This is by far the longest selection in the Advent calendar readings. I don’t kid myself that we’ll get through all, or even most, of it this year. Silas doesn’t have that kind of patience. I included it because I adore it and it’s not one of those selections that shows up in every anthology.
I also think of Christmas when I think of Ogden Nash. When I was eleven or twelve, my granny gave me a collection of Ogden Nash poems for Christmas, and I enjoyed all the limericks.
Until this most recent reading of it, I didn’t realize how cleverly Nash uses the scansion of the lines to shift scenes. I admire his deft handling of mood through meter. Enough Shakespeare nerding–but seriously, read it aloud. It’s better that way.
THE CHRISTMAS THAT ALMOST WASN’T
by Ogden Nash
Of happy times and places
I’ve heard the minstrels sing,
But I wish I’d lived in Lullapat
When Oldwin was the king.
It lay beyond the Seven Seas,
Beyond the mountain heights,
Beyond the smoke of autumn,
Beyond the northern lights.
An olden land, a golden land,
A land of honest mirth,
With a jolly king whose rollicking
Could not reduce his girth.
Good Oldwin, King of Lullapat,
Although not absolutely fat,
Might be described as circular;
Delicious dishes did he dip in,
Which left him rounded like a pippin;
His shape was pippindercular;
With rosy cheeks a-plumply rumpling,
He was a royal apple dumpling.
King Oldwin had a quality,
Of heartiness and jollity,
Of innocent frivolity,
That made the people chortle;
And Lullapat was rumorous
With tales about him numerous,
So very, very humerous
His name became immortal.
And citizens of other nations
Envied the happy Lullapatians.
Oldwin’s admirers were a host,
But one admirer loved him most:
A boy as yet unknown to fame—
A shepherd, Nicholas Knock by name.
Of loyal lads Nick was the loyalist,
A most enthusiastic royalist,
And as he watched his wooly flock
This was the song of Nicky Knock:
“I love my king like anything,
He’s such a Christmas-y kind of king!”
His subjects cheered with might and main
The twentieth year of Oldwin’s reign;
Indeed, their cheers were more than plenty
To echo through another twenty.
The ancient chronicle I quote
Says, “Cheers arose as from one throat.”
That’s not an accurate catalogue,
For in that throat there was a frog,
Or toad, who, though of Oldwin’s blood,
Was a snake in the grass, a worm in the bud;
Toad evil-minded, evil-starred—
King Oldwin’s nephew, Evilard.
This was the nastiest of nephews,
A loathly piece of human refuse.
His notion of a pleasant frolic
Was giving little babies colic;
He liked to sprinkle picnic rugs
With creepy, crawly, stinging bugs.
Before a royal ball, I hear,
The floor with sticky sweets he’d smear.
He’d offer a lady fair a chair,
And when she sat, it wasn’t there.
This monster toiled from sun to sun
At spoiling other people’s fun;
His skull inside was dark and caverny,
And as for heart, he didn’t have any.
Life seemed as bright as a coquette’s mirror,
Crowds caroled, “Tra-la!” and “Tirra-lirra!”
But Evilard scowled at their tirra-lirracy,
And stealthily hatched a dark conspiracy.
Nights found him slinking hither and hence
In search of fellow malcontents.
He sought the crone cadaverous,
The miser pale with avarice,
The troublemaker rancorous,
The poison tongue cantankerous,
The spiteful and the devious,
The cruel and the mischevious;
He cast his net, he spun his web,
Nor ever did his hatred ebb—
But as he skulked around the palace
Each merry face increased his malice.
For weeks he fumed and grumbled at
The dearth of rogues in Lullapat;
But, when at last his pack assembled,
This callous villain almost trembled—
So odious they were, and scurvy,
With consciences all topsy-turvy.
He led them through a secret tunnel
Like venom oozing through a funnel
To where King Oldwin, crown on lap,
Enjoyed his after-luncheon nap.
I hope that he enjoyed his luncheon,
For when he woke, ’twas in a dungeon.
