A Christmas Pipe: The life you save may be your own

by Mark Irwin


Case N° 131216

by Charles Mundungus


 And there, with an aching void in his young heart, 

and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, 

Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, 

and the upholsterer were never coming. 

--Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son. 



One of Nash's Most famous Renderings


     There are two great archetypes of the pipe-smoker so deeply etched in the popular imagination that anyone who takes up the pipe can’t help but run up against them at one time or another in his smoking career. One is Santa Claus, or perhaps the idea of Christmas, refulgent in the engravings of Thomas Nast, editorial caricaturist for Harper’s Weekly way back in the 1860s. The other is Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the detective savant whom it is impossible not to admire for at least half a dozen reasons.

     But before either Nast’s Santa or Doyle’s Holmes there was Charles Dickens, yet another pipe smoker, who is ultimately to blame (say the cultural historians) for rescuing Christmas from its near-obscurity in the calendar and igniting a yuletide fire that spread throughout the western world and still rages today. He did it with the publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843, one of my favorite novels despite the fact that it is so un-read and domesticated in the popular imagination that few realize its true brilliance or that it really is a ghost story intended for grown-ups, with scenes as bleak and grim as any Dickens ever penned. 


Charles Dickens


     I would argue that a crucial ingredient in Dickens’s formula, as in Nast’s and Doyle’s, is the pipe. Take the pipe out of Christmas and suddenly there’s a piece missing—and one reason many Christmases go wrong nowadays, I suspect. So thorough-going is Dickens in his pipe-propaganda that the reader can’t go very far in any of his novels without stumbling on a passage like this one from another of his Christmas books, A Cricket on the Hearth:


Then, Dot—quite well again, she said, quite well again—arranged the great chair in the chimney-corner for her husband; filled his pipe and gave it to him; and took her usual little stool beside him on the hearth. . . .

     She was, out and out, the very best filler of a pipe, I should say, in the four quarters of the globe. To see her put that chubby little finger in the bowl, and then blow down the pipe to clear the tube, and, when she had done so, affect to think that there was really something in the tube, and blow a dozen times, and hold it to her eye like a telescope, with a most provoking twist in her capital little face, as she looked down it, was quite a brilliant thing. As to the tobacco, she was perfect mistress of the subject; and her lighting of the pipe, with a wisp of paper, when the Carrier had it in his mouth—going so very near his nose, and yet not scorching it—was Art, high Art. 


     Lobbyists for the hobby would do well to keep such passages before the non-smoking public during the holiday season. You’ll also see a recipe for domestic bliss here that can’t be much improved upon.

     Christmas also brings to mind another story—“The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” by Flannery O’Connor. It’s not a Christmas story, despite its anagogical angels and epiphanies, but the principal adversaries, the tramp Tom T. Shiftlet and old Mrs. Lucynell Crater, both do a remarkable job dancing around the grace offered to each in the form of Crater’s deaf-mute daughter. I mention it chiefly because O’Connor’s transcendent tagline reminds me in its Southern grotesque way of the dead-ends many find in a Christmas pursued for mercenary ends or one celebrated without any concrete understanding of its spiritual perils.


     I used to absolutely loathe the holidays, for all the clichéd reasons: I hated the music, the commercialism, the inevitable weight gain, the inability to find time or space to celebrate the season in any meaningful way. I found myself particularly drawn to articles on how high suicide rates were during the holidays. For me the holidays were such a time of incredible stress, financial and familial, that I looked forward to getting back to work despite being neither refreshed nor renewed.

     Then sometime in the mid-1980s I was given an invitation to join CELF (the Christmas Elves Liberation Front)—this wasn’t long after Will Huygen and Rien Poortvliet’s Gnomes had renewed interest in the Little People. My wife was working nights as a data-controller for the bank, so I didn’t have anything else to do, and went to the first meeting one rainy dreary December night in Waco, Texas in the basement (“Fellowship Hall”) of one of the old AME churches long-since torn down.

