Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Old Christmas

Old Christmas by Washington Irving is a collection of five writings on Christmas gone by, the quaint traditions of English celebration as seen by an American eye. It can be read online here and other sites online. You can listen to it here at Librovox.

from the first chapter:
The English, from the great prevalence of rural habits throughout every class of society, have always been fond of those festivals and holidays which agreeably interrupt the stillness of country life; and they were, in former days, particularly observant of the religious and social rites of Christmas. It is inspiring to read even the dry details which some antiquarians have given of the quaint humours, the burlesque pageants, the complete abandonment to mirth and good-fellowship with which this festival was celebrated. It seemed to throw open every door, and unlock every heart. It brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness. The old halls of castles and manor-houses resounded with the harp and the Christmas carol, and their ample boards groaned under the weight of hospitality. Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly--the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled around the hearth, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.

One of the least pleasing effects of modern refinement is the havoc it has made among the hearty old holiday customs. It has completely taken off the sharp touchings and spirited reliefs of these embellishments of life, and has worn down society into a more smooth and polished, but certainly a less characteristic surface. Many of the games and ceremonials of Christmas have entirely disappeared, and like the sherris sack of old Falstaff, are become matters of speculation and dispute among commentators. They flourished in times full of spirit and lustihood, when men enjoyed life roughly, but heartily and vigorously; times wild and picturesque, which have furnished poetry with its richest materials, and the drama with its most attractive variety of characters and manners. The world has become more worldly. There is more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment. Pleasure has expanded into a broader, but a shallower stream, and has forsaken many of those deep and quiet channels where it flowed sweetly through the calm bosom of domestic life. Society has acquired a more enlightened and elegant tone; but it has lost many of its strong local peculiarities, its homebred feelings, its honest fireside delights.
The story illustrations are by Randolph Caldecott, and I have included a few in this post.

The chapters are titled Christmas, The Stage-coach, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and The Christmas Dinner.

"Never did Christmas board display a more goodly and gracious assemblage of countenances."

Irving closes his book with this:
What, after all, is the mite of wisdom that I could throw into the mass of knowledge? or how am I sure that my sagest deductions may be safe guides for the opinions of others? But in writing to amuse, if I fail, the only evil is my own disappointment. If, however, 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; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in[159] good humour with his fellow-beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.
There's a short video from here at their site that talks about the influence of Washington Irving on the celebration of Christmas here in the U.S. His work was an influence on Dickens, and he was one of the "inventors" of Santa Claus. The New York Times writes,
Washington Irving profoundly influenced the American Christmas. His melding of jolly St. Nick and an English commemoration of old into a wintry celebration of nostalgia attests to the rich cultural legacy bequeathed to us by this native New Yorker. Within a decade of the publication of Irving's "Sketch Book," New Yorkers were greeting each other with Christmas wishes, and stores on Broadway extended their hours to accommodate shoppers.
I love reading stories of older, more "traditional" holiday celebrations. They feel cozy to me. I enjoy the way our family celebrates Christmas, but I've always been interested in how things used to be done and how they are done by different people now.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like an enjoyable read. I hope you enjoyed it, as you spend YOUR traditional Christmas day. Merry, merry Christmas.