Who is this impassive man? We seem to know him well, here in our city, and know nothing of him but what is credible and fortunate. Yet hither he comes, year after year, to this gloomy banquet, and sits among the guests like a marble statue. Ask yonder skeleton–perhaps that may solve the riddle!
This is one of the oddest Christmas stories I’ve come across. There is nothing warm and fuzzy, or “feel good” to lend this story any kind of familiarity of tales typical of the season. While I will say the body of the short story involves some philosophic contemplation the ending is confusing enough to leave one with the question, “what just happened?”
The premise involves a wealthy man and his last will and testament. He has bequeathed a yearly Christmas dinner at his home and has charged two stewards with care of the guests. Their task is to find the ten most miserable people in the city and invite them to spend Christmas together; their misery is proof that even on this holiest day of hope sadness, bad luck, emotional, financial and physical pain still exists.
That the pitiful group assembles in a dining room looking more fit for a funeral than a Christmas dinner is not by accident. This dinner is the deceased’s protest against those religions that find “sunshine in the world.” As such, the dining room is lit by torches and hung with dusky purple curtains and wreaths of artificial flowers like those strewn over the dead.
The main reservoir of wine was a sepulchral urn of silver, whence the liquor was distributed around the table in small vases, accurately copied from those that held the tears of ancient mourners. Neither had the stewards…forgotten the fantasy of the old Egyptians, who seated a skeleton at every festive board, and mocked their own merriment with the imperturbable grin of a death’s-head.
Was the skeleton at the head of this table shrouded in a black mantle the benefactor of the dinner? The narrator tells us that one of the stipulations of the testator is that he be present and permitted to sit with his guests. And if the banqueters want to lift the veil in hopes of some answer to the age old question regarding life after death, his open and staring eye sockets would make the answer clear.
Included in the decorations is a wreath. The stewards say it is designed to crown the guest with the “wofullest” story. The conversations and introductions begin and we see representatives of all those who will appear at the dinners to come. The invitees suffer from depression, chronic diseases of the heart and other organs of the body; there are hypochondriacs, and those whose disappointments in life have created obsessions of murder and treachery against their neighbor; one lamentable soul feels he was born with a message for humanity, but doesn’t have the confidence to say it; a woman with the slightest defect in her eye which so affronts her ideal of perfection that she feels compelled to hide herself away in solitude.
The last guest walks in and whatever malady he is suffering from is not apparent causing suspicion and consternation among the others. He is young, healthy, successful and looking more suited to a merrier holiday table. Some of the guests want to know why the dead founder doesn’t shake his skeleton finger at Gervayse Hastings and point him the way out. The stewards assure them of his right to be there saying only, “not a guest at the table is better entitled to his seat.”
As the years pass the Christmas dinners continue without a repeating guest–there is that much misery in the world. There is sometimes an instant after each tells their story that a momentary gleam of inner light descends upon the speaker and the physical or emotional malady ceases in some kind of understanding. But the moment is lost when one of the more cynical of the group breaks the spell in laughter or rude comment.
It is not quite true there were no repeat guests. Gervayse Hastings was invited every year. And as the decades passed and he aged physically his vitality was retained and he was still met with same response. “Has he suffered? Has he sinned? There are no traces of either. Then wherefore is he here?” It is true he is prosperous and in robust health with financial and personal success. But they notice a distance, a coldness that feels physical and makes them shrink from him, makes them draw back their hand extended in greeting.
Hastings is aware of this coldness of heart and how people respond. He tells them he feels nothing, that his heart is but a vapor and though from the outside people think he has everything, on the inside he is hollow. He feels no human emotion, not even toward those he should love. “Neither have I myself any real existence, but am a shadow….” At the moment of this admission the ligaments of the skeleton come apart and the bones fall away. And as the guests take their eyes from the skeleton and back to Hastings, he has ceased to live. If only he could have “imbibed one human grief” he might have been saved.
Of such persons–and we do meet with these moral monsters now and then–it is difficult to conceive how they came to exist here, or what there is in them capable of existence hereafter. They seem to be on the outside of everything; and nothing wearies the soul more than an attempt to comprehend them within its grasp.
And so ends this very Gothic Christmas story that feels straight out of Edgar Alan Poe!
Last year I read Dicken’s, A Christmas Carol for the first time. This year I looked around my shelves for a Christmas story that wasn’t obvious or well-known and found this title in a collection of Hawthorne’s short stories and decided to take a look at it. I know from reading several of his novels he creates characters in turmoil, whose lives are dark and somber, though I didn’t expect those sensibilities in a Christmas story. But this one is classic dark and somber Hawthorne and I have to say it worked for me.
While the story itself is a little extreme, I do like the aspect of the story that describes the pain and suffering many people struggle with at this time of the year. They may seem like they have it all together, but in reality they are hurting as much as someone who is physically wounded. Hawthorne may have exaggerated the story to get this message across, but after close to 200 years his point is still relatable.
Wishing everyone a merrier Christmas than what was experienced above!
Title: The Christmas Banquet
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penquin Classics