     Joining CELF, they said, was simply a metacognitive (or metaspiritual) matter of recognizing elements of the holiday season that stress and distress you, then taking time to do some reorganization and realignment of your priorities. They issued all of us a clipboard and had us make a triple Venn diagram, jotting down the highs of past holidays in the first column, the lows in the second, and the “just rights” in the middle. Too much or too little family? Too much or too little eating? Sleep? Spiritual renewal? “Me time”? “Others time”? Stuff like that. The big thing, they said, was to be proactive with a view not to alienating your family and significant others, but allowing yourself the opportunity to get what you need as well. 

     At this point I looked up from my scribbling and noticed that everyone except me was smoking a pipe. Hmm, I thought. I’m a pipe-smoker. What’s pipe-smoking got to do with Christmas? How come these guys are smoking in church? 

     So I went back the second week, this time with my Lorenzo Elba and a goodly supply of MacBaren’s Virginia and lit up with everyone else. After we’d all had some fifty-cent spiced cider and a slice of fruitcake, the Head CELF said that Christmas, rightly understood, was mostly about stillness and the gifts that come out of it. So everyone quit puffing and we sang all seven verses of Franz Gruber’s “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”), which I thought was a nice touch, especially the seventh “suppressed” verse about pipe-smoking: 


Silent Night! Holy Night!

With your pipe’s charring light,

Know yourself from misery free: 

In the cense of baccy’s decree, 

Smoke in silence and peace. 

Smoke in silence and peace.1 


     At the third meeting the following Saturday there was a kind of pipe-swap in the basement of the old AME church, which was the first time I’d heard the phrase “estate pipe.” It was also the first time I heard about Nicholai de Tabbakuk, probably the most important figure in the history of pipe-smoking that you’ve never heard of.

     Apart from the connection of his name with a short treatise which has come to be known as “The Incompleat Smoaker” (usually referred to simply as the “ICS Manuscript”), everything about this figure is shrouded in smoke. Among the pipe smokers present that evening he seemed to be the kind of Santa Claus figure that would need to be invented if he didn’t exist. Santa, of course, can be traced back to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker (270-343), the Bishop of Myra known for his secret gift-giving. But what of Tabbakuk and his gifts? References to this saintly pipe smoker in Eugene Umberger’s Tobacco and its Use (3rd ed., 2009) are scarce. Even Benjamin Rapaport, that supreme authority of the history of pipes, seems never to have heard of him.

     Nicholai de Tabbakuk advocated pipe smoking as a form of meditation, said the Head CELF, which is absolutely central to the practice of Christmas. He then proceeded to make us all take an oath never to mention Tabbakuk’s name again before reading several selections from “The Incompleat Smoaker.” There was so much smoke in the room I couldn’t remember much of it afterwards, except that I wanted to read it for myself. I looked for it in the card catalog when I was back at work at my student librarian’s job at Baylor the following week, but couldn’t find any citations aside from a single reference to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. 

     The gist of Tabbakuk’s message that night had to do with pipe-smoking in and of itself, neither as a means for nicotine-delivery nor as something merely for refined palates, but as a vehicle for what my Buddhist friends would call “mindfulness” and Catholic friends would call “awareness.” I didn’t know either of these terms at the time, but since I was born and raised in Indian Territory—Oklahoma—I did know a little bit about the Native American practice of the sacred pipe, first from Black Elk’s The Sacred Pipe and later in Jesuit Paul B. Steinmetz’ work and more recently still in Jim Tree’s syncretic Way of the Sacred Pipe. 


Peace Pipes from Ernest Thompson Seton’s Book of Woodcraft (1921) 


     At the core of these works is a vision of the pipe as a means of meditation, as a kind of sacramental act. By that I don’t mean losing oneself in reveries or regrets about the past or building alternative castles in the sky against an always somewhat fearful future, but simply as a means of being mindful of the present moment, of locating yourself in the “here and now and this.” Something not far off from the use of prayer beads or icons, I suppose. 

