Closer Readings Commentary

Washington Irving: author of America’s Christmas

There is something in the very season of the year that gives a charm to the festivity of Christmas…In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle.—Washington Irving, Old Christmas

This week, as family and friends gather to celebrate the holidays with caroling, feasting, hanging stockings and such, it may come as a surprise to learn that we have Washington Irving's fertile imagination to thank for many of these customs, not the least of which is that jolly character who makes a nocturnal visits to fill our homes with gifts and goodies each Christmas.

Origins of America’s Santa

According to Irving, Dutch colonists brought the figure of St. Nicholas with them to America in the guise of Sinterklaas. Each December on the evening of his feast day, this beneficent folk figure would travel by white horse accompanied by his counterpart, Black Pete, to fill wooden shoes that had been left by the fireplace by hopeful children.

Washington Irving, writing under a pseudonym, published Knickerbocker's History of New York (1809), wove together fact and fiction to gently satirize the traditions of Dutch settlers, including their patron saint, Nicholas. In that work, Irving conjured up the prototype for our modern day jovial Santa who soars through the night sky on a gift-giving mission to deliver presents to good girls and boys. (“good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance...riding jollily among the tree tops or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches pockets and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites.”)

Knickerbocker’s History was later hailed as “the first notable work of imagination in the New World.” It appeared 14 years prior to the publication of that anonymous poem, which begins, “’Twas the night before Christmas.” “A Visit from St. Nicholas” found a wide audience and solidified the image of Irving’s beneficent pipe-smoking gift-giver who arrives each Christmas Eve bearing treats, but by this time he had evolved into a “lively and quick St. Nick” who drives a magical sleigh pulled by “eight tiny rein-deer.” Professor Clement C. Moore came forward to claim authorship of that poem in 1844; however, some evidence indicates that it may have been the work of Major Henry Livingston, Jr.

English-style Christmas customs

A decade later, Irving went on to publish a collection of stories, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, that would introduced America to two of his best known characters—Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Rip Van Winkle. Irving’s Sketchbook was well received by critics and the general public in both America and Britain. Its 1820 installment included several stories that would extend the celebration of Christmas beyond the modest Dutch model he had offered in his earlier History to prominence in America and retroactively back across the pond to England.

Irving had spent the ten years between these publications traveling throughout Europe recording his experiences. He was fascinated with England—succumbing to the charm of that nation’s old world character—and settled for a couple of years in Birmingham. While there he composed “Bracebridge Hall,” a blend of fact and fiction based on his experiences at Aston Hall, which centered on life within an old country manor house and the elaborate parties hosted there. At that point in time, certain holiday practices—bountiful holiday tables, caroling in the neighborhood, party games, hanging mistletoe and holly—were fading in popularity in England. Believing them too wonderful to die off, Irving incorporated these practices into his stories, which had found a wide readership in America and abroad.

Irving’s cultural legacy

The cultural legacy that Washington Irving wrought was evident within his own lifetime. His descriptions of the merriment witnessed among the English nobility would help shape the specters of Christmas that emerged within the imagination of another famous writer of Christmas tales—Charles Dickens. Many of festive scenes in A Christmas Carol, such as Mr. Fezziwig's ball, and the party at the home of Scrooge's nephew, trace their lineage back to Irving!

Within a decade of the publication of the Sketch Book, a domesticated Christmas holiday with its focus on family feasts, parties, and buying gifts for children was taking hold across America. In this way, Washington Irving informed the communal holiday celebration of nostalgia and good-will along with its gift-giving Santa Claus, and English country-house customs that America continues to hold dear.

Classroom activities 

Ideas for classroom activities with background on the origins of Christmas and other holiday customs can be found in The Gifts of Holiday Tradition: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas.

What They Left Behind: Early Multi-National Influences in the United States has elementary students explore European influences on the development of all aspects of America, including a song about “Sinter Klaas” from the Netherlands.

Younger students learning the history and culture of Christmas celebrations may want to visit the brief history of Christmas at America’s Story, a part of the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress America's Story from America's Library website.

Older students may uncover further distinctions between Santa and Saint Nicholas as they Discover the Truth About Santa Claus via the St Nicolas Center, which contains a detailed overview of the Knickerbocker Santa Claus discussed in this blog.

EDSITEment-reviewed Library of America tapped Irving’s "A Christmas Dinner" as their Story of the Week. After reading this holiday vignette, challenge secondary students to compare their own holiday celebrations with those penned two centuries ago!