The Old English Christmas of Washington Irving

By Munson, James | Contemporary Review, December 1994 | Go to article overview

The Old English Christmas of Washington Irving


Munson, James, Contemporary Review


EVERY Christian nation has its own special celebrations for Christmas and its own ingredients for the perfect Christmas. Christmas celebrates not just the birth of Christ but plenty in the midst of winter, family life and the spirit of giving. England is no different with one exception. Unlike any other nation, England exported her Christmas to a variety of continents and climates where it took root, adapted and became an American Christmas, an Australian Christmas and so on. Yet much survived that was English in origin. In the meantime, however, things changed in England. The 'Victorian Christmas', with its Christmas Tree, Christmas Card, and festive turkey took over. The tree was an import from Germany. The card came only after the introduction of the penny post made it possible for people to send cards. The turkey replaced traditional dishes like sirloin of beef. Other customs, like the Yule log, wassail bowl and Christmas Morris Dancers, died away. In our own century more customs have been added on: the Christmas Pudding now reigns supreme and no meal is said to be complete without sprouts, crackers, silly hats and, at three o'clock, the Queen's annual Christmas Broadcast.

When the American writer, Washington Irving came to England in the early nineteenth century he was fascinated by the older Christmas celebrations that were dying away and set himself the task of recording a vanishing world.

In his Sketch Book, which began serial publication in 1819, the young author included five essays on the English and their Christmas: 'Nothing in England exercises a more delightful spell over my imagination than the lingerings of the holiday customs of former times' wrote Irving. 'Of all the old festivals, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations.'

Christmas was marked by a 'tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment'. But how to describe 'the' English Christmas was a task Irving solved by creating his own world into which he could insert a wide variety of English customs, many of which had survived into the 19th century.

He created Bracebridge Hall, Yorkshire, with its own squire, 'a fine healthy-looking old gentleman, with silver hair curling lightly round an open florid countenance'. The squire was a 'strenuous advocate for the revival of the old rural games and holiday observances' and he invited 'Geoffrey Crayon, Gent' (alias Washington Irving) to join in the Christmas festivities at the Hall.

When Irving entered his imaginary world he was already an established writer in America. He had been born (of an English mother and Scottish father) in 1783. He was destined for the bar but he preferred writing and gained fame witch his comic Knickerbocker's History of New York, published in 1809. He arrived in England in 1815, just after the victory at Waterloo. For three years he tried to help his merchant father's failing office in Liverpool but then turned again to writing.

The Sketch Book was meant for American readers, with their nostalgic yearning for the Mother Country. Irving, a great Anglophile, did a considerable amount of research before giving to his readers an ideal view of an English Christmas. When Geoffrey Crayon approached Bracebridge Hall, 'an irregular building, of some magnitude' and the product of many generations, he heard the sound of music and laughter from the servants' hall. Here the old games were still played: hoodman blind, shoe-the-wild-mare, hot cockles, steal-the-white-loaf, bob apple and snap-dragon.

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