Thank the Creator of the Headless Horseman for Your Favorite American Christmas Traditions

There are certain people who figure prominently in the development of Christmas traditions. What would Christmas be like without Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Thomas Nast’s depiction of Santa, or Clement Moore’s immortal poem, “The Night Before Christmas”?

Washington Irving (1783-1859)

When listing those responsible for your Christmas looking the way it does, don’t overlook one prominent name: Washington Irving. Irving tends to be associated more with Halloween, as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hallow and his ghoulish creation, the Headless Horseman. He wrote so much about Christmas, however, that he is often credited with creating Christmas in America as we know it.

At the start of the 19th century, the only winter holiday of real significance in New York was New Year’s Eve. Americans were less-than-enthusiastic about celebrating Christmas, with various religious denominations differing in how should be observed. Most viewed Christmas as sacred, and many considered it blasphemous to observe it in any way other than through solemn fasting and prayer. That began to change in 1809, when Irving published A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Irving’s book parodied the traditions of New York’s Dutch settlers. Irving paid special attention to their patron saint, Nicholas, whom they called “Sanct Claus.” Irving tells how “the good Saint Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents for children.” He describes St. Nicholas as smoking a pipe, placing presents in stockings hung by the chimney, and riding in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. Irving also settled the issue of how Santa gets into homes with locked doors; he was the first to describe Santa descending down the chimney.

Irving’s popularization of Santa Claus was on the beginning of the Christmas revival in America. Beginning in 1819 and continuing through 1820, Irving published a series of 34 essays and short stories that would eventually be compiled and released as The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. included within this work were two of his best-known stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.

Also included were five essays about Christmas. These stories were so popular that they were later republished with illustrations as Old Christmas.

The first of the stories was simply titled “Christmas.” Irving reflects on the meaning of Christmas and includes tender descriptions of Advent services at church and how they lead to “full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will…” Foreshadowing today’s commercialization of Christmas, he bemoaned the “havoc made among the hearty old holiday customs” and expressed a desire to return to traditional “games and ceremonials.”

The second story, “The Stage Coach,” depicted a journey by stage coach on Christmas Eve, surrounded by children excited by the prospect of being reunited with family and pets. He tells of running into an old acquaintance, Frank Bracebridge, who invites him to join his family at Bracebridge Hall and to celebrate Christmas with them.

The third story, “Christmas Eve,” vividly describes the joy, laughter and frivolity of the family as they enjoy the day. He describes the holiday music, the decorative candles “wreathed with greens” and a dinner table loaded down with wheat cakes and minced-pies.

The fourth story, “Christmas Day,” begins with the narrator being awakened by a choir of small voices, singing at his chamber-door. He concluded that “everything conspired to produce kind and happy feelings in this stronghold of old-fashioned hospitality.” He describes Christmas Day as a mixture of family prayers, a hearty breakfast, a church service with a sermon on the rites and ceremonies of Christmas, followed by a time of dancing back at Bracebridge Hall. He said that throughout the whole day his “heart seemed over-flowing with generous and happy feelings.”

“Amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and stir of the affections, which prevail at this period, what bosom can remain insensible?”

Washington Irving

The fifth and final story, “The Christmas Dinner,” describes a banquet in the great hall, next to a crackling fire. The family prayed, told stories and sang and danced. Everyone was merry. It was in this final instalment that we learnt the true purpose of Irving’s story, as he concluded: “… 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 humour with his fellow beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.”

The Sketch Book was among first widely read works of American literature in Britain and Europe. Its impact reached beyond the literary world and shaped the way the English-speaking community viewed Christmas and its traditions.

“He did not ‘invent’ the holiday,” biographer Andrew Burstein notes, “but he did all he could to make minor customs into major customs—to make them enriching signs of family and social togetherness.”

Irving’s fascination with Christmas and Santa Claus was so great that in 1835, he helped found the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York (click on link to visit its website), serving as its secretary until 1841.

He expressed his own views about Christmas when he wrote, “He who can turn churlishly away from contemplating the felicity of his fellow beings, and can sit down darkling and repining in his loneliness when all around is joyful, may have his moments of strong excitement and selfish gratification, but he wants the genial and social sympathies which constitute the charm of a merry Christmas.”

He believed no one could be immune to the influence of the holiday. “Amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and stir of the affections, which prevail at this period,” he asked, “what bosom can remain insensible?”

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