Holiday Words: Henry James, Christmas in Paris

In the 1870’s, Henry James agreed (apparently somewhat unwillingly) to write sketches of Paris for the New York Herald Tribune. Here is his Christmas portrait of the city of light, as it was in 1875.

But why should I talk of pictures when Paris itself, for the last few days, has formed an immense and brilliant picture. French babies, I believe, hang up their stocking or put a shoe into the stove on New Year’s Eve; but Christmas, nevertheless, has been very good-humoredly kept. I have never seen Paris so charming as on this last Christmas Day. The weather put in a claim to a share in the fun, the sky was radiant and the air as soft and pure as a southern spring. It was a day to spend in the streets and all the world did so. I passed it strolling half over the city and wherever I turned I found the entertainment that a pedestrian relishes.

parisWhat people love Paris for became almost absurdly obvious: charm, beguilement, diversion were stamped upon everything. I confess that, privately, I kept thinking of Prince Bismarck and wishing he might take a turn upon the boulevards. Not that they would have flustered him much, I suppose, for, after all, the boulevards are not human; but the whole spectacle seemed a supreme reminder of the fact so constantly present at this time to the reflective mind the amazing elasticity of France. Beaten and humiliated on a scale without precedent, despoiled, dishonored, bled to death financially, all this but yesterday, Paris is today in outward aspect as radiant, as prosperous, as instinct with her own peculiar genius as if her sky had never known a cloud. The friendly stranger cannot refuse an admiring glance to this mystery of wealth and thrift and energy and good spirits. I don’t know how Berlin looked on Christmas Day, though Christmas-keeping is a German specialty, but I greatly doubt whether its aspect would have appealed so irresistibly to the sympathies of the impartial observer. With the approach of Christmas here the whole line of the boulevards is bordered on each side with a row of little booths for the sale for the sale of everything conceivable. The width of the classic asphalt is so ample that they form no serious obstruction, and the scene, in the evening especially, presents a picturesque combination of the rustic fair and the highest Parisian civilization. You may buy anything in the line of trifles in the world, from a cotton nightcap to an orange neatly pricked in blue letters with the name of the young lady Adele or Ernestine to whom you may gallantly desire to present it. On the other side of the crowded channel the regular shops present their glittering portals, decorated for the occasion with the latest refinements of the trade. The confectioners in particular are amazing; the rows of marvelous bonbonnieres look like precious sixteenth-century caskets and reliquaries, chiseled by Florentine artists, in the glass cases of great museums. The boribonniere, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness, is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistils of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization.

I walked over to Notre Dame along the quays, and was more than ever struck with the brilliant picturesqueness of Paris as, from any point opposite to the Louvre, you look up and down the Seine. The huge towers of Notre Dame, rising with their blue-gray tone from the midst of the great mass round which the river divides, the great Arc de Triomphe answering them with equal majesty in the opposite distance, the splendid continuous line of the Louvre between, and over it all the charming coloring of Paris on certain days the brightness, the pearly grays, the flicker of light, the good taste, as it were, of the atmosphere all this is an entertainment which even custom does not stale. In the midst of it the good people were trudging in thousands, on their various festive errands, well dressed and well disposed. Every tenth man one sees in the streets at present is a soldier, and though this fact has doubtless a melancholy meaning in the moral scale, it has a high value in the picturesque. The cuirassiers especially are numerous, and their glittering helmets light up the crowd.

The mass of buildings in front of Notre Dame has been removed within the last couple of years, and the open space across which you approach the church is of immense extent. It is quite the ideal “chance” for a great cathedral. Notre Dame profits by it, and her noble facade looks more impressive than ever. I went in and listened to vespers, and watched the sounding nave grow dusky and the yellow light turn pale on the eastern clerestory, and then I wandered away and crossed the river farther, and climbed that imperceptible eminence known as the “mountain” of St. Genevieve, and bent my steps to the curious Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the church that hides its florid little Renaissance facade behind the huge neo-classic drum of the Pantheon. Here I was only in time for the sermon, but, with all respect to French pulpit eloquence, which often has a most persuasive grace, it was time enough. I turned, before long, a deaf ear to the categories of virtue and vice it was like the dreadful nomenclature of chemistry and wandered apart to the shrine of St. Genevieve. The bones of this holy woman repose in a great brazen tomb in one of the chapels, surrounded with votive tapers. The scene was very picturesque. A number of women were on their knees around it, in the illumined dusk, presenting various objects to be blessed. A young priest opened a sort of circular lid in the sepulcher, held the object down into the hole, murmured something over it, and restored it. Some of the articles exposed to the influence of the beatific ashes were singularly prosaic. One, for instance, was a clean shirt, rigidly plaited and starched.

The motive of this application puzzled me; was the applicant a laundress? She was probably the pious relative of a sick man who was contemplating a change of linen. In either case, I seemed to have walked far away from the boulevards, and from the Christmas Day of 1875.

HENRY JAMES, JR. January 22, 1876

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