Boston – The Night Shall Be Filled With Music

“I sail from Liverpool on Saturday for Boston,” writes Thackeray to “My dearest old friend,” Edward Fitzgerald, and he says he is “very grave and solemn,” :.and he writes with gravity and solemnity of what may happen to his wife and daughters if anything should happen to him!

It seems odd that a journey to Boston, whether by an American or an Englishman, should ever have aroused such tragic forebodings. Equally curious is the description, by William Dean Howells, of his own first visit there, for he went, as he set it down, “as the passionate pilgrim from the West approached his Holy Land in Boston.” And Boston still likes people to come in this spirit!

One is tempted to wonder if Boston does not spend too much time looking at her intellectual features in the mirror; after all, she is pretty old for that—she is almost at her three hundredth birthday. But, if it should really be that the city displays a little too much self-consciousness, a little too much readiness to re-sent anything that even slightly savors of criticism, there is much of gratification in being not only a city of famous places and famous deeds but at the same time one of character and of individuality. Little things may mark individuality, quite as well as great or even better; and it has always interested me that Boston once had an ordinance forbidding any person to keep a dog over ten inches in height, and that even now rump-steak is gladly paid for by most Bostonians as the most expensive of cuts ! In all seriousness, the city has a very real individuality. And with a city of individuality almost anything can be overlooked.

And there is so much of the picturesque in Boston; the old houses and their old environment, the sea-gulls on a sunny winter’s day circling and crying over Beacon Hill; the fine old tales and traditions. The very “twilight that surrounds the border-land of old romance” is in Boston.

And one does not need to enumerate the list of statesmen and writers who have aided to make Boston glorious and who have shone in the glory that they helped to create. And yet, the attitude of Boston to-ward Hawthorne and Poe, perhaps the two most distinctive geniuses of American literature, ought also to be remembered.

Boston did not recognize Hawthorne when he was struggling for literary foothold, even though for a time he lived here. And Poe, though few Bostonians know it and none boasts of it, was Boston-born! Poe was the child of a pair of poor traveling actors; it would seem, though there is no precise certainty, that the house where he was born was in the vicinity of where afterwards was built the Hollis Street Theater. Poe’s associations with Boston were not happy; he was here later in his life, as a young man, poor and disappointed, and enlisted here under an assumed name, as a private soldier. He called Boston “Frogpondium,” meaning the same as the late Charles Francis Adams, Bostonian of Bostonians, who frankly wrote, as his last word, that “it is provincial; it tends to stagnate.” As to Poe, I think that the severe respectability of Boston has caused him to be ignored: he was the son of poor players, not Bostonians; and he was a man who sometimes drank too much !

Howells, who knew the city well, has somewhere set down that “Boston would rather perish by fire and sword than to be suspected of vulgarity; a critical, fastidious, reluctant Boston, dissatisfied with the rest of the hemisphere.” But, he might well have added, a brave Boston, a vastly interesting Boston, a Boston that every American should see and know.

Of all my memories of Boston I think that the most fascinating is that of the Christmas Eve observance on Beacon Hill, an affair of extraordinary beauty.

The sun sets on a Beacon Hill immaculately swept and garnished. Every window has been washed until it glistens. Every knocker and doorknob has been polished. And at the windows of almost every house are set rows and rows of candles, along the sills, along the middle sash, in straight lines, in curves, in triangles. Frequently there are as many as twenty candles to a row, or forty to a window, or even more where the rows are banked. Nor are the candles little Christmas-tree things, but the stout, white candles of use, and in some cases there are even the great church-altar candles, and some houses show the rare old silver candlesticks of the past.

Nor is it only the principal windows of a few houses; it is practically every window of almost every house; and some even put candles in the queer Bostonian octagon cupola or lantern that stands upon the very roof above the central halls and stairs.

Shortly after seven o’clock the illumination begins. One by one, window by window, house by house, the lights flare softly up. And such a wonderful illumination as is made! From basement to garret the lights shine softly out into the night.

With the first lighting, visitors have begun to come; not foreign-born visitors, but visitors distinctly American; it is an American observance among these fine old American homes. The people go pacing quietly about on Chestnut Street, Mount Vernon, Pinckney, Cedar and Walnut Streets, and Louisburg Square—and the fine old district is finely aglow, for hundreds of houses are illumined.

Enchanting glimpses may be had into paneled and pilastered rooms, rich in their white and mahogany; glimpses of decorous and beautiful living; glimpses of chairs of stately strength, of sideboards of delectable curves, of family portraits by Stuart or Copley. And every doorknocker has its holly or wreath. Each of these old streets is a soft blaze of candle-light with myriad reciprocating reflections from the lighted windows of one side to the windows opposite; and the soft light brings into newer beauty the curved lines of the house-fronts and the fine old distinguished shapes. The crowds increase; the streets gradually become thronged; all are thrilled with quiet, expectant interest.

And at length comes the distant sound of music, the sound of voices singing an ancient carol of Christmas-time. Nearer and nearer come the singers, caroling as they come, and they pause in front of one of the houses to sing, while all about them are hushed and quiet. Perhaps some of them will carry old-time watchman-lanterns, in their hands or aloft on poles, ancient lanterns of perforated tin with candles burning inside.

On the caroling company slowly goes, and after a while you hear another company come singing, and the people, massing the streets, are all absorbed, earnest, impressed, for it is all so beautiful, this sweet caroling in the candle-lighted streets. In all, in the course of the evening, there are probably four or five different companies, and one group in particular are the singers from the Church of the Advent, at the foot of the Hill, and these generally come later than the others, each group choosing its own hour for starting. When the carolers pause in front of a house a few people are likely to come and stand at the windows; but, if any, it is only a few; no welcoming is expected, no greeting or thanks. The singers do not sing as in any sense a personal tribute. They carol because it is Christmas. They go about on Beacon Hill because it is Old Boston.

They stop in front of a pair of old houses used as a Protestant Episcopal nunnery; the houses are ablaze with candles, like the other houses all about, and a few Sisters come quietly to the windows, making a positively mediaeval scene in this American setting, with their gentle faces within the broad white lines of coiffe and collar, contrasting with the somber black of their robes.

Not all the singers are old nor are all young; they are of varied ages, young men and young women, older men and older women. And most of the carols that are sung are the old-time carols that have come down through the centuries, and one or two are even sung in the old Latin. The last of the singers finish their rounds about ten o’clock and until that time the crowd still lingers. But ten o’clock is late in Boston, for this is an early city; and at ten o’clock one hears the final singing of these fine old tunes, echoing and re-echoing between these fine old-fashioned houses.

The night’s candles are almost burned out. Shorter and shorter they have been getting, but none the less bravely have they continued to blaze. And now, house by house, window by window, candle by candle, the lights are extinguished and the streets go gradually to darkness. Almost suddenly, now, they are deserted. Almost suddenly the last of the people have gone. The houses are dark, whole streets are dark. The entire hill is in darkness. The hill is in silence. It all seems like an unreal memory Christmas Eve in Boston.