Old Christmas in 1819.
His first sketch is a wistful remembrance of Christmas gone by, brought back to memory after being in England. In thinking about the old customs and merrymaking that were even then receding into the past, his thoughts bring to mind my own in looking at that Christmas book as a child. “They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it.” He then compares the old celebrations he remembers to crumbling Gothic architecture. “Poetry, however, clings with cherishing fondness about the rural game and holiday revel, from which it has derived so many of its themes--as the ivy winds its rich foliage about the Gothic arch and mouldering tower . . . embalming them in verdure.” For Irving, the celebration of Christmas brought together a conviviality that was absent the rest of the year, a necessary coming together of people in the context of the celebration of “the beautiful story of the origin of our faith,” and the church choir and sermons were inexorably linked to his memories of happiness. But it was nature that brought about much of what was good about the season. While nature itself was cause for joy the rest of the year, “in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratification to . . . the charm of each other’s society.”
It is a beautiful arrangement, also derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates
the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together
of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and
pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose.
For Irving, however, much of this way of looking at the season had already passed by. He writes about the English customs of old, in medieval times when, “it brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness,” though not having lived in that time he may be overstating the case. Still, he could sense a subtle difference in the kind of celebrations that he observed even in his day. “One of the least pleasing effects of modern refinement is the havoc it has made among the hearty old holiday customs . . . Many of the games and ceremonials of Christmas have entirely disappeared.” That, however, is simply the outward sign of an inward problem. For Irving, the celebratory aspect of Christmas as he understood it had already begun to turn from a festival of good feeling into an excuse for excess. “The world has become more worldly. There is more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment.” Irving remained enthralled by the holiday season, though, especially as he witnessed it in England and refused to let what he perceived as diminishment attenuate the excitement of the past that it evoked. “Shorn, however, as it is, of its ancient and festive honors, Christmas is still a period of delightful excitement in England . . . Amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and stir of the affections, which prevail at this period, what bosom can remain insensible?”
The second section of his sketches of the season concerns a lengthy stagecoach ride that he made on the day before Christmas. The people all seemed to be going to the home of some relation or another, bringing primarily food of all sorts from game to deserts. On one stretch of the journey, Irving says, “I had three fine rosy-cheeked schoolboys for my fellow passengers inside.” His description of them as they talk excitedly about the day to come is one of the joys of literature.
It was delightful to hear the gigantic plans of pleasure of the little rogues, and the impracticable
feats they were to perform during their six weeks’ emancipation from the abhorred thralldom of
book, birch, and pedagogue. They were full of anticipations of the meeting with the family and
household, down to the very cat and dog; and of the joy they were to give their little sisters by
the presents with which their pockets were crammed.
Irving goes on to describe the coach driver in impressive detail, everything from his facial features to the clothing and boots that he wears, even going so far as to describe his general attitude. “The moment he arrives where the horses are to be changed, he throws down the reins with something of an air, and abandons the cattle to the care of the hostler; his duty being merely to drive from one stage to another.” When it is time for the boys to be dropped off at their home, they all tumble out and accost the old footman waiting there. Again, Irving is enchanted by their energy and excitement, and can’t help but reminisce about his own childhood at such a time. Driving away, he says, “I looked after them with a feeling in which I do not know whether pleasant or melancholy predominated; for I was reminded of those days when, like them, I had neither known care nor sorrow, and a holiday was the summit of earthly felicity.” Stopping at an inn where he was to spend the night, he has a chance encounter with a gentleman who he had travelled the continent with and is immediately invited to Christmas dinner. “He insisted that I should give him a day or two at his father’s country-seat, to which he was going to pass the holiday, and which lay at a few miles’ distance.” It’s an offer that Irving is happy to accept, and walking up to the house at the end of their ride, Irving makes this observation that put me in mind, yet again, of that Christmas book of old. “The lawn beyond was sheeted with a slight covering of snow, which here and there sparkled as the moonbeams caught a frosty crystal.”
“Christmas Eve” is the title of the next sketch. At the opening of each section, and sometimes in the middle, of Irving’s chapters, he writes a song or a poem that has a connection for him with the content of his reminiscences. This one is preceded by a Christmas prayer. Initially, this sketch seems to strain credulity, as though it was manufactured to justify the opening essay on Christmas past. As Irving and his friend head for his father’s country estate, he says,
My father, you must know, is a bigoted devotee of the old school, and prides himself upon keeping
up something of old English hospitality . . . He is a strenuous advocate for the revival of the old
rural games and holiday observances . . . He was very particular that we should play the old English
games according to their original form and consulted old books for precedent and authority for every
‘merrie disport;’ yet I assure you there never was pedantry so delightful.
