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22 December, 2013

The Christmas Party - Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854 - Part 1

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."
"Why so?"
"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.
"Yes, dear."
"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."