Category Archives: Christmas

Stille Nacht

And Laying His Finger Aside of His Nose…

“And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream–and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings yearly presents to children, and he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked . . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very signifcant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.”

– Washington Irving
A History of New York (1812 edition)
Book II, Chapter V

 

Odds and Ends

It’s funny, when I started this blog several years ago, I was fairly good about updating and posting — on a good week, I might post three times, sometimes daily.  At the time I was doing the political job by day, while promoting Washington Irving and working behind the scenes on Jim Henson. And I thought, “Man, if I ever get to the point where I can stay home and write full time, I can blog daily! I’ll be a blogging machine!”

Yeah.  Well.  Not so much, sorry.  But I think you’ll thank me in the end, since it means I’m devoting more of my writing time to my current project than to the blog.  Still, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty else going on.  Like for instance:

–  Early registration is already open for the second annual Biographers International Organization (BIO) conference, which will take place in Washington, DC on May 21, 2011.  Home base for the event will be the National Press Club, but conference sessions will also be held at the National Archives and the Library of Congress.  More information — including a tentative list of panels — is available at the BIO website, by clicking here.

– Barb and I attended an absolutely spectacular lecture at the Smithsonian the other night, where we got to listen to Bob Hirst, the general editor of the new Mark Twain Autobiography, discuss Twain’s life, work, and the problems an editor stumbles across when trying to decide exactly what is meant by an “authoritative” autobiography.  To a packed house at the Natural History Museum, Hirst showed photos of Twain’s original typed manuscripts, which had been written on by Twain, corrected by later typists, smudged by typesetters, and revised by previous editors who thought they knew better than Twain how to tell his life story.  Looking at the mess on each page, it was sometimes unclear which corrections were Twain’s — was the slash through a comma, for instance, really his correction or that of a later editor? — which really made you appreciate the hard work, and the detective work, that goes into a project like this.

– This Saturday, we’re attending a showing of A Christmas Carol over at Ford’s Theatre.  It’s one of those things that’s become something of a Christmas tradition with us, in the same way that we always watch Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas or A Christmas Story. Plus it’s an opportunity to go see the Christmas trees for each state over at the White House, and the huge tree at the Capitol.  The only wrench in the plan right now is the weather.  It was a whopping 19 degrees this morning here in Maryland, which is not conducive to strolls on the Mall.

– Finally, here’s a really interesting piece on Herman Melville over in the New York Times, courtesy of my colleague — and 19th century historian and fellow political speech writer — Ted Widmer.

Dreams of St. Nicholas (and Santa’s First Appearance in American Literature)

“And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream–and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings yearly presents to children, and he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked . . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very signifcant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.”

— Washington Irving
A History of New York (1812 edition)
Book II, Chapter V

Christmas Dinner

Happy Holidays! As promised, here are some highlights from Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “Christmas Dinner.” Enjoy.

The dinner was served up in the great hall, where the squire always held his Christmas banquet. A blazing crackling fire of logs had been heaped on to warm the spacious apartment, and the flame went sparkling and wreathing up the wide-mouthed chimney. The great picture of the crusader and his white horse had been profusely decorated with greens for the occasion, and holly and ivy had like-wise been wreathed round the helmet and weapons on the opposite wall, which I understood were the arms of the same warrior . . . A sideboard was set out just under this chivalric trophy, on which was a display of plate that might have vied (at least in variety) with Belshazzar’s parade of the vessels of the temple: “flagons, cans, cups, beakers, goblets, basins, and ewers,” the gorgeous utensils of good companionship that had gradually accumulated through many generations of jovial housekeepers. Before these stood the two Yule candles, beaming like two stars of the first magnitude; other lights were distributed in branches, and the whole array glittered like a firmament of silver.

We were ushered into this banqueting scene with the sound of minstrelsy, the old harper being seated on a stool beside the fireplace and twanging, his instrument with a vast deal more power than melody. Never did Christmas board display a more goodly and gracious assemblage of countenances; those who were not handsome were at least happy, and happiness is a rare improver of your hard-favored visage. . . .

The parson said grace, which was not a short familiar one, such as is commonly addressed to the Deity in these unceremonious days, but a long, courtly, well-worded one of the ancient school. There was now a pause, as if something was expected, when suddenly the butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle: he was attended by a servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish on which was an enormous pig’s head decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table. The moment this pageant made its appearance the harper struck up a flourish; at the conclusion of which the young Oxonian, on receiving a hint from the squire, gave, with an air of the most comic gravity, an old carol, the first verse of which was as follows

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.
The boar’s head in hand bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary.
I pray you all synge merily
Qui estis in convivio.

