Sixty-five gift catalogues arrived in the past month to remind me Christmas is coming and I shall therefore speak of Puritans, who disapprove of them mightily, along with everything else.
I find it relatively little trouble to dump them in the trash basket, but your sound Grade-A Puritan considers them the work of the Devil and is hardly content to toss them away; preferring to send back empty postage-free envelopes and to work as much confusion as possible to the godless who offer for sale such merchandise as panty hose, soap, musical instruments and similar abominations.
Nobody understands America who does not reckon with the Puritan strain in us, and, in a nutshell, it consists of public piety, and the closing down of peanut machines.
Prohibition was among the Puritan political triumphs; a period during which (as everyone knows, who remembers the 1920s) the general morality of the United States reached an all-time high. And sturdy efforts still continue to the general aim of turning the nation into gray shirts, gray ties and porridge on Sundays.
But it's chromosomes mainly. Puritans have fewer. Not their fault at all, and they are built in such a way that they cannot help being obnoxious and tiresome to others. Shakespeare, who was kinder than any other writer we ever had, used to speak of the "toad, ugly and venemous," which nevertheless "wears yet a precious jewel in his head." Several English monarchs, on the other hand, explored Puritan heads pretty thoroughly without finding sapphires.
But it occurs to me we are about ripe for a Puritan revival, not because the nation is any wickeder than usual, but simply because it's about time for something new. Americans are wonderfully docile, anyway, and do not revolt when requested to stand in lines, to put cigarettes out, to walk half a mile to catch the train, to stand in the snow while the buses don't run, etc. Most Americans, in other words, are quite ready for a general battening down of the hatch and lights out by 10 o'clock.
All they need is a leader, and in the general roulette of life one is bound to appear.
The late Lord Macaulay in his history reminds us that Christmas celebrations are a fine way to begin a Puritan regime, after a little bit of softening up to get the thing going. He speaks of the Puritan interlude of England in the 1640s:
"Fine works of art and curious remains of antiquity were brutally defaced. The Parliament resolved that all pictures in the royal collection which contained representations of Christ or the Virgin should be burned. Sculpture fared as ill as painting. Nymphs and Graces, the work of Ionian chisels, were delivered over to Puritan stone masons to be made decent.
"Against the lighter vices the ruling faction waged war with a zeal little tempered by humanity or common sense. Sharp laws were passed against betting. It was enacted that adultery should be punished with death. Public amusements, from the masques which were exhibited at the mansions of the great down to the wrestling matches and grinning matches on village greens, were vigorously attacked.
"One ordinance directed that all the May-poles in England should forthwith be hewn down.
"The playhouses were to be dismantled, the spectators fined, the actors whipped. Rope-dancing, puppet shows, bowls, horse racing were regarded with no friendly eye."
But of course it was bear-baiting (which held a place precisely analogous to pro football in our own society; that is, a diversion enjoyed by all classes) that especially infuriated the Puritans, partly because the queen of England had brought with her from Holland "besides a company of ruffian-like savages, a company of savage bears" to be baited on Sundays for the amusement of rustic folk in country towns.
"The Puritan hated bear-baiting," Macaulay reckoned, "not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. Indeed, he generally contrived to enjoy the double pleasure of tormenting both spectators and bear."
I regard the shutting off of pro football this year on television as the opening Puritan assault on the nation in our own time, as slaughtering the bears was the opening assault of the Puritans on English society in the 17th century. Indeed, if pro athletes read Macaulay, as I suppose they do since they all have had college scholarships, they probably are hiding for their lives, as the poor bears could not.
"Christmas had been," Macaulay goes on, "from time immemorial the season of joy and domestic affection, the season when families assembled, when children came home from school, when quarrels were made up, when carols were heard in every street, when every house was decorated with evergreens, and every table was loaded with good cheer." Naturally, it should not be permitted.
"The Long Parliament gave orders in 1644 that the 25th of December should be strictly observed as a fast, and that all men should pass it in humbly bemoaning the great national sin which they and their fathers had so often committed on that day by romping under the mistletoe, eating boar's head, and drinking ale flavored with roasted apples."
For some obscure reason, however, "no public act of that time seems to have irritated the common people more."
The next Christmas, when Puritan regulations persisted, "formidable riots broke out, the constables were resisted, the magistrates insulted, the houses of noted zealots attacked . . ."
Needless to say, the Puritan magistrates "interfered with all the pleasures of the neighborhood, dispersed festive meetings, and put fiddlers in the stocks." So that soon enough "there was an end of dancing, bell-ringing, and hockey."
Hockey. There's another straw in the wind.
Don't say I didn't warn you first.