Santa Claus, tinsel on trees, Frosty the Snowman, reindeer pulling a sleigh… These are a few of the current Christmas images we are familiar with in the US. What about yule logs, a boar’s head, community wassail bowls, a king of misrule, mince meat pies, and figgy pudding? Rarely are these traditions seen here in the US, and some aren’t too common in modern-day England, which is especially strange since that is where they originated. A cursory glance into the history of Christmas traditions and celebrations tells us there is nothing universal about any of them. Precisely tracking down a tradition as mainstream as a decorated Christmas tree leads to varying information from culture to culture.
As a writer wanting to present historical facts within my story, this is both frustrating and liberating. While I would have been out of line to have the Darcy children waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, or Elizabeth decorating Pemberley with poinsettias, the numerous gray areas gave me a bit of leeway in choosing the concepts I wrote into my novels.
There are dozens of terrific resources on the web. One of my favorites for old English Christmas customs is a book by William Francis Dawson titled Christmas: Its Origin and Associations. You can purchase a paperback or hardback version on Amazon HERE. Or you can read it for free on Google Books. There are terrific illustrations inside!
A second favorite, and the one I want to talk about today, is The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving.
Washington Irving was an American author and historian who lived from 1783 to 1859. I am sure the name is familiar, Irving’s best known stories being The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Both of these popular stories were written while Irving lived in England, and other parts of Europe, from 1815 to 1832. He traveled extensively, became the lifelong friend of Sir Walter Scott, wrote prolifically, and was highly successful. Many of his stories, all short essays, were based on the legends he heard and the life of the common people he dwelt with.
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. – commonly referred to simply as The Sketch Book – was published serially throughout 1819 and 1820. Irving used the pseudonym “Geoffrey Crayon” frequently during his career, the name apparently added for fun rather than secrecy since everyone knew Irving was the author. The collection of 34 essays present a fascinating, and very entertaining, vision of English customs and life during the Regency.
Amongst these essays are five devoted to Christmas. The “Old Christmas” tales, as they would later be published as in a separate collection, begin with Geoffrey reflecting upon the meaning of Christmas and how it is celebrated.
“Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervor and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings, than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony.”
The remaining four essays recount Geoffrey traveling in a coach filled with children excited about Christmas, leading to his eventual invitation to pass the holiday at their home, Bracebridge Hall in Yorkshire. In incredible detail, Irving describes the manor and surrounding park, the decor within, the assorted guests, the food, the games played, the dances, the songs sang and poetry recited, the church service, the music, the country mummers, the plays, and so much more. Beautifully written, Irving paints a vivid picture of Christmas joy that is a sheer delight to read.
Irving/Geoffrey sums up his “garrulity” to answer the hypothetical question of his “graver readers” asking what was the purpose of this talk, with this quote:
“…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.”
To that I say, AMEN! and agree with Mr. Irving, and Mr. Crayon, that Christmas is the season for lifting one’s spirits and bringing good-will to all men!
The entire text of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. can be read online at: Adelaide.edu (I prefer this copy) or by typing the title into Google Books.
If you wish to read only the “Old Christmas” essays, a fabulous illustrated edition from 1886 can be read online at: OpenLibrary.org It is worth looking at for the drawings alone. Additionally, there is a newly released publication (see image to right) available in paperback, eBook, hardcover, and audio on Amazon HERE.
The writings of Irving greatly influenced me when writing the Darcy Saga. The Darcys celebrated several Christmases over the course of my series, making it a challenge to keep the scenes fresh. Inspired tremendously by Washington Irving’s tales, as well as other historical writings, in 2010 I wrote an uplifting vision of Christmas through the years as celebrated by the ever-expanding Darcy family and friends. A Darcy Christmas is still available today, both in the original anthology with novellas by Amanda Grange and Carolyn Eberhart (print and eBook), and by itself in eBook format only. Below is a short snippet to whet your appetite. After reading the fabulous essays by Washington Irving and A Darcy Christmas, I am confident you will be filled with cheer … and maybe ready to try prepping a yule log or cooking wassail!
