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Lifting the whole world: Leigh Hunt’s message for Christmas Day

Perhaps the designers of the first Christmas card from 1840 were influenced by Leigh Hunt’s question: Is it right to spend, laugh and revel when there are so many people who live in isolation and poverty? John Calcott Horsely, curator and designer of the card, asked the painter, Sir Henry Cole, to show people being fed and clothed to remind his friends of the needs of the poor during this season.

Lifting the whole world: Leigh Hunt’s message for Christmas Day

As Christmas and the winter holiday season approaches, Leigh Hunt comes often to mind. He is a 19th-century English writer who grappled with a question that is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago when Hunt first tried to answer it: how can we celebrate and enjoy ourselves at Christmas when there is so much misery in the world?

Widely known in his lifetime as both a poet and a prose writer, Hunt fought courageously against political injustice and corruption, especially as the editor of the radical Sunday newspaper, The Examiner, and as a contributor to some of the leading liberal magazines of the era.

Virginia Woolf recognized his great contribution to social and cultural reform when she described him as one of those “free and vigorous spirits who advance the world.”

Yet Hunt is perhaps best remembered today as the victim of two malicious literary attacks. Beginning in 1817, the conservative critics of Blackwood’s Magazine tarred him as the ringleader of the so-called “Cockney School of Poetry,” an informal group of London writers that Blackwood’s maligned as vulgar, suburban mediocrities with ideas well above their social station.

Hunt suffered again when his friend Charles Dickens caricatured him in his great novel Bleak House as the insolvent and unscrupulous Harold Skimpole. It was an unfair portrait that has nevertheless endured because it successfully, if callously, exploited two central aspects of Hunt’s character: his dedication to beauty and his irresponsible attitude toward money.

At the heart of Hunt’s writings is a double-bind: How to reconcile a dedication to the world of action and unfairness with an equally strong devotion to art and poetry. When Hunt loses his way, his negotiation of this crux produces essays that are sentimental and naive.

But in much of his finest writing Hunt combines the political and the esthetic, for in his eyes a love of beauty is deeply consonant with a love of freedom.

“Politics,” he believes, “are a part of humane literature; and they who can be taught to like them in common with wit and philosophy, insensibly do an infinite deal of good by mingling them with the common talk of life.”

Hunt is very good on holidays. Over the course of his career he wrote compellingly on New Year’s Eve, Twelfth Night, Valentine’s Day, Easter and May-Day, as well as several essays on Christmas.

Ideals on Christmas Day

My favourite is simply entitled “Christmas Day,” and Hunt first published it in his newspaper, The Tatler, on Dec. 25, 1830. In the essay, he devotes much of his time to describing the food and festivities that accompanied the celebration of Christmas in England almost 200 years ago.

But before he gets to these topics, he has — characteristically — “a word or two to say of a graver tendency.” He considers the “enjoyment, or relief” of the festive season, and then considers the despair evident in so many people and so many places. “It appears to us that we ought not to take” a break, he writes. Is it right to spend, laugh, relax and revel when there are so many people who live in isolation, fear and poverty?

The shortest answer, Hunt affirms, is that you do not defeat sadness by adding to its sum total. “It would be a great pity,” he observes, “were there no sunshine in one place, because there is rain in another.”

To do good, to stay strong and constructive, to ensure that love defeats anger in as many instances as possible, “it is part of your duty to enjoy what pleasures you can, not inconsistent with others’ welfare or your own.”

Hunt in his life knew betrayal, penury, derision and injustice. But he also knew many people who had less and suffered more. Even in circumstances that many of us would find utterly overwhelming, Hunt celebrated what remained available to him, sometimes mawkishly, but more often in the gritty realization that giving into despair helps no one.

For Hunt, we should make every effort to realize the happiness in our own lives that we would wish to bestow on every life. He knew that the “best hearted joy may sometimes forget others.” Hunt asks us not to forget others, and to embrace the pleasures in our own lives as a means of deepening and renewing our commitment to bettering the lives of others.

His ideals – in “Christmas Day” and far beyond – were compassion, acceptance and equality. “The great point,” he declares, “is to lift the whole world if you can, and trample on nobody.”