Evilard turned the rusty key
And to his henchmen then spoke he:
”I plan to spend the coming year
Tormenting of my uncle dear;
I’ll furnish for his special use
Not foaming ale, but sauerkraut juice;
To titillate his royal throat
Not roast of beef, but stew of stoat;
To lend a savor to the dish,
Instead of jelly, jellyfish;
And cakes and pies all hugger-mugger
Baked with salt instead of sugar.
The hoarsest minstrels in the land
Outside his cell each night shall stand;
Their task, from dusk to dawn to troll:
‘King Oldwin was a merry old soul…’
“With scrawny fare and broken rest
I’ll put his jollity to the test;
And soon the word will creep abroad
That Oldwin’s goodness was a fraud;
And stripped of pomp and luxury
Good Oldwin is as mean as me.
This task I to my self assign,
This pleasure must be mine, all mine;
And while I’m absent from the helm,
I name you viceroys o’er the realm;
I trust I need not tell you twice,
Viceroys with accent on the vice.
Don’t fumble with the Gordian knot
Of what to do, to whom, with what;
The Gordian knot is scissorable—
Go, and make everybody miserable!”
Three old misers with razor lips;
Three old hags with razor hips;
Three old pettifoggers, sniffling, snuffling;
Three old gossips, hackling, huffling;
Three old busybodies, prying, poking;
Three old jailers, coughing, croaking—
This was the gruesome, grimsome guard
That ruled the land under Evilard
And decided to outlaw Christmas.
The three old misers hate girls and boys;
The three old hags hate fun and noise;
The three old pettifoggers love peace ill;
The three old gossips have no good will;
The three old busybodies can’t find time
For a kindly word or a Christmas rhyme;
And the jailers jeer, as they clank the keys,
“No room at the inn? Step this way, please!”
That’s what they thought of Christmas.
The three old misers, like three old mules,
Declare that the Three Wise Men were fools;
The three old hags do not believe
That the angels sang on Christmas Eve;
And the three old pettifoggers can’t approve
Of a court where the only law is Love;
And the three old gossips raise their brows
And sneer at the cradle among the cows—
And the jailers mock at Christmas.
And the three old misers, they pursed their lips,
And the three old hags put hands on hips,
And the three old pettifoggers passed a law,
And the three old gossips put jaw to jaw,
And the three old busybodies squawked like grackles
And the three old jailers shook their shackles.
And in every town, the watchmen cried
This proclamation far and wide:
There shall be no more Christmas.
They bellowed the news through golden cities
And fields where milkmaids sang their ditties;
It spread to farmers on their farms
And firemen answering alarms,
And merchants numbering their bales,
And fishermen with shining sails,
And topers roistering in taverns
And bandits deep in murky caverns:
There shall be no more Christmas.
The man who cries, “Good Christmas Day!”
Shall have his giblets cut away;
Whoever trims a Christmas tree
Suspended by the thumbs shall be,
And he who sings a jolly carol
Shall be rolled on spikes inside a barrel…
So spoke the rulers and grimly smiled
Thus to destroy one tiny Child,
The Christ Child and his Christmas.
The helpless citizens bit their nails;
The milkmaids dropped their foaming pails;
The farmers leaped as if stung by adders,
And firemen tumbled off their ladders;
Merchants spilled ink upon their books;
And fishermen caught their thumbs on hooks;
The topers called for whey and curds;
The bandits shuddered at the words:
There shall be no more Christmas.
And now a babbling murmur rose,
Expanding as the whirlwind grows.
One question scurried like a mouse
From room to room, from house to house;
One puzzle like a rocket broke
And hung above the land like smoke;
One frown contorted every forehead
Confronted by the problem horrid—
Who is to tell the children?
Ever the panic grows more rife;
Husband glances away from wife;
No one will undertake the mission—
Not even the parson or physician!
And the murderer would rather swing
Than soil his mouth with the monstrous thing!
And presently life is buried below
Flakes of silence like falling snow—
No one will tell the children.
