I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the strain of all this cheer and good will toward men. Not that there is anything wrong with cheer and good will toward men, but they are not natural and so come at a cost. That is why January is the curmudgeonly month, the month when all the costs of Christmas must be paid.
It’s like good grooming. It’s not natural for a man to be spruce and clean when everything in nature wants him to be rumpled and dirty. I must clip and comb, scrub and scrape, launder and mend, press and fold, in ceaseless battle against the grimy and disheveling drift of things. The world would have me a slovenly man, and it tires me to fight against the world.
No more is it natural for a man to be cheerful and giving when the world works to make him glum and grudging. As William Cullen Bryant put it, it takes “no school of long experience” to learn that “the world is full of guilt and misery,” not to mention “sorrows, crimes, and cares,” and it is therefore unsurprising that students in this school resemble the unregenerate Ebenezer Scrooge. Countermeasures can be taken—Bryant recommended periodic retirement into wild woods—but the drift of things is toward the curmudgeonly.
I’m tired of fighting against the world, and so will yield for a time to the drift of things. This is why January is the curmudgeonly month when I rest on my oars and give way to the pull of gloom. I’ve been rowing with a will all through Christmas, and my arms now need a rest.
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A curmudgeon is the antitype of Santa Clause, sour and mean instead of jolly and giving. An old English Christmas carol recognizes this in the lines:
But as for all curmudgeons,
Who will not be free,
I wish they may die
On the three-legged tree. (1)
The origin of the word is disputed, but one source traces it to the Norman conquest of England. Free Saxon peasants were known as churls, and their bitter, resentful, and stingy attitude to the new, Norman overlords was called ceorl-modigan, or churl-mindedness. It is understandable that the churls of Norman England were curmudgeonly, but this history of the word should make us think twice before we surrender to the attitude it describes.
For a curmudgeon is, at bottom, a bitter loser. This is why the word is so often applied to sour old men who resent the fact that the world has passed into the hands of a new generation of overlords. This is also why it is so often applied to conservatives, who have been losing, and bitter, since 1649. And there is something in bitter loss that tends to dry up the well of human generosity. This is why curmudgeon in many instances means a skinflint. Sheridan’s Dictionary of 1797 defines the word this way: “An avaricious churlish fellow, a miser, a niggard, a gripper [usurer].”
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I have no wish to be a bitter loser, a skinflint or a churl, so I will merely rest on my oars in January. I will not cast them overboard. I will temporarily give way to the drift of things and naturally wax curmudgeonly, but before the month draws to a close I will once again ply the oars, buck the tide, and do my best to be a man of cheer and good will. January 25th seems an appropriate date to resume my labors, for this will be the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and it was on the road to Damascus that Paul ceased to be a bitter churl and accepted the new Lord.
(1) A three-legged tree was a gallows.