~ * ~ Excerpt from A Darcy Christmas ~ * ~
Michael Darcy, thirteen, mischievous, and curious, had slipped away to investigate the activity taking place on the far side of the room in a darkened corner.
Resting on a crude wooden table was a shallow, wide-mouthed bowl filled to the brim with brandy, almonds, and large raisins. The brandy was ignited, the eerie blue flames flickering and dancing over the surface of the amber liquid as the raisins glistened and swelled and the almonds sizzled. Brave lads approached the fiery bowl while the girls observed with tense excitement. Their faces illuminated dramatically as they rapidly reached into the bowl and snatched a burning raisin. Quickness was the key. One must grab the fruit and pop it into the mouth to instantly extinguish the flame. Fingers had to be licked clean as well or the brandy would continue to burn. But for a split second the strange blue fire engulfed the fingertips, highlighting eyes that were wide and sparkling devilishly, the boys’ faces demonic in the play of shadow and flame.
The awed onlookers cheered and clapped. After the first daring trio snatched their plump, hot raisins without major mishap, several others stepped forward. Their eyes glittered and waves of bluish light swept over their cheekbones as they searched for a gap in the flames. Someone in the growing crowd of spectators began a song that was rapidly taken up by all:
Here he comes with flaming bowl,
Don’t he mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don’t take too much,
Be not greedy in your clutch,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
With his blue and lapping tongue
Many of you will be stung,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
For he snaps at all that comes
Snatching at his feast of plums,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Michael did not hesitate for a second, stepping boldly up to the fiery bowl and unerringly plucking an almond from the middle. He watched the capering flames lick over his fingers for a span of heartbeats before extinguishing behind his lips, chewing the crispy nut with delight. Two girls inched toward the bowl and Michael wasn’t the least bit surprised to note that one was Noella. She glanced to her brother, her grin and dark eyes fey in the lambent light, and proceeded to shoot both hands into the flames, grabbing not one but two raisins from the bowl! She made sure he saw her catch, only then popping them into her mouth. The barest tightening at the corners of her eyes was the only indication that the hot fruit scorched her palate.
Michael threw back his head and laughed. Contending with his sister was second nature, and he would gladly suffer stinging burns to prove he was braver and tougher than she, but secretly he knew that the main reason he so enjoyed taunting Noella was because of her fearlessness.
The game was on! Snapdragon competition raged for a good while. Fresh batches of fruit and nuts were added as more people, young and old, entered into the contest. Alexander was content to retrieve an almond once, just enough to prevent ceaseless jibs of “coward” from his younger siblings, before moving on to more sedate entertainments. Lizzy flatly refused to allow Nathaniel to play, earning his deep displeasure for the remainder of the evening.
At an appointed hour, all activity and music stopped and everyone in the hall was called to order by Mr. Haversmith. His deep bass reached each ear, his speech of welcome and praise to God for Christ’s birth delivered in practiced oratorical tones until the end, whereupon he turned to Darcy with a devilish twinkle in his eye. “And now if those Cambridge alumni among us will pardon the boasting, we here on Haversmith lands yearly uphold a tradition this Oxford man holds dear to his heart.”
He paused, inclining his head humbly in Darcy’s direction. Darcy laughed out loud and lifted his tankard of ale as a salute. “Carry on, Mr. Haversmith. We Cambridge men can appreciate traditions, even those with dubious origins.”
“Thank you, Mr. Darcy. However, all who walk the hallowed halls of Queen’s College in Oxford know the legend to be true.” And abruptly his voice dipped into a dramatic timbre with a perfected storyteller fluency that would rival Dr. George Darcy at his best.
~ * ~
To discover the Oxford story Mr. Haversmith told, and so much more Christmas lore, click over to purchase my novella!