Between Ports

“And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?”

“I think he died for me,” she answered.

—James Joyce. “The Dead” Dubliners 1914

We now are between the ports, as sailors say, of Thanksgiving and Christmas, that time of year that provides the setting for James Joyce’s “The Dead” and also Tiger Woods’ annual tournament at Sherwood near Los Angeles—the snow may be general all over Ireland, but never south of the San Gabriels. There is something perhaps unseemly about a golf tournament at this time of year, but it perhaps bears remembering that the Scots, the English and the Irish, who invented this little game, are also peoples peculiarly fascinated by the holiday. It’s in the little things, says Vincent from Pulp Fiction, that a culture is known; perhaps exploring why Christmas and golf should be two minor preoccupations of the cultures of the British Isles may also prove illuminating.

In any case, literature in English (not the same as English literature) is enwrapped by Christmas to a degree I think not seen in other languages—there is no French A Christmas Carol, or so I would wager. Joyce for instance chose the holiday as the setting for “The Dead,” one of the English language’s greatest short stories; there is no equivalent in other literatures of a great author like Dickens or Joyce taking Christmas as the setting for one of his best efforts. Even minor works of literature in English are influenced by the holiday; C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, first (and best) of The Chronicles of Narnia, concerns a land enchanted by the aforementioned witch, whose powers make it “always winter, but never Christmas.” That last I think furnishes a clue to the cultural fixation on Christmas by the English-speaking peoples.

That fascination, I’d say, is the memory of a political conflict, the English Revolution, or as some call it, the Civil War. The religious battles of the 16th and 17th centuries led to the rise of the Puritan movement, which sought to “get back to the text” of the Bible—which, as they saw it, contained no mention of Christmas, meaning that the pageantry that had grown up around the holiday was all of a piece with the incense and mysticism that characterized (in their view) the hated Catholic church. Oliver Cromwell, who would become the Lord Protector of England during the 1650s, enacted legislation in the 1640s to ban Christmas celebrations throughout the British Isles—Narnia, in other words, is a fantastic creation, but with its roots in a historical trauma.

The writers had particular reason to remember the event, because among the Puritans’ other legislation (including, significantly, acts banning gambling and other “sport”) was an act banning the performance of plays—an act, in other words, aimed directly at literature. The Irish, producers of most of the best of literature in English, had especial reason to remember the Puritans—the Long Parliament, in 1644, had passed a bill stating that “no quarter shall be given to any Irishman” in the battles of the Civil War, and Cromwell’s march through the country later in the decade led to the death of roughly a third of the island’s inhabitants. Christmas, Ireland, and the imagination are surreptitiously linked in the English language, by an underground river of history only occasionally discovered by traces at the surface.

Yet its traces can still be found; for instance, in the way that the Scots are still seen today. The stereotypical Scotsman is dour and miserly in the imagination of English speakers—which has very little to do with how the Scots actually are, in my experience anyway, and very much more to do with historical memory. What is the stereotypical Scot, if not Scrooge? It is not for nothing, so I think, that Disney calls one of their characters “Scrooge McDuck”—the “Mc” is there for a reason. And indeed, there is good reason for that Scottish connection.

It was in Scotland, after all, that the conflict that would eventually be called the English Civil War, or Revolution—some call all of the wars of this period part of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”—began, when the Scottish church resisted the religious policies of Charles I. The English side of the conflict was provoked when Charles needed money to pay for his armies to suppress Scotland—Parliament demanded some return on its investment in the form of an explicit statement of Parliamentary authority, which Charles refused. The Scots—or at least, some Scots, not including for instance the clans of the Highlands—were the most fanatical about such things as opposition to Christmas; the stereotype of the Scot, in short, is the trace of a historical memory of real events.

Yet if the Scots were, as a nation, opposed to Christmas, gambling, and sport, then how should golf come to become Scotland’s national game? Evidence of golf, however, can be found throughout the margins of the wars. Mary Queen of Scots—whose golfing son would become James IV of Scotland and James I of England, and whose grandson Charles I would be deposed by Parliament—was criticized by some Scots for frivolity (and a sign of her Catholicism) long before the conflict began, and golf’s shadow can be found all the way through to the life of the surgeon John Rattray, first winner of the Silver Club prize given by the Town of Edinburgh in 1744—and participant in the last attempt by Mary’s line to grasp the throne, the Rising of 1745, when the last of the free Highland clans went down at Culloden Moor. (Rattray would be spared the death penalty by the pleading of his golf buddy and political enemy Duncan Forbes, Scottish judge, supporter of the English crown—and owner of Culloden Moor.) Golf, it seems, united the Scots—it’s what made Forbes plead for Rattray’s life despite their opposition during the Rising, it’s what made both Mary and her son Scot despite the fact that one was Catholic and one Protestant.

Golf, in other words, is not mentioned in A Christmas Carol nor in Joyce, but it is there all the same, because the enemies of golf were also the enemies of Christmas (and literature), because the meaning of golf is the same as the meaning of Christmas—it is the sign of our escape from the everyday business of life, a means of uniting us when the battles of the world seem intent on dividing us. And so perhaps it is not so strange to be holding a golf tournament at this odd time of year, when for those of us in cold climates golf seems at best a distant mirage. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the coming of Christmas is followed rapidly by the coming of spring—that is, the time of year when we break out our clubs once again. The snow, to paraphrase Joyce, may fall faintly through the universe, but as those clubs in the corner and the coming of Christmas remind us, spring will follow for all the living and the dead.


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