Though prepared to witness many of these little eccentricities, from being apprised of the peculiar hobby of mine host, yet I confess the parade with which so odd a dish was introduced somewhat perplexed me, until I gathered from the conversation of the squire and the parson that it was meant to represent the bringing in of the boar’s head, a dish formerly served up with much ceremony and the sound of minstrelsy and song at great tables on Christmas Day. “I like the old custom,” said the squire, “not merely because it is stately and pleasing in itself, but because it was observed at the college at Oxford at which I was educated. When I hear the old song chanted it brings to mind the time when I was young and gamesome, and the noble old college hall, and my fellow-students loitering about in their black gowns; many of whom, poor lads! are now in their graves.”

The parson, however, whose mind was not haunted by such associations, and who was always more taken up with the text than the sentiment, objected to the Oxonian’s version of the carol, which he affirmed was different from that sung at college. He went on, with the dry perseverance of a commentator, to give the college reading, accompanied by sundry annotations, addressing himself at first to the company at large; but, finding their attention gradually diverted to other talk and other objects, he lowered his tone as his number of auditors diminished, until he concluded his remarks in an under voice to a fat-headed old gentleman next him who was silently engaged in the discussion of a huge plateful of turkey.

The old ceremony of serving up the boar’s head on Christmas Day is still observed in the hall of Queen’s College, Oxford. I was favored by the parson with a copy of the carol as now sung, and as it may be acceptable to such of my readers as are curious in these grave and learned matters, I give it entire:

The boar’s head in hand bear I, Bodeck’d with bays and rosemary

The table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome of country abundance in this season of overflowing larders. A distinguished post was allotted to “ancient sirloin,” as mine host termed it, being, as he added, “the standard of old English hospitality, and a joint of goodly presence, and full of expectation.” There were several dishes quaintly decorated, and which had evidently something traditional in their embellishments, but about which, as I did not like to appear overcurious, I asked no questions.

[…]

When the cloth was removed the butler brought in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the squire. Its appearance was hailed with acclamation, being the Wassail Bowl, so renowned in Christmas festivity. The contents had been prepared by the squire himself; for it was a beverage in the skilful mixture of which he particularly prided himself, alleging that it was too abstruse and complex for the comprehension of an ordinary servant. It was a potation, indeed, that might well make the heart of a toper leap within him, being composed of the richest and raciest wines, highly spiced and sweetened, with roasted apples bobbing about the surface.

The old gentleman’s whole countenance beamed with a serene look of indwelling delight as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips, with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming round the board, for every one to follow his example, according to the primitive style, pronouncing it “the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts met together.”

[…]

Here’s “The Christmas Dinner” in its entirety. Interestingly, when Irving reprinted his Christmas stories nearly forty years later, he added the following postscript:

At the time of the first publication of this paper the picture of an old-fashioned Christmas in the country was pronounced by some as out of date. The author had afterwards an opportunity of witnessing almost all the customs above described, existing in unexpected vigor in the skirts of Derbvshire and Yorkshire, where he passed the Christmas holidays. The reader will find some notice of them in the author’s account of his sojourn at Newstead Abbey.

But enough of Christmas and its gambols; it is time for me to pause in this garrulity. Methinks I hear the questions asked by my graver readers, “To what purpose is all this? how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?” Alas! is there not wisdom enough extant for the instruction of the world? And if not, are there not thousands of abler pens laboring for its improvement? It is so much pleasanter to please than to instruct–to play the companion rather than the preceptor.

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 in 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 good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself — surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.

At this time of year, we couldn’t ask for much more than to “rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care.”

Merry Christmas. Take care of each other.

Christmas Eve

For your holiday reading, here’s an excerpt from Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “Christmas Eve,” lifted from the pages of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

And remember what I told you here yesterday: when Irving tells you something is “ancient custom,” he is not to be trusted. The rogue.

Anyway. Here we go:

The grate had been removed from the wide overwhelming fireplace to make way for a fire of wood, in the midst of which was an enormous log glowing and blazing, and sending forth a vast volume of light and heat: this, I understood, was the Yule-clog, which the squire was particular in having brought in and illumined on a Christmas Eve, according to ancient custom.

The Yule-clog is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house with great ceremony on Christmas Eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with the brand of last year’s clog. While it lasted there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. Sometimes it was accompanied by Christmas candles; but in the cottages the only light was from the ruddy blaze of the great wood fire. The Yule-clog was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered a sign of ill luck.

Herrick mentions it in one of his songs:

Come, bring with a noise, My metric, merrie boys,
The Christmas Log to the firing;
While my good dame, she Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your hearts’ desiring.

