I don’t usually think about George Eliot and Christmas together, and when I do, it’s usually by way of Silas Marner, which is a lovely secular version of the Christmas story (among other things). Rereading The Mill on the Floss for my class this week, though, I was struck by this little passage, which somehow had never really stood out to me before:
Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and color with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.
Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of color; it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees, till it fell from them with a shuddering sound; it clothed the rough turnip-field with whiteness, and made the sheep look like dark blotches; the gates were all blocked up with the sloping drifts, and here and there a disregarded four-footed beast stood as if petrified “in unrecumbent sadness”; there was no gleam, no shadow, for the heavens, too, were one still, pale cloud; no sound or motion in anything but the dark river that flowed and moaned like an unresting sorrow. But old Christmas smiled as he laid this cruel-seeming spell on the outdoor world, for he meant to light up home with new brightness, to deepen all the richness of indoor color, and give a keener edge of delight to the warm fragrance of food; he meant to prepare a sweet imprisonment that would strengthen the primitive fellowship of kindred, and make the sunshine of familiar human faces as welcome as the hidden day-star. His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless — fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faces had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want. But the fine old season meant well; and if he has not learned the secret how to bless men impartially, it is because his father Time, with ever-unrelenting unrelenting purpose, still hides that secret in his own mighty, slow-beating heart.
The immediate context is Tom’s return from Mr. Stelling’s school for the holidays, and the emphasis on coziness and fellowship helps bring out both his happiness at being at home again and the novel’s larger emphasis on home and family as the roots of memory and thus morality. The penultimate sentence here does something rather different, though, doesn’t it? It introduces (on a small scale) a Dickens-like critique of exclusion from these blessings, a quick but painful sketch of the unhappiness the season exacerbates for those unable to rejoice in its warmth and bounty. I find the personification of Christmas, and then ‘his’ characterization as the son of ‘father Time,’ strategically interesting. The “fine old season” could just as easily be winter, especially given the evocative descriptions of the snow, but we can’t do anything about winter, (sadly!): its sorrows are indeed “unresting.” Christmas, however, is what people have made of the season: it is the consolation we’ve come up with for its cold and privation. It is, in other words, a man-made, not a natural (or a supernatural), phenomenon. Eliot’s personification reminds us of that, and hints that we could perhaps do something about “unexpectant want.” The “rich gifts” of Christmas, after all, really come from us.
I’ve been trying to think of other explicit Christmas scenes in Eliot’s novels and am coming up blank. Anyone?