But what was least said was soonest amended,
For Nature herself was outraged and offended,
And now spread the dirge of dole and despair
To the beasts of the field and the birds of the air.
All was awry in a widdershins world
While tyranny triumphed and freedom was furled.
No one knew when to work,
Nor yet when to play,
For the sun shone by night—
And the moon shone by day!
The mice, they had kittens;
The cats, they had puppies;
The lions had lambs;
And the whales, they had guppies!
The ink, it turned white;
The milk, it turned black;
The pig sang Tweet-tweet,
And the cow went Quack-quack.
The royal red roses
Made people to stare,
With their heads in the earth
And their roots in the air!
The flour was unground
Into wheat at the mill,
For the river turned round
And flowed back up the hill.
The spots on the leopard
Went rolling away—
And were captured for marbles
By urchins at play.
Great fires in the towns
Grew worser and worser;
Flames put out the firemen,
Instead of vice versa.
From headland to mainland,
From mainland to isthmus,
The wide word rebelled
’Gainst a world with no Christmas.
Now, Nicholas Knock was firm as a rock
Though only going on eight,
And he heard the word from a passing bird,
Of Lullapat’s dreadful fate.
He heard the word, from a passing bird,
Of the doomful days to be—
Of Christmas banned throughout the land.
Said Nicholas: “We shall see.”
Nicholas Knock, he heard the clock—
It was striking twenty-three;
“O Tickety-Tock,” said Nicholas Knock,
“I believe you strike for me!
The grownups wail, and their cheeks are pale,
And their talk is timid and sick;
A kettle of fish is not what I wish,
But I reckon it’s up to Nick.
“This slinky man and his slimy clan
An odious law impose;
And I hereby vow:
I’ll tweak each sniveling nose.
Let usurpers growl and their henchmen howl,
I do not care a tuppence;
I’ll restore our Yule and upset their rule,
And give them a fit comeuppance!”
Nick knew for a fact it was time to act,
So he lost no time in pondering;
The adventurous lad was quickly clad
For leagues of weary wandering.
He had boots that were spiked—the kind he liked—
And a pair of leather breaches;
His jacket of sheep with pockets deep,
To carry his jam sandwiches.
The adventurous lad, he rapidly bade
Farewell to his loving parents:
“I’d rather remain, but my duty is plain,
So I crave your kind forbearance.
My duty was plain as a weathervane
When I heard the twenty-third chime;
If no one but Nick can do the trick,
I hope I’m the Nick of time.”
Nicholas spoke boldly,
Nicholas spoke proudly,
Nicholas, unfortunately, spoke a little loudly.
Croaking bird, forgotten, pretended to be flying—
Swooping ever closer, listening and spying;
Snatched at every morsel rebelsome and reckless;
Strung them all together, words into a necklace;
Showed himself a croaker, not an honest chirper;
Flapped away, and tattle to the dark usurper.
Came a hurricane then of alarms and excursions,
Of death-dealing weapons, in various versions,
Of horsemen and footmen and bugles and drums,
And cries of Who goes? And cries of Who comes?
And soon a small army moved off double-quick
With Evilard’s orders to capture young Nick.
But Nicholas Knock was knowing and nimble,
He had more common sense than would fit in a thimble,
And Nicholas Knock had a Nicholas knack
Of seeing what happened in back of his back.
So when Evilard’s minions came swarming like eels
All they caught of our Nick was a glimpse of his heels.
There was never a map of the way he must wend,
All he knew was that Christmas was his to defend.
Through the meadow he scudded and on through the forest,
So fast that the rabbits and deer were embarrassed;
And yet he could see, when he lifted an eye,
The detestable croaker patrolling the sky.
Again he looked up, and what should he see
But a tiny green cottage high up in a tree?
Next a ladder appeared, it was silken and thin—
And a sweet little voice called, “Climb up and come in!”
The croaker sank lower, the air filled with peril,
Nick scurried aloft like a regular squirrel.