The Yule-clog is still burnt in many farm-houses and kitchens in England, particularly in the north, and there are several superstitions connected with it among the peasantry. If a squinting person come to the house while it is burning, or a person barefooted, it is considered an ill omen. The brand remaining from the Yule-clog is carefully put away to light the next year’s Christmas fire.

[…]

Supper was announced shortly after our arrival. It was served up in a spacious oaken chamber, the panels of which shone with wax, and around which were several family portraits decorated with holly and ivy. Besides the accustomed lights, two great wax tapers, called Christmas candles, wreathed with greens, were placed on a highly polished beaufet among the family plate. The table was abundantly spread with substantial fare; but the squire made his supper of frumenty, a dish made of wheat cakes boiled in milk with rich spices, being a standing dish in old times for Christmas Eve. I was happy to find my old friend, minced pie, in the retinue of the feast and, finding him to be perfectly orthodox, and that I need not be ashamed of my predilection, I greeted him with all the warmth wherewith we usually greet an old and very genteel acquaintance.

. . . no sooner was supper removed and spiced wines and other beverages peculiar to the season introduced, than Master Simon was called on for a good old Christmas song. He bethought himself for a moment, and then, with a sparkle of the eye and a voice that was by no means bad, excepting that it ran occasionally into a falsetto like the notes of a split reed, he quavered forth a quaint old ditty:

Now Christmas is come,
Let us beat up the drum,
And call all our neighbors together;
And when they appear,
Let us make them such cheer,
As will keep out the wind and the weather, &c.

The supper had disposed every one to gayety, and an old harper was summoned from the servants’ hall, where he had been strumming all the evening, and to all appearance comforting himself with some of the squire’s home-brewed. He was a kind of hanger-on, I was told, of the establishment, and, though ostensibly a resident of the village, was oftener to be found in the squire’s kitchen than his own home, the old gentleman being fond of the sound of “harp in hall.”

The dance, like most dances after supper, was a merry one: some of the older folks joined in it, and the squire himself figured down several couple with a partner with whom he affirmed he had danced at every Christmas for nearly half a century. . . .

[…]

The party now broke up for the night with the kind-hearted old custom of shaking hands. As I passed through the hall on my way to my chamber, the dying embers of the Yule-clog still sent forth a dusky glow, and had it not been the season when “no spirit dares stir abroad,” I should have been half tempted to steal from my room at midnight and peep whether the fairies might not be at their revels about the hearth.

My chamber was in the old part of the mansion, the ponderous furniture of which might have been fabricated in the days of the giants. The room was panelled, with cornices of heavy carved work, in which flowers and grotesque faces were strangely intermingled, and a row of black-looking portraits stared mournfully at me from the walls. The bed was of rich thought faded damask, with a lofty tester, and stood in a niche opposite a bow window. I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the Waits from some neighboring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement; partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened–they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow and I fell asleep.

Tomorrow: Irving’s “Christmas Dinner.” Meanwhile, here’s “Christmas Eve” in its entirety. Go read it. It’ll make your day.

Father Christmas and Secret Origins

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.

The Santa Dilemma

One of the most pressing moral dilemmas faced by parents is the Santa Claus Problem. You know how this works: as parents, we tell our children they should never lie, because lies make Baby Jesus cry and the world a rotten place. Yet, come Christmas time — the time of the year when lying should be last thing on our minds — we tell our kids an enormous fib — namely that a jolly, bearded man in a red suit — using some sort of mystical power that allows him not only to travel around the world in one night, but also gives him an ability to know whether our child is good and therefore deserving of swag — will come down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leave them presents.

This is a recent dilemma to be sure, born of what I guess one could call liberal guilt. Frankly, I don’t think any handwringing went into my own parents’ decision to fill my head with the Santa story. And to be honest, I never once wrestled with the problem, either. To me, it’s all part of the fun. I suppose if one were really struggling with the issue, it could be argued that parents are merely indulging in a time-honored tradition of passing folklore from one generation to the next, conveying a mythology so persuasively that children are convinced it’s real.

When you think about it, though, parents don’t really have to work that hard at it anyway. I mean, I never needed any help believing a drooling maniac waited in my closet every night after the lights went out, even though my parents did everything they could to convince me that wasn’t the case. If I could believe in something my parents were working like heck to convince me wasn’t real, it didn’t take much of a suggestion that something, or someone, did exist to make me embrace it entirely. I wanted to believe, and therefore I did.

Actually, I believed in Santa for a long time — probably longer than I should have — because my parents were just so darn good at it. They never did anything terribly elaborate, like stomp around on the roof on Christmas Eve, but they always did just enough to convince me that there was something going on that was beyond their control. One year, my dad found a ratty old gunny sack and left it next to our fireplace, with a note from Santa that our house had been the last one he had hit on the block, so he had left the empty bag behind. Nice touch.

