By Alyssa G. A. Conary – Co-Founder Salem Historical Society
“My former sad experience, as you know, has gifted me with some degree of insight into the gloomy mysteries of the human heart, through which I have wandered like one astray in a dark cavern, with his torch fast flickering to extinction.”
Thus states the narrator in the opening paragraph of Hawthorne’s tale, “The Christmas Banquet.” Leave it to Nathaniel Hawthorne to set the “gloomy mysteries of the human heart” across the backdrop of Christmas dinner.
This isn’t just any Christmas dinner, however. “The Christmas Banquet” is the story of an annual Christmas dinner, paid for by a bequest made in the last will and testament of an old man who lived “a long life of melancholy eccentricity.” The bequest stipulated that the guests invited to the banquet must be “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” (Maybe this DOES sound like your annual family Christmas dinner….) Every year, the old man’s skeleton sits at the head of the table clothed in a black mantle.
Besides our dearly departed philanthropist, only one other man is invited to the Christmas Banquet consistently, with the rest of the group swapped out yearly. His name is Gervayse Hastings, and at every banquet he is disparaged by this “aristocracy of wretchedness” for not being miserable enough to deserve an invitation. Hastings has a stable life, a family, and a good job. How could his woes possibly compare with those of the sick, the heartbroken, and the dispirited.
Every year the ten most miserable people in town are invited to a Christmas banquet. Their misery is shared alongside the holiday feast, and every year, an increasingly wretched Gervayse Hastings makes his appearance. Over time, all the other gues…
Hawthorne concludes the story with the explanation that, although Hastings’ life may appear satisfactory, it is his unfeeling emptiness that warrants him a place among the dejected. Hastings complains to his fellow banquet guests of “a chilliness—a want of earnestness—a feeling as if what should be my heart were a thing of vapor…” His despair exists in his “longing to exchange his load of ice for any burden of real grief that fate could fling upon a human being.”
So, what is the moral of the story? That there is value in sadness because at least it’s something you can feel? That a diagnosis of clinical depression is preferable to one of antisocial personality disorder? We’ll take it, Mr. Hawthorne, because this is what we love about you; your ability to shed light upon the darkest aspects of the human condition.
I highly recommend that you read this story. Maybe just don’t read it on Christmas Day.
The Salem Historical Society is an independent organization dedicated to the study, promotion, and preservation of Salem’s history for the benefit of the community and its visitors.
The Salem Historical Society initiates, develops, executes, and collaborates on projects that advance the history of the City of Salem. These projects are non-political and in no way interfere with other established organizations or city run departments, committees, or councils. SHS is concerned with promoting the untold history of Salem by identifying the countless stories of Salem’s citizens and educating the community about their achievements throughout the city’s history.
Alyssa G. A. Conary is a co-founder of the Salem Historical Society, a Development Associate at The House of the Seven Gables, and a freelance jazz vocalist. She graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 2008 with a Bachelor’s Degree in classical vocal performance, and received a certification in paralegal studies from St. Petersburg College in 2012. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in history at Salem State University. Alyssa’s areas of historical interest include witchcraft & apotropaia, medieval & early modern England, and colonial New England. She enjoys traveling, speaks passable French and Italian, and is the proud mother of three feline children.
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