A pretty little hand caught Nick’s big hand
And drew him through the door—
And there he stood, in a pretty little room
With pine needles on the floor,
And holding his hand was a pretty little girl
As dainty as a posy,
And she sat him in a chair beside the fire
Till he felt all safe and cozy.
“You may call me Nell, because Nell’s my name,
I’ll help you in your plight;
I’m the seventeenth child of a seventeenth child,
And I’m blessed with seventeenth sight.
You must chisel out a path over Crookshank Peak,
And the Foolkill River cross;
Then, asleep in a cave under Greengold Hill,
You will find King Wenceslaus.
As still as stone sits Wenceslaus,
A hero long unheeded,
And drearily dreams the years away
Until his sword is needed.
But he will wake at your rueful news
As the flame wakes from the ember,
And a Christmas greeting he’ll give those rogues
That they will long remember.
“But before you can reach King Wenceslaus
You must foil that croaking snooper,
Else he will betray you, step by step,
To every enemy trooper.
That croaking, poking snooper—
That gloomful, doomful snooper—
That evil-omened, greedy-abdomened,
Underhand, overhead snooper.”
She led him to an oaken chest
Piled high with curious raiment,
She clad him anew from head to foot,
And took a smile for payment.
Oh what a sight was Nicholas Knock,
With hat of gaudy tatters,
His jacket full of yellow stains,
His breeches, purple spatters!
There coruscated as he walked
One blue, one scarlet legging;
In truth, young Nick had quite the look
Of a rainbow gone a-begging.
“This scarecrow garb, dear Nick,” said Nell,
“Will settle that nosy-poker,
For you’re not a common scarecrow now,
But a genuine scare-croaker.”
Down climbed the boy, and fiercely down
Came swooping the croaking snooper,
One look at Nick—that did the trick—
It collapsed in a deadly stupor.
“Bless you, Nell!” cried Nicholas Knock,
“The croaker is only poppycock.
There’s a peak to scale and a river to cross,
And I’m off to waken King Wenceslaus,
But before I depart I doff my hat
To the fairest maiden in Lullapat.”
She threw him a kiss, which he caught one-handed,
So sweet that his fingers were for hours candied.
The three old misers quickly heard
Of the fate that befell their precious bird;
The three old hangs they swallowed pins,
And the three old pettifoggers stroked their chins;
The three old gossips raised a pother;
The three old busybodies blamed each other;
But the three old jailers rubbed their hands,
And danced their devilish sarabands—
And then let loose the bloodhounds.
Between the boulders and through the thicket
Raced Nicholas Knock, as spry as a cricket,
Scaled Crookshank Peak without a rope
And scrambled down the opposite slope.
Sudden he heard a dreadful sound,
The horrid howl of a monstrous hound.
He heard it louder, he heard it clearer,
The faster he ran, he heard it nearer.
So instead of fleeing, down he sits,
Saying, “Nick, my boy, you must use your wints.
“There isn’t much time for cogitation,
Or logical ratiocination;
No help in addition or subtraction;
This is the moment for rapid action!
Though I’m not too bright, I am not too dense,
I’ve been called a fellow with great horse-sense…
That’s it,” cried Nick—”horse-sense, of course!”
So he summoned it up and rode off on the horse.
He is over the Foolkill in one mighty bound,
And far, far away dies the voice of the hound;
It is only the rush of the wind that he hears
Instead of the hiss of arrows and spears.
He is over the river and galloping still,
Nor slackens his pace till he glimpses a hill.
A hill? ’Twas a mountain of splendor untold,
Its flanks a gay dazzle of green and of gold!
A manifest magical, miracle mountain,
Cooling its toes in Saint Agnes’ Fountain.
His heart now takes wing—hear it sing like a linnet!—
He slips from the saddle and pauses a minute
To water the horse, and his forehead to lave,
Then advances on foot in search of the cave.
He breaks through the brake, and he brushes through brush,
Till something within him cries, Nicholas, hush!
He catches his breath as he spies with a thrill
A great iron door in the side of the hill.
