The last of the seasonal books that I haul out for Christmas is an obscure one—How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas, written by W.H.H. Murray, and published in 1890.
The book has a great deal of local appeal for those of us who live in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, plus I simply love the look of this book.
Author William Henry Harrison Murray was known as “Adirondack Murray”—during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he wrote books and gave numerous lectures that introduced people to, and popularized, the Adirondack Mountains. He is said to have coined the use of the word “vacation,” as opposed to the British “holiday,” with his urging of people to “vacate” the cities for the mountains.
And people listened. “Murray’s Fools,” as they were sometimes called, were entranced by the idea of a rustic mountain retreat and came in droves to this great wilderness on weekends, and many built seasonal “camps,” as well.
I’ll admit I haven’t read this book from start to finish. The dialogue—and there is a lot of it—is written in what is supposed to sound like a local dialect, probably French-Canadian—and reading it is like slogging through hip-deep snow. But I pick it up and admire the cover with its beautiful highlights of the drawings that illustrate passages of the book.
And I dip into the pages, reading at random, and have learned that John Norton, the trapper, has values to share with us all in the holiday season.
A cabin. A cabin in the woods. In the cabin a great fireplace piled high with logs, fiercely ablaze. On either side of the broad hearthstone a hound sat on his haunches, looking gravely, as only a hound in a meditative mood can, into the glowing fire . . .
At the table sat John Norton, poring over a book . . .
The whitened head of the old man was bowed over the broad page, on which one hand rested, with the forefinger marking the sentence. A cabin in the woods filled with firelight, a table, a book, an old man studying the book. This was the scene on Christmas Eve. Outside, the earth was white with snow, and in the blue sky above the snow was the white moon.
“It says here,” said the Trapper, speaking to himself, “it says here, ‘Give to him that lacketh, and from him that hath not, withhold not thine hand.‘
John Norton keeps his Christmas by providing food and, nearly as important, fun for an impoverished woman and her starving children. He takes time to twine wreaths of greens to adorn the pictures of “absent ones” on his walls and acknowledges, “I miss them so!” He sits before his fire and enjoys the company of his old hounds and the quiet of the wilderness.
In these ways, John Norton’s holiday is remarkable similar to many of ours, 125 years later—we miss loved ones who have died but hold them close in memory, we seek to help those in need, and we give conscious thanks for our secure hearth and home, no matter how simple.
Whether our Christmas days be many or few, when the great day comes round let us remember in good or ill fortun’, alone or with many, that Christmas, above all else, is the day for forgivin’ and forgittin’.