     But all I had to go on at the time was the Rev. Arthur B. Yunker’s A Theology of Pipe Smoking, which pops up now and again on the internet, and which you can enjoy yourself (with the long-ago permission he gave me) by downloading it HereYunker’s theology is a great endorsement not only for pipe collecting (notice I didn’t say “companioning,” but “collecting”!) as well as a round-about way of thinking about why pipes are so important to the practice of Christmas. He writes: “a pipe does not merely hold tobacco. It interacts with the tobacco to bring forth something entirely new and different: Pipesmoke, tobacco smoke glorified, Smoke in Excesis (his italics, not mine, p. 7).2 

     The fourth and final meeting of the CELF occurred two days before Christmas, again in the dank fellowship hall of the old AME Church, and after Christmas cookies and punch, everyone once again lit their pipes and sat down in folding chairs to listen to the Head CELF. But instead of reading from De Tabbakuk’s manuscript, he enjoined us to practice what we’d learned, and so for the next two hours or so, thirty-three grown men of various ages mostly sat in what the Head CELF called “holy smoak”—smoking in silence, except for the sound of pipes being knocked out and reloaded and matches being lit. It sounds a little strange, but it was actually an incredibly relaxing experience. If you’ve read James M. Barrie’sMy Lady Nicotine or Steve Laug’s Father Tom stories, you’ll know what I mean.

     Afterwards, when everyone was trudging up the stairs and out into the cold, I screwed up my courage and went over to introduce myself to the Head CELF and see if I could get a copy of the manuscript. He said he was leaving town that night for North Dakota, but if I wanted I could stay and copy a few pages while he had a last pipe with a friend of his. I flipped back and forth through the manuscript, but in the end couldn’t decide what was most important. This was what I came away with: 


The Smoaker is a hesychast or lover of silence in his ability to sit and smoak without the noise and chatter of the world or the conversation of others or the playing of music or even the reading of books. The Smoaker knows himself in silence. He may, of course, listen to music or take up a good book or some other edifying or recreating activity, but in doing these things he is not simply Smoaking and cannot therefore understand if he is, in fact, a Smoaker.3 


There is, then, only one way to know if he has a vocation for smoak: the Smoaker must be able to sit and light his pipe and smoak in silence. This is the ascesis or discipline; this is theanamnesia or recollection; this is the hesychasm or silence. He must decide that within the time he is Smoaking that he will not be pulled out of the smoak by an unread letter, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden burst of energy which prompts him to do at once what he has left undone in years or days or hours past. This is not easy. So he settles down and says, “Here I am,” and he is. . . . 


If the Smoaker has learned to do this in the moments of his life when his toil is done, in a few of the evenings when he takes his ease, if he has learned not to fidget inwardly, but to be completely calm and happy, stable and serene, then his smoak is indeed ascending as the incense of the evening sacrifice to God. He may be sure that he has a vocation to smoak, although the vocation will continually be tested just as the Smoaker himself is tested.


Moments may come when he will require some defenses against his Smoaking. Guests will come into his home who cannot abide the smell of his smoak or hurl abuse at his sacramental understanding of this holy ritual. But the Smoaker will not smoak in the presence of hostile guests nor make reply to those who lack understanding of the sublimities of the divine herb. And when he is Smoaking, people will knock at the door unannounced and uninvited. But when the Smoaker has made up his mind that if he was not at home he would not open the door, he can do what I have done. I do not answer my door. If someone needs me, he can leave a message. If the need is urgent, he will continue knocking. I have a little note on the door saying, “Please don’t go to the trouble of knocking. I am at home but I will not open the door. I am Smoaking and am at peace, offering myself to God. Please go in peace.” This is a way which is much more decisive, because people understand it at once instead of believing the Smoaker to be ill or out or simply misanthropic, which of course he is not. He is simply being faithful to the silence which is necessary to the smoak, practicing the solitude the soul requires if it is to understand itself before God.