Two grim men-at-arms are on guard at the door;
Bolt upright they sleep, and like bulldogs they snore.
Says Nick, “It’s a ticklish, Nicholas job,
To open a door lacking keyhole or knob,
But the Tickety-Tock had a message for me,
I’m Nicholas Knock, and it struck twenty-three.”
So he knocks on the door with a Nicholas knuckle,
Knocking a mickle and knocking a muckle.
At his twenty-third knock, the door opens wide—
And soft as a sunbeam he tiptoes inside.
Nicholas walked into a world of green,
A cavern dusty with the dust of years;
Green shadows wavered o’er the sleepy scene,
Green candles glowed in golden chandeliers,
And kingly straight upon a throne of gold
Slept Wenceslaus behind his beard of iron;
Heroic was his face, and very old.
But wrinkles could not mask the inner lion.
Circled around him stood his faithful knights
As still as statues in their ancient trance.
The candles flickered; little emerald lights
Twinkled on many a trusty sword and lance.
King Wenceslaus to slumber is a thrall
After a life of valiant chivalry;
Silent and patient, he awaits the call
To strike a final blow at tyranny.
Although Nick’s sturdy muscles turn to straw,
He threads his way ’twixt battle-ax and sword,
Down on his knees he falls in reverent awe
And boldly cries, “The time has come, my Lord!”
Life first flows back into the mighty hands,
And like a child he rubs a sleepy eye;
Then, like a lion of a king, demands;
“Who is it wakens Wenceslaus, and why?”
Nicholas stuttered and Nicholas spluttered,
A loon would have laughed at the gabble he uttered;
But Wenceslaus gathered him onto his lap,
And soon had the tale from the tired young chap.
Then he called to his page,
“Bring us meat, bring us wine!”
And seated young Nick on a pine log to dine,
Who consumed, being empty as ghosts in a garret,
A pigeon washed down with a smidgeon of claret.
At this same moment, Evilard
Was watching Oldwin sup
On mustard pills and porcupine quills,
Which he cheerfully gobbled up.
No longer round, his tenscore pound
Had dwindled to eighty-eight;
Yet all the while, he still could smile—
And Evilard writhed with hate.
“I’ve been too kind,” the monster whined,
“This torment is a fiasco;
Tomorrow, we’ll try some thistle pie,
With vinegar and Tabasco.
Such noxious food will alter your mood
For playing the jolly hero,
And I’ll be blest if you stand the test
When your weight is down to zero…
”And remember, Uncle,” added this abominable sinner,
“The year there is no Christmas, there is no Christmas dinner.
I do believe by New Year’s Eve you will be somewhat thinner.”
Now Greengold Hill’s a-quiver
With pangs that will not cease,
As if a pent-up river
Were raging for release.
The walls are ripped asunder
When Wenceslaus strides by,
For in his voice is thunder,
And lightning in his eye.
A shout of hope and glory comes roaring from his men,
And Christmas’s crusaders are on the march again.
The trumpets bite like ginger;
And like a tidal wave
The hosts of the avenger
Come bursting from the cave.
The king upon his charger
A giant now appears,
Looming larger, ever larger
As the field of battle nears.
The rumor seeps through Lullapat,
from mountaintop to plain,
That Wenceslaus is coming, with Christmas in his train.
Beside him rode our Nicky,
Even closer than the page,
Looking less than span-and-spicky,
And older than his age.
He had been a daring rover;
He had done what he’d begun;
But he wished the day were over
And the fight for Christmas won.
It worried him that on the word of someone under ten
King Wenceslaus the Warrior was on the march again.
The three old misers clutch their gold;
The three old hags are too scared to scold;
The three old pettifoggers fume and fuss;
And plan to bring suit against Wenceslaus;
The three old gossips cluck and quack;
The three old busybodies start to pack;
And the three old jailers, with simpering muzzles,
Pretend that their chains are Chinese puzzles;
They cease to jeer at Christmas.