Another time, my parents hired a young man to dress as Santa and visit our house a few days early — just dropping by to check on us, you know — and deliver a few presents. Both my brother and I bought it without question, though my parents had to do a bit of scrambling when my kid brother — who even at age five seemed to be able to play all the angles — demanded to see the reindeer.

But it was a masterful bit of misdirection — perpetrated when I was around seven years old, I would guess, when I was already becoming something of a Santa scoffer — that made me an absolute believer.

We were set to spend that particular Christmas with my grandparents in Kansas — two whole states away from our New Mexico home — and were scheduled to drive there three days before Christmas. My parents awoke my brother and me at about 6 a.m. and asked us to get in the car, which my dad already had idling in the driveway. As we staggered blearily through the living room where our Christmas tree stood, I carefully checked to make sure there were NO SANTA GIFTS sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. There weren’t.

This was the test, then: if there really was a Santa, he would show up while we were out of town and leave behind the Mego Batcave I so desperately wanted. But if my parents were Santa, as I suspected, then our absence from town — or so my logic went — clearly meant they would have no opportunity to place our gifts in front of the tree. I was as certain as a 7-year-old boy can be certain of anything that when we returned to Albuquerque a few days after New Year’s, there would be no Santa gifts waiting for us. My parents’ jig was up. Smugly, I settled into the back seat of the car. Several moments later, my parents came out of the house carrying the last of the suitcases. My dad locked the house, loaded the car, and we drove away.

Of course, what I didn’t know was that in the 90 seconds it took my brother and I to pass through the living room and get into the car, my parents had immediately pulled everything out of a front closet and quickly set it up in front of the Christmas tree. When we returned to New Mexico a week later (fighting our way through an ice storm that sealed my dad’s decision to never drive anywhere for the holidays ever again), my brother and I walked slowly from the car into the house, and peeked skeptically into the living room . . . and oh my gosh Santa had come while we were gone!

For the next few years, then — again, for probably longer than I should have — I was one of the Jolly Old Elf’s most ardent defenders, once nearly getting into fisticuffs with Dan Duddingston for daring to challenge the veracity of St. Nick. I think I finally accepted Santa’s status as pure folklore — and then only grudgingly — by the fifth grade.

As I said earlier, I’ve never had a problem perpetuating the Santa story — but my own daughter is far more clever and observant than I ever was, and, despite my best efforts, was a Santa Skeptic by age six. Oddly, though, she had a harder time letting go of the Easter Bunny. A magical rabbit who somehow delivers candy and chocolate eggs? No problem. A white-haired old man in a flying sleigh delivering toys? No way.

Fortunately for me, now that she’s a worldly 12-year-old, she’s willing to indulge in Santa just for the pure fun of it. And for some reason, that’s made him even more real to her — and to me — than he ever was before. Santa Dilemma solved.

We’re All Misfits!

There are a number of questions that remain among life’s most imponderable. What is the true nature of good and evil? Why does God allow suffering? And the most important question of all — at least as it relates to western culture — in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, what in the heck was wrong with the doll that it earned a place of shame on The Island of Misfit Toys?

For the benefit of those who’ve on another planet for the last forty years, one of the key conceits of the Rankin-Bass Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas TV special is that “defective” toys that no child loves all end up on the Island of Misfit Toys, presided over by the kindly King Nightracer. Among the island’s disgraced residents are a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a cowboy that rides an ostrich, a spotted elephant, a train with square wheels . . . and a doll that appears to have absolutely nothing at all wrong with it.

My brother and I always pondered exactly what the doll’s problem might be. She didn’t appear to have any undergarments on, but we let that particular quirk slide. Perhaps, we thought, it suffered from some invisible ailment, like Tourette Syndrome, that caused her to unleash a stream of profanities instead of a plain “mama.” But then, we heard her speak normally to the rest of the toys — so, so much for that one. Finally, we decided we knew what her problem was.

To this day, we still refer to her as “Diarrhea Dolly.”

A Misfit Toy indeed.

Christmas, Here’s Your Cue…

Sit down cross-legged on the floor of the living room and pull a TV tray over in front of you. In the days before video tapes, DVDs, and cable television made it possible to watch Christmas specials year round or multiple times, you had exactly one shot a year at catching Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without A Santa Claus, or A Charlie Brown Christmas. If you missed it, you were outta luck until the next December. If you were like me, then, you were on your butt in front of the television, a Swanson’s pot pie steaming in front of you, with five minutes to spare.

With that in mind, let’s kick off the Christmas season with an appropriate bit of fanfare. (And my fellow Gen Xers, prepare for flashbacks in 3…2…):

The Christmas Season is officially here!