The Christmas Party
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
Christmas had come around again — merry old Christmas, with his smiling face and wealth of good cheer; and every preparation had been made by the Arlingtons for their annual Christmas party, which was always a mirthful time for the young friends of the family.
Some hundreds of miles away, in a quiet New-England village, lived Mr. Archer, an uncle of Mr. Arlington. He was a good man; but being a minister of the old school, and well advanced in years, he was strongly prejudiced against all "fashionable follies," as he called nearly every form of social recreation. Life was, in his eyes, too solemn a thing to be wasted in any kind of trifling. In preaching and praying, in pious meditation, and in going about to do good, much of his time was passed; and another portion of it was spent in reflecting upon and mourning over the thoughtless follies of the world. He had no time for pleasure-taking; no heart to smile at the passing foibles or merry humours of his fellow-men.
Such was the Rev. Jason Archer — a good man, but with his mind sadly warped through early prejudices, long confirmed. For years he had talked of a journey to the city where his niece, to whom he was much attached, resided. This purpose was finally carried out. It was the day before Christmas, when Mrs. Arlington received a letter from the old gentleman, announcing the fact that she might expect to see him in a few hours, as he was about starting to pay her and her family the long-intended visit.
"Uncle Archer will be here tomorrow," said Mrs. Arlington to her husband, as soon as she met him after receiving her letter.
"Indeed! And so the good old gentleman has made a move at last?"
"Yes; he's going to eat his Christmas dinner with us, he says."
"So much the better. The pleasure of meeting him will increase the joy of the occasion."
"I am not so sure of that," replied Mrs. Arlington, looking a little serious. "It would have been more pleasant to have received this visit at almost any other time in the year."
"You know his strong prejudices?"
"Oh, against dancing, and all that?"
"Yes; he thinks it a sin to dance."
"Though I do not."
"No; but it will take away half my pleasure to see him grieved at anything that takes place in my house."
"He'll not be so weak as that."
"He thinks it sin, and will be sadly pained at its occurrence. Is it possible to omit dancing for once?"
"At the party tomorrow night?"
Mr. Arlington shook his head, as he replied —
"Don't think of such a thing. We will receive him with true kindness, because we feel it towards the good old man. But we must not cease to do what we know to be right, thus disappointing and marring the pleasure of many — out of deference to a mere prejudice of education in a single person. When we go to see him, we do not expect that any change will be made out of deference to our prejudices or peculiar opinions; and when he comes to see us, he must be willing to tolerate what takes place in our family, even if it does not meet his full approval. No, no; let us not think for a moment of any change in affairs on this account. Uncle Archer hasn't been present at a mirthful party nor seen dancing for almost half a century. It may do him good to witness it now. At any rate, I feel curious to see the experiment tried."
Mrs. Arlington still argued for a little yielding in favor of the good parson's prejudices, but her husband would not listen to such a thing for a moment. Everything, he said, must go on as usual.
"A guest who comes into a family," he remarked, "should always conform himself to the family order; then there is no reaction upon him, and all are comfortable and happy. He is not felt as a thing foreign and incongruous, but as homogeneous. To break up the usual order, and to bend all to meet his personal prejudices and peculiarities, is only to so disturb the family sphere as to make it actually repellent. He is then felt as an unassimilated foreign body, and all secretly desire his removal."
"But something is due to old age!" urged Mrs. Arlington.
"Yes; much. But, if age has not softened a man's prejudices against a good thing in itself, I doubt very much if a deference to his prejudice, such as you propose, will in the least benefit him. Better let him come in contact with a happy circle, exhilarated by music and dancing; and the chances are, that his heart will melt in the scene, rather than grow colder and harder. The fact is, as I think of it more and more, the better pleased am I that Uncle Archer is coming just at this time."