But it soon becomes evident that the order was the other way around. It was no doubt this chance encounter and those two days among an English household that still honored tradition at Christmastime that prompted Irving to write his initial essay in the first place. And he was not disappointed. “There is an emanation from the heart in genuine hospitality which cannot be described, but is immediately felt, and puts the stranger at once at his ease. I had not been seated many minutes by the comfortable hearth of the worthy old cavalier, before I found myself as much at home as if I had been one of the family.” The dinner and entertainment and conversation, together with the full range of family members present from young and old and near and far, is exactly the kind of eighteenth-century charm that Irving had described in his opening.
“Christmas Day” begins in the morning, with “the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door.” These are the small children who were already in bed when Irving arrived the evening before. “I opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs.” A considerable amount of the rest of the chapter is given over to the church service. Prior to breakfast the family gathers every Sunday for Bible readings and prayers, and afterwards the service by the pastor at the vicarage. Amusingly, he won’t even go into the church because of the way it’s decorated.
On reaching the porch, we found the parson rebuking the gray-headed sexton for having used
mistletoe among the greens with which the church was decorated. It was, he observed, an un-
holy plant . . . So tenacious was he on this point, that the poor sexton was obliged to strip down
a great part of the humble trophies of his taste, before the parson would consent to enter upon
the service of the day.
The rest of the service is equally humorous, as Irving describes the lengthy sermon dealing with the battle over Christmas in England, and a delightful musical number with a small orchestra and choir that is a disaster from start to finish. “All became discord and confusion; each shifted for himself, and got to the end as well, or rather as soon, as he could.” Once back to the house, however, the music from inside, as well as from the musicians walking through the estate, was very good. And while the diversions seem all that Christmas should be, even the Squire was able to go on at length about what had been lost of the old customs in the preceding decades.
The final section is “Christmas Dinner,” which was “served up in the great hall, where the Squire always held his Christmas banquet.” With the fireplace roaring, and a harp playing, a roasted pigs head was brought in to replicate the tradition of the boar’s head, and a pheasant pie was decorated with peacock feathers because the old man couldn’t bear to kill one of his pet birds that roamed the estate. “The table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome of country abundance, in this season of overflowing larders.” The Wassail Bowl was then passed around for all to drink from, accompanied by more singing, and after dinner the children left to play games while the men continued to drink, and soon Irving “found the tide of wine and wassail fast gaining on the dry land of sober judgment.” Later, the talk in the great hall turned, quite naturally to ghost stories, one concerning the subject of the painting that was hung over the mantle. “From these and other anecdotes that followed, the crusader appeared to be the favourite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.”
Some talked of gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the spectre kept watch; there was
a story current of a sexton in old times who endeavoured to break his way into the coffin at night;
but just as he reached it, received a violent blow from the marble hand of the effigy, which stretch-
ed him senseless on the pavement.
As the old parson was pontificating some time later the conversation was mercifully broken up by the children bursting into the room dressed in all of the old clothing they could scavange. “Like the clang of rude minstrelsy, with the uproar of many small voices and girlish laughter, the door suddenly flew open, and a train came trooping into the room, that might have been mistaken for the breaking up of the court of Fairy.” It’s a wonderful way to end Irving’s story of Christmas past, as it should, with the delight of children being children.
For my part, I was in a continual excitement, from the varied scenes of whim and innocent gaiety
passing before me. It was inspiring to see wild-eyed frolic and warm-hearted hospitality breaking
out from among the chills an glooms of winter, and old age throwing off his apathy, and catching
once more the freshness of youthful enjoyment.
Irving ends with his ultimate purpose: “If I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow . . . and make my reader more in good humour with his fellow beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not these lines then have written entirely in vain.” Washington Irving’s Old Christmas is a true treasure in the way that it captures a kind of celebration that is long past, a first-person account that will hopefully continue to be read during the holiday season to remind us all of our own memories of Christmas past as well as his historical glimpse into the celebrations of old. Like my own tantalizing view of a wintertime beauty that I was never able to fully experience as a child, Irving’s view of what an old English Christmas must have been like are very similar. But at least we have Irving himself, as this generation’s poet, to help us “recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it.”