In the 1820s, Washington Irving was credited with inspiring the romantic revival of Christmas in America. His Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman relayed sentimental tales of the British holiday with all its romance and traditions. The five Christmas tales were later published in 1875 as a separate collection titled Old Christmas.* Having lived in London and its surroundings for more than fifteen years, Irving described everyday England for his American readers while endearing the British with his favorable words. Though these Christmas vignettes were more observation than story, his popularity as a storyteller spawned an American and British following like no other, especially when it came to the celebration of Christmas.
Within the Sketchbook, Irving brings us a collection of five Christmas tales, all distinctly British. The first story, “Christmas,” is no story at all but rather a discourse. Irving as narrator relates a season of gathering, turning from the cold and wintry gloom outside to the warmth within each home. Grown children return “to grow young and loving again among the endearing mementos of childhood.” Peasant and peer are brought together with music, food, and the bounty of the fireside. Physical comforts join the spiritual as Irving describes the season of Advent: “The services dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement… increase in fervor and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men.”
Irving, however, also laments the lack of tradition and the time to take pleasure. He sighs that the days of the old games and customs of medieval lore have disappeared. Our “modern refinement” has upset the “hearty old holiday customs,” and pleasure has become shallow rather than deep. Society is so refined that it has lost its “homebred feelings, its honest fireside delights.” But Irving tempers this brief criticism with romantic ideals and insists that Christmastime still stirs us to charity and hospitality with its charms.
Irving next transitions from a broad commentary to a lighter sketch in “The Stage-Coach.” On Christmas Eve Day, our narrator rides throughout Yorkshire in a pleasantly-filled coach with three schoolboys eager to embark on their school holiday. Irving cautions us to “put on that genuine holiday spirit which is tolerant of folly, and anxious only for amusement.” Filled with packages, delicacies, and fresh game, the coach is most important because our narrator launches into a full sketch of a British stage-coachman, hilarious in girth for layers of coats and red-faced for consuming beer at every stop. Highly respected by all at every way station, he “rolls about the inn yard with an air of the most absolute lordliness” with a trail of young imitators scamping about. Scenes of bustle and bounty among the villages illustrate that “a holiday was the summit of earthly felicity.” At their final stop at a traditional English inn, our narrator runs into an old friend and is invited to join him for Christmas Day at his family’s estate.
Such English hospitality continues into the next Christmas vignette in “Christmas Eve.” A sense of home runs strong, and the twelve days of Christmas are real and replete with games and treats as the fattest of Yule logs burns. Even decorations are a part as family portraits are draped with holly and ivy. Christmas candles decorate the dining table wreathed in evergreens, and all enjoy spiced wines and Christmas song and dances. As the fire burns low, the household turns to bed with the melody of carolers and musicians outside.
In the fourth story, “Christmas Day,” the narrator is woken by little voices singing, “Rejoice, our Saviour he was born on Christmas day in the morning.” Three children under six sing the Christmas greeting at each bedchamber door. The day begins in the family chapel with prayers and a Christmas carol before breakfast and a walk about the glittering frosty grounds of the estate. The family and guests walk to church and are ecstatic to exit after surviving a bombastic and argumentative Christmas sermon delivered by a unique parson.
The final story, “The Christmas Dinner,” depicts a roaring fire, bedecked pictures and medieval armor, and a harpist “twanging his instrument with a vast deal more power than melody.” No humor aside yet, the servants soberly issue forth in formal procession with the pig’s head, an old custom. The country abundance of the buffet harkens to the laden tables of Old Baltus Van Tassel in “Sleepy Hollow.” The squire prepares the wassail himself and passes it round. “Honest good humor is the oil and wine of a merry meeting, and there is no jovial companionship equal to that where the jokes are rather small, and the laughter abundant.” The guests follow dinner by dressing up in old costumes and parading about with silly names: Ancient Christmas, Dame Mince Pie, Roast Beef, and Lord Misrule. Irving reassures us of his intent: he “writes to amuse.”
Here’s the rub. Though Irving intended to merely entertain with sense-filled pictorials, the pristine ideals of his descriptions are just that. Cheer and plenty. Warmth and merriment. Every physical comfort met with just a hint of the Christ-child. These images are singular and extreme almost, not broad snapshots of a country’s traditions in real homes.
But no one in England or America seemed to mind. Perhaps they longed for the beauty, the luxury, the experience Irving describes so well. The stories did indeed have an effect. Although Christmas Day wasn’t even an official holiday yet in America, within ten years, these stories spurred Americans to decorate their shops and homes, to purchase and give gifts, to throw parties of plenty.
The stories did inspire unity too between the two countries, even uniquely drawing one eager Charles Dickens to meet with Irving on his American literary tour. Dickens, in fact, was such a fan of Irving’s tales that his own Christmas scenes in The Pickwick Papers share an alarming number of similarities with Irving’s accounts well before A Christmas Carol was even a thought.
In his biography of Dickens, G.K. Chesterton devotes an entire chapter to Christmas because he disliked the Dickensian version so. He would say the same of Dickens’ predecessor Irving. Chesterton criticizes this sugary Christmas—“And comfort is, like charity, a very English instinct. Nay, comfort is, like charity, an English merit; though our comfort may and does degenerate into materialism, just as our charity may and does degenerate into laxity and make-believe.” With his trademark bite, Chesterton suggests that comfort leads to materialism, even one that smacks of paganism. He writes, “It would be hard to find a better example of this than Dickens’s great defence of Christmas. In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival. Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday.”
Washington Irving’s intent was clear. He hoped to entertain his readers and recreate cheery scenes of Christmas in merry ol’ England. But Chesterton would counter that romanticizing the holiday and its trappings was more than sentiment. It just might be a moral danger and a call to be mindful of our perspectives of the Christmas culture in which we now live.
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*The original version of Old Christmas has been reproduced by Project Gutenberg.
The featured image is an illustration by Randolph Caldecott from Old Christmas.