The Cure for the Post-Holiday Blues
It’s not exactly breaking news that the holiday season has gotten longer, or, to put it more accurately, that we have begun celebrating earlier. In stores, Christmas decorations are seen and carols heard well before Thanksgiving, a holiday that has been reduced to the last hurdle before the start of the great shopping frenzy. As that would suggest, of course, much of this trend is commerce-driven, but there is something else at work, too. People just like to feel good, and in days that are dark in many senses, we take cheer where we find it, and so what if it’s not quite December yet? December will come; but then, so will January. The vehicle of our cheer recedes into the great murk of yesterdays, and we are back to the winter gloom, without the wreaths and mistletoe.
But there are other ways to inject rosiness into gray days. One is through beautiful representations of the gloom itself, in art, in literature, even in music. An example: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables, from 1851. In this story of a family seemingly cursed because of the greed of one of its ancestors, the physical center of the action is the imposing, decayed, lonely, spirit-inhabited New England house of the title — “a character in itself,” as they say — which Hawthorne describes this way:
. . . as for the old structure of our story, its white-oak frame, and its boards, shingles, and crumbling plaster, and even the huge, clustered chimney in the midst, seemed to constitute only the least and meanest part of its reality. So much of mankind’s varied experience had passed there — so much had been suffered, and something, too, enjoyed — that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart. It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own and full of rich and somber reminiscences.
The deep projection of the second story gave the house such a meditative look that you could not pass it without the idea that it had secrets to keep, and an eventful history to moralize upon.
What I admire about Seven Gables as much as its atmosphere of foreboding, and even more than its story, are its insights into the human character and condition, as in:
As is customary with the rich, when they aim at the honors of a republic, he apologized, as it were, to the people, for his wealth, prosperity, and elevated station, by a free and hearty manner towards those who knew him; putting off the more of his dignity in due proportion with the humbleness of the man whom he saluted, and thereby proving a haughty consciousness of his advantages as irrefragably as if he had marched forth preceded by a troop of lackeys to clear the way.
At almost every step in life, we meet with young men of just about Holgrave’s age, for whom we anticipate wonderful things, but of whom, even after much careful inquiry, we never happen to hear another word. The effervescence of youth and passion, and the fresh gloss of the intellect and imagination, endow them with a false brilliancy, which makes fools of themselves and other people. Like certain chintzes, calicoes, and ginghams, they show finely in their first newness, but cannot stand the sun and rain, and assume a very sober aspect after washing day.
But to return to artful evocations of gloomy, overcast settings, there is the first sentence of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher”:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
So: chase those post-holiday blues away! Find a comfortable spot, with a view out the window of bare tree limbs silhouetted against the gray sky, and relax with a “quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore . . .”