Old Christmas by Washington Irving (1875)
Tuesday’s Tale for Christmas, December 10, 2019
Well done, Mr. Irving! If you are looking for a mite of wisdom and the blessings from old-time Christmas to spark your holiday spirits, Washington Irving’s Old Christmas is a charming read that will warm you from your nightcap to your jingle toes.
Old Christmas is a series of short stories about a young man who travels to a companion’s family mansion, The Bracebridges. Our narrator describes the mansion as “thrown in deep shadow and partly lit up by the cold moonshine … heavy stone-shafted bow windows jutting out and overrun with ivy, from among the foliage of which the small diamond-shaped panes of glass glittered with the moonbeams. The grounds about the house were laid out in the old formal manner of artificial flower-beds, clipped shrubberies, raised terraces, and heavy stone balustrades, ornamented with urns, a leaden statue or two, and a jet of water.”
Can you see this setting? Of course you can. Irving was an American original in his prose style of lighthearted but dramatic, exemplifying the writing style of the Romantic era. He set the bar quite high for all short story writers.
[Frontispiece of Old Christmas]
We begin with an beautiful introduction of Christmas, and then in Yorkshire, we take The Stage Coach ride with our narrator. If you’ve ever wondered what it is like is to go bumping along in horse-laded coach, this ride is a witty jaunt through village and countryside.
The third story is Christmas Eve. Voluptuous fires in the hearth, friendly neighbors, snowy sky, plums and spice, sweets and cider. There is a harmony going on this Eve.
“The family meeting was warm and affectionate … old uncles and aunts, comfortably married dames, superannuated spinsters, blooming country cousins, half-fledged striplings, and bright-eyed boarding-school hoydens fully engrossed by a merry game; and a profusion of wooden horses, penny trumpets, and tattered dolls, about the floor, showed traces of a troop of little fairy beings, who, having frolicked through a happy day, had been carried off to slumber through a peaceful night.”
They feasted on wheat cakes and mince pies, danced to harp and violin and even recited poetry—”Night-Piece to Julia”—when not admiring the romance of the young women in long lace dresses.
Christmas Day opens with “When I awoke the next morning, it seemed as if all the events of the preceding evening had been a dream, and nothing but the identity of the ancient chamber convinced me of their reality. While I lay musing on my pillow, I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted forth an old Christmas carol.”
At Christmas Dinner “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.”
And at Christmas day’s finish our narrator discovers what is likely the true benevolence of this celebration: “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 and glooms of winter, and old age throwing off his apathy, and catching once more the freshness of youthful enjoyment.”
In our modern fashionable Christmases, we desire to break out from the chilly glooms of winter. We need to throw off the apathy of old age. We long to awaken, to catch at least one day fresh with youth to become wild-eyed and warm to our family and friends. In these stories Irving captures not only the beauty and community of olde Christmas cheer, but also the Christmas Grace of sharing human love, kindness, and generosity.
Wishing you all the sacred joys of Christmas!
Read all five short stories here at Gutenberg.org:
Famed 19th century American author, Washington Irving is known for his biographical works (most famous the five-volume Life of George Washington), stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Considered to be the first true American writer, Irving fought for stronger laws to protect writers from copyright infringement.
This book would make a lovely Christmas gift! Find it on Amazon. This edition has some of the sketches you see here on this blog. https://www.amazon.com/OLD-CHRISTMAS-Washington-Illustrated-Stage-Coach/dp/170749696X
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PEACE TO ALL AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT.