F. W. Boreham, My Christmas Book, Part I, ch. IV
It may or may not have happened in December; Bret Harte does not say, and it certainly does not matter; for whether it happened in April or September or December, it was Christmas-time in Roaring Camp. It is always Christmas-time when a little child is born; the angels sing their song in somebody’s sky, and heaven fills the atmosphere of somebody’s home with its Gloria in Excelsis—its message of peace on earth and goodwill among men.
It certainly was Christmas-time in Roaring Camp. Peace and goodwill were unknown at Roaring Camp until that little babe was born. Even among the mining camps of the lawless west, Roaring Camp has a sinister and unenviable notoriety. When men differed in opinion over their cards, and, to settle the dispute, shot each other dead on the spot, the gamblers at the neighboring tables merely nodded and calmly went on with their games. To die a natural death at Roaring Camp was to die at the pistol’s point.
There was just one woman there—poor Cherokee Sal—and, as Bret Harte says on the first page of the story, the less said of her, the better. And anyhow, she dies, and dies at the beginning of the tale. Stumpy, who in earlier and better days, had been a medical student or something of the sort, did his best for her He managed to save the baby, but the plight of poor Sal was beyond his skill.
The baby belonged to the camp, and the Camp resolved to do its duty bravely. The baby was lying on some rags in a box. The character of the box is not recorded; it certainly wasn’t a soap box—soap was a negligible quantity at Roaring Camp. But everybody felt that the box wouldn’t do; so a man was sent eighty miles on a mule to get a rosewood cradle, the best that money could buy. The cradle was brought; but then rags seemed out of place, and the messenger had to return to Sacramento for the daintiest and softest lace and filigree-work and frills, to be bought regardless of the cost. But when the pink little baby, lying amidst its froth of snowy white-work in the rosewood cradle, took his place in the middle of the room, the men observed with dismay a thing they had never noticed before: the floor was positively filthy! And when they had scrubbed the floor, as only horny-handed miners could scrub it, and made it almost as clean as the day on which the boards were first laid, they made a new discovery. For they saw that, in order to match the floor and the rosewood cradle and the lace-work and the baby, the walls would have to be cleaned and the ceiling whitewashed, and the windows mended and draped with curtains!
Moreover, there had to be long periods of quiet, to allow the baby to sleep, and so the quality that had given the Camp its name departed from it. The men took the rosewood cradle out to the mines on the fine days; but the mining area was a dusty, dreary place; so, to please the baby’s eye, they planted brightly colored flowers round the spot where the cradle stood; they had, of course, to plant them in some kind of order and with some design; and so the very mines became a garden. The men noticed too, that some of the stones that they turned up with their picks had a certain brightness and beauty; they found themselves putting aside glittering bits of quartz, prettily coloured pebbles and flakes of mica as playthings for the baby! Best of all, a change came over the appearance of the men themselves. Up at Tuttle’s Store, the astute proprietor, seeing which way the wind was blowing down at the camp, placed mirrors about the apartment in which the men lounged and chatted and smoked. And soon there was an extraordinary demand for soap and shaving materials, collars, ties, and even suits of clothes. The baby transformed everything!
Which things are an allegory—a Christmas allegory. The world itself was Roaring Camp two thousand years ago. As Matthew Arnold says in Obermann:
And secret loathing fell:
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life hell.
Man—every man—was either a slave-owner or a slave, either a pitiless tyrant or a cringing victim. Womanhood was debased and dishonored. Childhood was destitute of sanctity; children, unwanted, were strangled or drowned; there was nothing to prevent it: nobody cared.
Then a little Child was born at Bethlehem. In the presence of that little Child, men saw, as they had never seen before, that the world needed tidying-up. The cry of the slave would not harmonize with the song of the angels, so slavery had to go. The degradation of womanhood was put to shame by the human grace and divine glory of the Virgin Mother. A halo fell upon the brows of motherhood. The drudge was lifted form the dust at the feet of her lord and seated by his side—his helpmeet, his companion, his queen. And, ever since that little Babe was born, childhood has been treated as a sacred thing. The deeply entrenched evils of antiquity have been swept away. And the deeply entrenched evils of modernity are doomed. As the little Child of Bethlehem asserts His authority over the hearts of men, the smudges that still disfigure our civilization must vanish one by one. The bitterness of our industrial strife; the vices of our social life; the menace of the liquor evil; the horrors, crimes, and agonies of war—all these must yield to His sublime authority. As surely as the Babe of Bethlehem is the Son of God, the regeneration of Roaring Camp must be carried to completion.
And the same is true of the individual soul. What is it that Angelus Silesius sings?
Though Christ a thousand times
In Bethlehem be born,
If He’s not born in thee
Thy soul is all forlorn.
That is the point. The Christ-child is born afresh; and the heart is the inn; and the angels sing as they sang in the field of Bethlehem; and the shepherds and sages come once more to see the wonder that has come to pass. And, in that same soul, all the miracles are repeated; blindness vanishes; song visits dumb lips; deafness yields to the hearing of unutterable things; leprosy departs and death trembles into life. That is the message of Christmas, and every Christmas as it comes lends to that message a new meaning and a new music.
“How Christmas Came to Roaring Camp” was originally published in a slightly longer form in A Witch’s Brewing in 1932. This version was published in My Christmas Book in 1953.
Boreham is a British author & preacher who published 60 full-length books. He graduated from Spurgeon’s Bible College and ministered in New Zealand & Australia. He was, until 1990, Australia’s most prolific religious author.