But Mrs. Arlington felt troubled about the matter. Early on Christmas morning, the old gentleman arrived, and was welcomed with sincere affection by every member of the family. Mr. and Mrs. Arlington had a daughter, named Grace, who was just entering her eighteenth year. She was gentle and affectionate in disposition, and drew to the side of Uncle Archer in a way that touched the old man's feelings. He had not seen her before this, since she was a little girl; and now, he could not keep his eyes off of her as she sat by him, or moved about the room in his presence.
"What a dear girl that is!" was his remark to her mother, many times through the day.
"She's a good girl," would simply reply Mrs. Arlington, speaking almost without thought. Grace was a good girl; her mother felt this, and from her heart, her lips found utterance.
It seemed, all through the day, that Grace could not do enough for the old man's comfort. Once she drew him into her room, as he was passing her door, to show him some pictures that she had painted. As he sat looking at them, he noticed a small, handsomely bound Bible on her table. Taking it up, he said —
"Do you read this, Grace?"
"Oh, yes," she replied, "every day." And there was such a light of goodness in her eyes, as she looked up into his face, that Mr. Archer felt, for a moment or two, as if the countenance of an angel was before him.
"Why do you read it?" he continued after a pause.
"It teaches us the way to Heaven," said Grace.
"And you are trying to live for Heaven?"
"I try to shun all evil as sin. Can I do more?"
All the minister's creeds, and doctrines, and confessions of faith, which he had ever considered the foundations upon which Christian life was to be built — seemed, for a moment or two, useless lumber before the simple creed of this loving, pure-hearted maiden. To seek to disturb this state of innocence and obedience, by moody polemics, he felt, instinctively, to be wrong.
"Perhaps not," was his half abstracted reply; "perhaps not. Yes, yes; shun what is evil, and the Lord will adjoin the good."
"Yes, yes; she is a good girl, as her mother says," was frequently repeated by Uncle Archer during the day, when he would think of Grace.
Evening came, and young and old began to gather in the parlors. The minister was introduced to one and another, as they arrived, and was much gratified with the respect and attention shown to him by all. Grace soon drew around him three or four of her young friends, who listened to what he had to say with an interest that gratified his feelings. Nothing had been said to Grace of her uncle's prejudice against dancing; she was, therefore, no little surprised to see the sudden change in his manner, when she said to a young lady in the group around him —
"Come! you must play some music for us. We're going to have a dance."
After going with the young lady to the piano, and opening it for her, Grace went back to her uncle, whose face she found deeply clouded.
"Aren't you well, uncle?" she asked, affectionately.
"Oh yes, child, I am well enough in body," was replied.
"But something troubles you, uncle — what is it?"
By this time a number of couples were on the floor, and at the moment, a young man came up to Grace, and said —
"Shall I have the pleasure of dancing with you this evening?"
"Not in the first set," replied Grace; "but I will consider myself engaged for the second, unless you can find a more agreeable partner."
"Do you dance, then?" asked Uncle Arthur, gravely, after the young man had turned away.
"Dance?" Grace was in doubt whether she had clearly understood him.
"Certainly I do, uncle. You don't think there is harm in dancing?"
"I do, my child. And, I am sure that, after what you said about reading your Bible and trying to live for Heaven — your admission greatly surprises me. Religion and dancing! How can they have an affinity?"
"Good and evil can have no affinity," said Grace, in reply to this remark. "Evil, I have always understood to be in a purpose to do wrong. Now, I can dance with a good purpose; and, surely, then, dancing cannot be evil to me."
"Dance with a good purpose! How can you do that, my dear?"
"I have often danced with the sole end of contributing my share to the general enjoyment of a company."
"Strange enjoyment!" sighed the old parson.
"The timing of steps, and the orderly movement of the body in concert with musical harmonies — often affects the mind with exquisite delight, uncle. I have enjoyed this over and over again, and have felt better and happier afterwards."
"Child! child!" replied the old man; "how it grieves me to hear you say this."
