s been in our attic for about 20 years. My wife gave it away to some social service workers only a week ago.”

“Jim,” I said.

“She got tired of it being in the attic, so she gave it away with a lot of old baby carriages and stuff.” mumbled Jim. “So I told them I ran across it in an antique store and bought it for a dollar.”

“Jim,” I repeated.

“So you see, you’ve got to be pretty quiet about it,” he continued.

“But Jim,” I said, “it can’t be your very own bed.”

“It is,” said Jim. “These social service workers probably sold it to the antique dealer because no poor family would have a feather tick.”

“But it is probably just a coincidence,” I submitted. “There are likely dozens of them around.”

“No,” said Jim. “It has got my initials carved in it with another pair of initials set in a heart.”

“Oho!” I cried.

“Shhhh,” warned Jim, low. “Some boyhood love affair that I tried to carve into eternity. I don’t even remember who B.J. was.”

“What are you going to do with the bed?” I inquired.

“I was wondering.” asked Jim, “if you are still interested in giving your wife something antique for Christmas?”

“I was thinking I’d give her a Persian rug,” I replied.

“Okay,” whispered Jimmie, and hung up the receiver.


Editor’s Note: This story appeared in The Best of Greg Clark and Jimmie Frise (1977)

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén