Rich Lowry: Irving imagined a merrier Christmas
“In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources.”
– Washington Irving
Back before there was cable TV, Washington Irving won the war on Christmas. The great early American writer had an outsized role in giving us Christmas as we know it.
A little background, according to “Christmas in America: a History,” by Penne Restad. Back in merry old England, Christmastime in the 17th century was merry indeed, a raucous affair that incurred the displeasure of the Puritans.
When Oliver Cromwell took over, his Puritan parliament suppressed Christmas with a zeal that would made the American Civil Liberties Union blush (you were looking for trouble if you decorated your church, or closed your shop, or preached on the birth of Jesus).
Puritan distaste for the holiday traveled over the Atlantic. John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay had no use for Christmas. Other settlers in other colonies, depending on their origin and their religion, had differing attitudes, and the celebration was a motley affair for much of early American history. In some places, it wasn’t celebrated at all.
Then, it steadily began to take hold, and Washington Irving, the literary genius who gave us “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” helped define it. Not only did Irving write about a pipe-smoking, wagon-riding, gift-dispensing St. Nicholas, he delineated a Christmas celebration of irresistible charm and enduring appeal.
In the early 1820s, Irving published five enormously popular Christmas stories about his visit to Bracebridge Hall in England that are, as journalists say, too good to check. The stories lament how “old games and customs” around the holiday have been lost, but they are preserved at Bracebridge. Through the haze of nostalgia – and despite the rustic, hierarchical setting of an English estate – a recognizable Christmas shimmers through.
There’s the rush of gift-laden travelers. Irving describes a stagecoach crowded with passengers who “seemed principally bound to the mansions of relations or friends to eat the Christmas dinner.” The coach “was loaded also with hampers of game, and baskets and boxes of delicacies; and hares hung dangling their long ears about the coachman’s box – presents from distant friends for the impending feast.”
There’s the anticipation of the kids. Irving delights in the “little rogues” who are “returning home for the holidays in high glee, and promising themselves a world of enjoyment.”
There’s the holiday revelry. Irving recounts “the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple and snapdragon: the Yule log and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”
There’s the magic of Christmas Eve. That night Irving hears villagers playing music outside his room: “The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened – they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sank upon the pillow and I fell asleep.”
There’s the Christmas Day feast. Irving reports that “the table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome of country abundance, in this season of overflowing larders.”
Irving’s is a Christmas of “tender and inspiring” church services and of the gathering of family members at home, “that rallying-place of the affections,” where returning children “grow young and loving again among the endearing mementoes of childhood.”
Of course, this is all achingly aspirational. Irving’s Christmas never quite was and never quite will be, but it is a vision of what the holiday should be. “Of all the old festivals,” he writes, “that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment.”
Email Rich Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org
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