"If there is sin in dancing, uncle," said Grace, seriously, "tell me wherein it lies. Look at the countenances of those now on the floor; do they express evil or good? — here, as I have been taught, lies the sin."
"It is a foolish waste of time," returned the old man; "a foolish waste of time; and it is an evil thing to waste the precious time that God has given to us."
"We cannot always work or read. Both mind and body become wearied."
"Then we have time for meditation."
"But even thought will grow burdensome at times, and the mind sink into listlessness and inactivity. Then we need recreation, in order that we may afterwards both work and think better. Music and dancing, in which mind and body find an innocent delight, effect such a recreation. I know it is so in my case; and I know it is so in the case of others. You do not say that dancing is a thing evil in itself?"
"No." This was admitted rather reluctantly.
"Then if it is made to serve a good end — it is a good thing."
"But is often made to serve evil," said the minister.
"Then it is an evil thing," promptly answered Grace; "and so every good gift of Heaven may be made an evil thing to those who use it for an evil purpose. You know it is said that a spider extracts poison from the same flower where the bee gets honey. The deadly nightshade draws life from the same rain and sunshine that nourishes and matures the wheat, from which our bread is made. It is the purpose, uncle, that makes a thing evil."
"Could you pray on going to bed, after an evening spent in dancing?" asked the old man, confident that he had put a question that would clearly show his niece her error. To his surprise, Grace answered, with a beautiful smile on her face —
"Oh, yes; and I have so prayed, many and many a time; not failing to return thanks for the pleasure I had been permitted to enjoy."
"Thanks for mere carnal pleasure!"
"All things are good that are filled with good affections," said Grace. "We are in a natural world, where all pleasure and pain affect us in the natural degree most sensibly. We must come down, that we may go up. We must let our natural joy and gladness have free course, innocently, that they may be changed into a joy that is higher and spiritual. Is it not so, uncle?"
Now, the old man had not expected to find such an intelligent head on so young a body; nor did he expect to be called upon to answer a question, which came in a form that he was not prepared either to negative or affirm. He had put all natural pleasures under the ban, as flowing from the carnal mind; and, therefore, evil. As to filling natural pleasures with spiritual life, that was a new position in theology. He had preached against natural pleasures as evil, and, therefore, to be abandoned by all who would lead a heavenly life. Before he could collect his thoughts for an answer satisfactory to himself, two or three ladies gathered around them, and he discreetly forebore to make any further remarks on the subject. But he felt, as may be supposed, very uncomfortable.
After the first set was danced, one of the young ladies who had been on the floor, and who had previously been introduced to the old gentleman by Grace, came, with color heightened by excitement, and her beautiful face in a glow of pleasure, and sat down by his side. Mr. Archer would have received her with becoming gravity, had it been in his power to, do so; but the smile on her face was so innocent, and she bent towards him so kindly and affectionately, that he could not find it in his heart to meet her with even a silent reproof. This young lady was really charming his ear, when a gentleman came up to her, and said —
"Anna, I want you to dance with me."
"With pleasure," replied the girl. "You will excuse me for a while, Mr. Archer," said she, and she was about rising as she spoke, but the old man placed his hand upon her arm, and gently detained her.
"You're not going to leave me?"
"No, not if my company will give you any pleasure," replied the young girl, with a gentle smile. "Please excuse me." This she addressed to the person who had asked her to dance. He bowed, and turned away.
"I am glad to keep you by my side," said Mr. Archer, with some seriousness in his manner.
"And I am glad to stay here," was promptly answered, "if my company will give you any pleasure. It does me good to contribute to others' happiness."
The old man was touched by this reply, for he felt that it was from the heart. It sounded strangely to his ears from the lips of one who had just been whirling in the mazy dance.
"There is no real pleasure in anything selfish," he remarked. "Yes, you say truly, it does us good to contribute to the happiness of others."
"For this reason," said Anna, "I like dancing as a social recreation. It is a mutual pleasure. We give and receive enjoyment."
