MELVILLE’S CHRISTMAS

It was not Dickens’s Christmas, that’s for sure. The chapter in Moby Dick entitled, rather ironically, “Merry Christmas” has no holly or warmth of the hearth nor warm memories. The Pequod has just set out from New Bedford and our narrator Ishmael writes….

At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.

Did Melville’s Calvinism come between him an even the slightest bit of yuletide sanquinity? Or is this merely the harsh reality of the whaling voyage — assorted pagans and long-suffering, dour Christians thrown together in ice and danger and commerce? Scrooge would have been at home here, though perhaps terrified and seasick.

Contrast this cold, grim seaboard Christmas moment with Christmas Eve at old Fezziwig’s where The Ghost of Christmas Past has borne Scrooge so he might see again how the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug and warm, and dry, and bright a ballroom as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

And the dancing commenced — while aboard the Pequod, crewman Bildad, hands at the windlass, roared forth some sort of a chorus about the girls in Booble Alley, that being an early 19th Century sailors’ haunt in a depraved neighborhood of Liverpool — or so I have read.

And while Dickens’s Scrooge, in roughly this same era, was found awakening, a man reborn, to the glories of a London Christmas morning, Melville’s Ishmael , on his “Merry Christmas”, tells us the cold, damp night breeze blew…a screaming gull flew overhead…we gave three heavy-hearted cheers, and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic.

Oh, well…as Dickens has Tiny Tim observe, God Bless Us, Every One!

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