Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas. At Your Service.

This scene from Alastair Sim's Scrooge has always stuck with me. Sim's version adds a bunch of extra stuff in Christmas past, including the first meeting between Scrooge (on the right) and Marley. What's stayed with me though is their greeting. "Your servant, Mr. Scrooge," says Marley. And the proper reply is, "Your servant, Mr. Marley."

This wasn't the first time I'd heard that. I read enough Victorian literature as a kid to have had it drilled into me, and there's also a notable variation of it in The Hobbit:
He hung his hooded cloak on the nearest peg, and "Dwalin at your service!" he said with a low bow.

"Bilbo Baggins at yours!" said the hobbit, too surprised to ask any questions for the moment.
According to, the greeting goes back to the 18th century and was common between people who were more or less social equals. That means that an actual servant would never have used it on his employer (because that would be ridiculously redundant) and it was pretty much only used between men. Of course, like with any social ritual, it eventually lost it's meaning, so saying "your servant" or "at your service" didn't actually mean you were ready to serve. No more than asking, "How are you?" today means that you're really willing to hear the honest answer to that question. It became merely a politeness.

But what if it wasn't?

On this Christmas Day, after spending a lot of time thinking about A Christmas Carol and particularly the scene with the charitable solicitors, it feels right to think about service as well. In the story, the portly gentlemen put themselves at the service of the poor for that one day, if no other time. Dickens wrote eloquently in that scene and others about the need for human beings to serve each other, regardless of how "deserving" the recipients of that service are.

And not just at Christmas, either. As Scrooge tells the final spirit at the end of the story, "I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year." And it occurs to me that honoring and keeping Christmas all the year is best done in the saying to people, and meaning it, "At your service."

Something I'll be thinking about as I make New Year's Resolutions.

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