When I give talks about Washington Irving, inevitably, one of the first questions I get is, “Why did you choose Irving as your subject?” And my answer is, “Because I’m a Christmas junkie.”
About ten years ago, while browsing the paperbacks table at Trover Books on Capitol Hill, I came across Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, a book that — according to its back cover — “charts the invention of our current yuletide traditions, from St. Nicholas to the Christmas tree and, perhaps most radically, the practice of giving gifts to children.” That was enough for me. I paid at the register and it was mine.
Niseenbaum’s book is terrific for a number of reasons — if you’re even remotely interested in folklore, early American culture, or Christmas, I strongly encourage you to read it — and it goes a long way toward debunking some of the common mis-perceptions about my favorite holiday. For example, you’ll read how Christmas was actually outlawed in the United States until the early 19th century, mainly because Americans used the day as an opportunity to eat and drink to excess, then would go out and sing loudly, demanding food and drink of neighbors — and any neighbor who failed to deliver the goods risked being dragged out of the house and beaten up. Hence the lines in “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” in which carolers demand figgy pudding (“Bring some out here!”) and then declare that they “won’t go until we get some!”
But where the book really shines, however, is in its discussion of the dewy-eyed images of Christmas we Americans have conjured up and embraced as our own. All those Currier & Ives images, Nissenbaum tells us — sleigh rides over icy ponds, Yule logs burning in the fireplace, Santa Claus soaring over the treetops, children waking early and eagerly Christmas morning, and rambunctious Christmas dinner parties — never existed. They weren’t part of old English tradition, they were simply made up by an American writer named . . . Washington Irving.
Well. That was news to me, so I went out and looked for Irving’s Christmas stories. As it turns out, most of them are hiding in plain sight, right smack in the middle of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving’s collection of short stories and essays that’s remembered for “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and, alas, not much else. But never mind.
In that section — five short stories in which Irving’s narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, experiences Christmas Eve and day in the home of Squire Bracebridge — Irving all but creates our modern day Christmas. Yule logs crackle in the fireplace, children sing carols on Christmas morning, good looking couples dance in old houses crammed with antique furniture, and on Christmas Day, the extended family surrounds an enormous table groaning under roast beef and turkey, puddings, and foaming tankards of beer. Squire Bracebridge, we’re told, celebrates Christmas in the old style — except it’s also made clear, through winks and a sly gesture that involves laying one’s finger on the side of one’s nose — that the Squire hasn’t quite got his facts right. But all is still right with the world.
I read Irving’s Christmas stories — which I’ll tell you more about — and loved them. Then I read some more Irving, and loved that, too. What surprised me most was his voice: this was no stilted, Puritan, 19th century prose; it was chatty, charming, and completely relaxed. And the more I read, the more I wanted to know about this guy. So I looked, and looked, and looked . . . and there wasn’t a thing available.
Finally, I found what was considered to be the last word on Irving, a 1935, two-volume biography by Yale English professor Stanley Williams. While the Williams biography is thorough, it’s clear that the more Williams wrote, the more he decided he didn’t like Irving very much. He regarded him as lazy, dopey, a hack, and mostly lucky — a writer who only succeeded when the competition was sparse. It wasn’t really the book I wanted to read.
So, borrowing a lesson from David McCullough — who, I think, borrowed it from Thorton Wilder — I decided to write the book I wanted to read — one that looked at Irving with a more modern eye, was more understanding and forgiving of his flaws, and which appreciated just how hard the guy had to work to succeed in a time when, yes, there was no competition, but there were also very few role models.
And it all started because of my love of Christmas. Really.