And Evilard, foul Evilard,
What has become of Evilard?
The cowardly tyrant quakes and quails,
He gnaws his knuckles and gnaws his nails,
And savagely bites a spiteful thumb,
Glaring at Oldwin with hatred glum;
And as a final malicious joke,
Throws him a salad of poison oak;
Then stealthily sneaks upstairs to bed
And pulls the covers over his head.
Each conspirator cowers and rails at his doom,
The powers of evil are sunken in gloom,
For the bugles of Wenceslaus deafen their ears,
And the landscape is gleaming with halberds and spears,
With helmet and hauberk and crossbow and pike,
Oh, never had Lullapat gazed on the like!
The powers of evil are broken and battered,
The drawbridge is crossed, the portcullis is shattered.
On, on, the crusaders relentlessly sweep;
Like a cyclone they circle the innermost keep,
And Wenceslaus calls, for his heart is too tender,
“Do you choose to die fighting, or will you surrender?”
The rascals perk up at the sound of his voice,
Not the brashest had hoped he would give them a choice!
Since he hasn’t condemned them to hang from a tree,
He must be a fool, and they’ll get off scot-free;
So with hypocrite smiles they descend from the keep,
Werewolves, masquerading as innocent sheep.
Now Nicholas Knock unlocked the lock
That confined his royal master,
And Nicholas Knock received a shock,
Though prepared for any disaster.
He remembered Oldwin round and hale
As the harvest golden-hue moon,
And how beheld him silvery-pale
And slivery as the new moon.
But Oldwin simply said, “Thank you, son,
Have you such a thing as a cinnamon-bun?”
Came now the matter of what to do
With Evilard and his dismal crew.
King Oldwin asked, like a jolly old goose,
“Why not spank them and set them loose?”
Wenceslaus pondered and stroked his beard:
”These venomous toads are still to be feared.
If they had their due they would surely swing.
But I know of a boiling sulphur spring;
Let them steep in that for a year and a day
Till their bile and spleen are stewed away.”
The criminals gave a piglike scream,
And were hustled away to be cleansed in steam.
Time flew so fast it was hard to believe,
But the calendar showed it was Christmas Eve.
The Lullapatians in hurrying ranks
Thronged the churches to offer thanks,
Then lord and lady, peasant and vassal,
Were bid to feast in Oldwin’s castle.
Of all the dainties at Oldwin’s feast
Cinnamon buns are by far the least.
There’s the head of a bore,
With apples galore,
And hare meat and bear meat,
Well-done meat and rare meat,
Pudding plum, pudding hasty,
And venison pasty,
And salmon, and sturgeon, and sirloins, and roasts,
And pheasant and peacock in colorful hosts,
And muffins and stuffing and turkey and grouse,
And a gravy tureen as big as a house;
And for those who must drink to continue to feed
There are barrels of wine and metheglin and mead.
What jellies and cakes and sherbets and ices!
Enough for a vast alimentary crisis!
But though all disappeared to the last little cake,
No one complained of the tiniest ache.
A proud young fellow was Nicholas Knock;
He sat on Oldwin’s right;
On his other side was dainty Nell
In a gown of green and white.
Said Wenceslaus, “This very same Nell
Who sped you through wood and water,
The Nell who demolished the croaking bird,
Is my great-great-great-granddaughter.”
Said Oldwin, “Nick, it’s thanks to you
My kingdom still endures,
And since today you saved my crown,
Someday it shall be yours.
I hope to linger many a year
Upon this goodly scene;
But when I depart, you shall be king,
And Nell shall be your queen.
“Yours shall be everlasting fame,
A part of the Yuletide jolly,
And Lullapatians will bless your name
Whenever they hang the holly;
And wherever they hang their stockings up,
On mainland or isle or isthmus,
They will say a prayer for Nicholas Knock,
The hero who saved their Christmas!
Nick arose to reply, but his wits were gone,
The words he sought turned into a yawn,
And he fell asleep as his story ends,
Murmuring, “Merry Christmas, Friends!”