When the Smoaker has learned to do this . . . . he has learned to stop time and practice holy silence and holy Smoaking. He is the master of time because he no longer lives in profane or kronostime, but in kairos or sacred time. 


     Like the Buddhist practice of zazen, De Tabbakuk’s meditative pipe-smoking is a practice that seems, at least at first, to be mostly about nothing, about a kind of emptiness or awareness. It’s not rumination or thinking—it’s about the cessation of as many things as possible exceptpipe-smoking. 

     I’ve “smoaked” this way dozens of times since that night and can recommend it for what ails you, knowing that if you’re already a recreational pipe-smoker, you’ll probably have experienced at least moments of meditative pipe-smoking, if only by accident. I know a number of non-religious and even agnostic pipemen who practice this type of pipe-smoking. Not all the time, but on a fairly regular basis—say, once or twice a week. Just a pipe and a quiet room, or a pipe and a park bench. Not even a book. 

     Before I left that night, the Head CELF again enjoined me to silence about De Tabbakuk, but said he thought the time would come when the manuscript would need to be made public. That was 31 Christmases ago. A little over three years ago I received a letter from the Head CELF’s widow, who said the manuscript would be made available sometime in 2012 and I was released from my vow of silence. I haven’t heard anything since, but I suspect what I received was a form letter, and that dozens or even hundreds of other pipemen since received the same letter. 


     Most pipemen I know can point to several pipes in the rack and tell you the Christmas they received them. My first Christmas pipe was a GBD 256 Lovat from my Grandmother Jesse before I graduated from high school. My second was a Peterson DeLuxe 11s from my wife our first Christmas. She was so excited about it that I had no choice but to open it early. There’s been a few others since then, most of which I’ve acquired for myself. What about you? What stories do your Christmas pipes tell? 

     The Christmas pipe, like Christmas itself, doesn’t require any special belief or creed or religious confession, just a quiet space, some tobacco and a flame. When the pipe is lit, a “thisness” is created in the Here & Now where the pipeman can withdraw from the Christmas roar into the Christmas quiet, and in detachment find freedom, and in freedom find peace, love and compassion. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? 

     This Christmas upholster your soul. Give yourself the gift of a pipe and a smoke in silence: returning and rest ye shall be saved, 
in quietness and confidence shall be your strength. 


Remember, the life you save may be your own. 





Works Consulted 

Brown, Joseph Epes, ed. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Penguin Books, 1971.
Dearmer, Percy, et al. The Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford UP, 1928.
Steinmetz, Paul B., S. J. The Sacred Pipe: An Archetypal Theology. Syracuse University Press, 1988.
Tabbakuk, Nikolai de. The Incompleat Smoaker: A Conference on Smoking to the Glory of God. Manuscript ICS/v (1944). Unpublished. Excerpts reprinted with permission from the owner.
Tree, Jim. The Way of the Sacred Pipe: The Care and Use of the Native American Sacred Pipe. Blue Sky Publishing, 2004.
Yunker, Rev. Arthur D. Toward A Theology of Pipesmoking. Concordia Seminary Print Shop, 1979. 




1 See The Oxford Book of Carols, p. 386-88 for a history of the hymn and the suppressed verse.

2 For the theologically-inclined, Yunker (who was writing at the beginning of the world-wide “Collector Era” of pipe-smoking) asserts “that pipe collecting is part of the Imago Dei”—that just as God collects unnecessaries (like the myriad designs of snowflakes) “just because he likes the idea,” so, too, we as participants in his image collect things just for the fun of it (p. 14).

3 Tabbakuk uses an obsolete spelling of “smoke,” smoak, to differentiate his understanding of the meditative pipe-smoker and pipe-smoking from merely recreational smoking.