By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
I have long been familiar with the life and writings of American literary great and local celebrity, Washington Irving. Yet at times I am newly surprised at the range of influence that this genial and easygoing man had on his contemporaries. It was an influence born of his genius, cordiality, and personal appeal. In Irving’s day, his company and friendship were widely sought after, particularly in America, but also in England and continental Europe. It was Irving who first brought American letters to the world. So, it should come as no small surprise to find Irving’s influence in the spirit of our holiday celebrations.
But, how do we celebrate Christmas as a society? Are we disposed to resist the “unholy” call to commercial frenzy and espouse the spirit of peace, abundance, generosity, and mirth? How did the Christmas spirit begin to manifest itself in us this year? Did it begin with an emotionally uncomfortable Black Friday, or a sprig of evergreen in the lapel? Is there any sign of the spirit at all? I think most of us would prefer a holiday that is not the culmination of a Black Friday starting gun, we would prefer a Christmas day where we are not too depleted to savor and reflect upon the celebration’s finer associations and to join in some light-hearted reveling.
Washington Irving may have been the first author to prescribe, define, and celebrate the idea of “Christmas spirit.” He did not, of course, invent the practice of celebrating a merry Christmas, but he did offer up and popularize a personal and spiritual vision of what the holiday could mean to all. This was no small literary achievement. In order to do it Irving had to be an exceptionally good writer, for he addressed an audience, both in England and at home, unaware that America possessed any significant literary talent. His beautifully expressed vision ignited a wave of Yuletide consciousness and observance on both sides of the Atlantic, a wave that has continued to grow to this day. Chief among Irving’s disciples in carrying and amplifying the spirit of Christmas was England’s Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ own Christmas story was to become the literary centerpiece of Christmas spirit, apparently for all time.
Irving put forth a vision that was, for the most part, a non-religious one. The personal experience he evokes in his sketch, “Christmas”, is nonetheless spiritual. “Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the deep recesses of our bosoms… [Christmas seems] to throw open every door and unlock every heart.” He calls for a kind of hearty pre-Puritanical celebration “full of spirit and lustihood” as in ancient British observance. At the same time he laments the comparatively tame and worldly Christmases that have become the style of his own day, “more of dissipation, and less of enjoyment” lacking “homebred feelings [and] honest fireside delights.” (What indeed would he make of our own frenzied, retail Christmases?) Who can remain unmoved, he writes, “amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and stir of affections…” It is the time, he reflects, for rekindling “the genial flame of charity in the heart.” He adds, “I feel the influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of those around me. Surely happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven…” No previous writer had taken up this theme and expressed it with such clarity and emotion.
In some of his succeeding sketches, Irving describes and illustrates a number of practices that evoke and compliment this Christmas spirit. In 1819, the American author was writing his Sketch Book in London, and installments of it were being published serially in America. The work was to include, not only Irving’s Christmas sketches, but also his famous stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”, among many other pieces.
Charles Dickens was not yet eight years old when Irving wrote of the Christmas spirit in his Sketch Book, but Irving’s sentiments clearly influenced the British writer in years to come. The thoughts and feelings expressed by Irving were to serve as a wellspring for Dickens, who admired the older writer’s talent and sensibilities. In 1841, Dickens wrote to Irving in the following vein. “There is no living writer, and there are few among the dead, whose approbation I should feel so proud to earn. And with everything you have written upon my shelves, and in my thoughts, and in my heart of hearts, I may honestly and truly say so. If you could know how earnestly I write this, you would be glad to read it – as I hope you will be…”
A year later, in 1842, Dickens met and conversed with Irving in New York while on his first American tour. On that occasion he announced at a crowded dinner party, “I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without Washington Irving under my arm.” The following year, in 1843, Dickens wrote and published, A Christmas Carol.
A spirit of Christmas visits Scrooge
Though the Christmas works of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens are essentially related, they also have fundamental differences. For starters, the first is an essay; the other is a work of fiction. Irving seeks out the spirit of Christmas at a rural English manor, while Dickens chooses the urban commercial district of London. The Irving piece is written from a first-person perspective with the author describing his own thoughts and feelings as well as his impressions of what others are experiencing. Much of what he writes is personal and contemplative. By comparison, Dickens employs a third-person omniscient narrator who tells a dramatic tale in which the main character, Scrooge, resists the generous Yuletide example of those around him, isolating himself, and shunning the Christmas call to brotherly love. Scrooge is only “converted” after some cathartic visitations from three, consecutive, Christmas spirits who convince him with a moral accounting of his misdeeds, omissions, and spiritual bankruptcy. The call in Irving is to a psychological and spiritual availability to finer human impulses, while in Dickens’ story the issue is not only the successful spiritual realignment of Scrooge, but perhaps the very fate of mankind.
The works of both authors are calls to a kind of spiritual growth. Irving contrasts the bleakness of the dark, wintery season with the spiritual sparks and flames of brotherhood, generosity, and joys that are enkindled with the approach of the Christmas season. In Dickens we witness the same kind of opportunity for personal spiritual change with an added benefit – a possible remedy to the terrible hardships, human suffering, and injustices wrought during the early decades of the industrial revolution.
Today Irving’s Christmas pieces are occasionally stumbled upon by a handful of readers who have the curiosity to look beyond the author’s two famous short works of fiction in the Sketch Book. However, A Christmas Carol is today even more wildly popular than it was in the first weeks of its initial publication. It is still widely read and recited, and there have been innumerable plays, musicals, operas, ballets, television shows, radio shows, and films based on it. Washington Irving would have certainly approved, for in Dickens he had found a younger kindred spirit to inherit his heart-felt notion of Christmas spirit and present it to the world.
©2012-2016 Henry John Steiner