The old minister's face grew serious.
"I have been to three or four parties," continued the young girl, "where dancing was excluded, under some strange idea that it was wrong — and I must say that so much evil-speaking and censoriousness, it has never been my lot to encounter in any company. The time, instead of being improved as a season of mental and bodily recreation — was worse than wasted. I know that I was worse instead of better, on returning from each of these companies, for I insensibly fell into the prevailing spirit."
"That was very bad, certainly," remarked Mr. Archer, before whose mind arose some pictures of social gatherings, in which had prevailed the very spirit condemned by his young companion. "But I don't see how you are going to make dancing a sovereign remedy for the evil."
"It is not a sovereign remedy," was answered, "but it is a concert of feeling and action, in which the mind is exhilarated, and in which a mutual good-will is produced. You cannot dance without being pleased, to a greater or less extent, with your partners on the floor. Very often have I had a prejudice against people wear off as we moved together in the dances, and I have afterwards discovered in them good qualities to which I was before blinded."
"Uncle," said Grace to the old man, just at this moment, bending to his ear as she spoke, and taking his hand in hers — "come! I want to show you something."
Grace drew him into the adjoining parlor, where another set was on the floor. Two children, her younger brother and sister, were in it.
"Now, just look at Ada and Willy," whispered Grace in his ear, as she brought him in view of the young dancers. Ada was a lovely child, and the old uncle's heart had already taken her in. She was a graceful little dancer, and moved in the figures with the lightness of a fairy. It was a beautiful sight, and in the face of all the prejudices which half a century had worn into him, he felt that it was beautiful. As he looked upon it, he could keep the dimness from his eyes only by a strong effort.
"Is there evil in that, uncle?" asked Grace, drawing her arm within that of the old man's.
"Is it good?" he replied.
"Yes; it is good," said Grace, emphatically, as she lifted her eyes to his.
Mr. Archer did not dispute her words. He at least felt that it was not evil, though he could not admit that it was good.
In spite of the dancing, which soon ceased to offend the good old man, he passed a pleasant evening. Perhaps, he enjoyed the Christmas party as much as any one there.
Nothing was said, on the next day, by anyone, on the subject of dancing; though Mr. Archer, especially, thought a great deal about the matter. Some ideas had come into his mind that were new there, and he was pondering them attentively. On the third day of his arrival, he had a severe attack of rheumatism, from which he suffered great pain, besides a confinement to his room for a couple of weeks. During that time, the untiring devotion and tender solicitude of Grace touched the old man's heart deeply. When the pain had sufficiently abated to let his mind attain composure, she sought to interest him in various ways. Sometimes she would read to him by the hour; sometimes she would entertain him with cheerful conversation; and sometimes she would bring in one or two of her young friends whom he had met at the Christmas party.
With these, he had more than one discussion, in his sick room, on the subject of dancing, and the old minister found these mirthful young girls rather more than a match for him. During a discussion of this kind, Grace left the room. In her absence, one of her companions said to him —
"Grace is a good girl."
A quick light went over the old man's countenance; and he replied, with evident feeling —
"Good? Yes; I look at her, sometimes, and think her almost an angel."
The old man sighed.
"She is a Christian."
"I wish there were more such in the world," said he, unhesitatingly.
"And yet she dances."
"My dear child," said Mr. Archer, turning with an affectionate smile towards his young conversational partner, "don't take such an advantage of me in the argument."
"Then is it settled, a maiden may dance and yet be a Christian?"
"God bless you, and keep you from all the evil of the world," said the old man, fervently, as he took the young girl's hand and pressed it between his own. "It may be all right! it may be all right!"
Grace came back at the moment, and he ceased speaking.
From that time the venerable minister said no more on the subject, and it is but fair to believe that when he returned home, he had very serious doubts in regard to the sin of dancing, which had once been as fairly held as if it had been an article in the Confession of Faith.