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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Of Christmas and Mathoms... A Modest Proposal

Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort. LOTR
Christmas is always a bit of a conflicted time. One wants to observe the season and the gift giving that is so much a part of it but there is a difficulty. In today's society Christmas has been so secularized and commercialized that one is tempted to crawl into a hole around the end of November and not emerge until the new year is several days old. The question of how to observe the season without falling into the morass of shopping and commercialization has occupied my mind for some time now.

Perhaps Tolkien's "low philological jest" might provide some way out of this difficulty. The word mathom is descended from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning treasure. In that context it referred to something valuable, perhaps made of gold, a rich gift.
To the Hobbits of the end of the Third Age mathoms were things that they “had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away”. Weapons “were used mostly as trophies, hanging above hearths or on walls,” or collected in the Mathom-house, a word that is another Anglo-Saxon revival. In Anglo-Saxon mathum-hus meant ‘treasure house’ or ‘treasury.’ In The Shire, it is only a museum.
As fond as Hobbits were of gift giving, they had no department stores, online shopping or Christmas shopping frenzy to cope with. Their houses were cluttered with trinkets, bric-a-brac and other items for which that had no use. That certainly describes my own humble dwelling. They gave these as gifts to one another on birthdays so that one mathom might be passed from hand to hand, sometimes finding its way back to its original owner.

I would suggest that this custom might prove to be an antidote to the Christmas malaise that affects many of us at that time of the year. I am going to ask family and friends to restrict their gift giving this year to mathoms and avoid paying tribute to the commercial gods. Don't descend into the Christmas shopping maelstrom on my account. I will in turn do the same. This will be a "mathoms only" Christmas.

mathom, n.

Pronunciation:  Brit. /ˈmað(ə)m/ , U.S. /ˈmæðəm/
Forms:  OE madm, OE maþm, OE maðm, OE maþþum, OE maþðum, OE maðþum, OE maððum... 
Etymology:  Cognate with Old Saxon mēðom ... 

1. A precious thing, a treasure, a valuable gift. Obs.

eOE   Metres of Boethius (partly from transcript of damaged MS) xxi. 20   Gylden maðm, sylofren sincstan, searogimma nan, middangeardes wela modes eagan æfre ne onlyhtað.
OE   Maxims I 154   Maþþum oþres weorð, gold mon sceal gifan.
OE   Beowulf 41   Him on bearme læg madma mænigo.

 2. A trinket, a piece of bric-a-brac.

1954   J. R. R. Tolkien Fellowship of Ring 15   Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms.
OED

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