Christmas as it’s celebrated today – the trees, the feasting, the presents – was given a major push in the 19th century with the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1846. Two years later, Prince Albert brought Christmas trees into the Christmas celebration at Buckingham Palace, building on a practice brought from Germany by Queen Victoria’s mother.
That’s been our understanding, and yet someone else was ahead of Dickens. American writer Washington Irving, perhaps most famous for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” wrote a series of stories or sketches about the old English Christmas of days past – years before A Christmas Carol. And Irving had a great fondness for the story and the character of St. Nicholas. In 1835, he helped found the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York, and he promoted Christmas as a time for feasting and giving presents. In the United States, at least, Irving gets the nod as the individual who shaped the Christmas we know today.
Irving’s Old Christmas is a collection of five stories, all relating to the celebration of Christmas in Old England. In fact, they’re a series of related stories, about a journey during the Christmas season to a destination in York.
The first story, “Christmas,” is an extended description of the way Christmas was celebrated at one time in Old England. It hearkens back to feudal times, when a landowner (titled and otherwise) would have the servants and townspeople come together with the landowner’s family to celebrate. And it’s this story in which Irving inadvertently explains why he’s writing these stories. “The world has become more worldly,” he writes. “There is more d dissipation, and less of enjoyment. “Pleasure has expanded into a broader, but a shallower stream, and has forsaken many of those deep and quiet channels where it flowed sweetly through the calm bosom of domestic life.”
“The Stage-coach” describes the traveler’s journey to the north of England, with an ample description of the coachman and three schoolboys who are his traveling companions. He plans to stay at an inn in “Christmas Eve,” but meets up with an old traveling companion from years past who happens to be on his way to his family home nearby. “Christmas Day” is all about the great day itself, with “The Christmas Dinner” a separate story, filled with details about the food and drink of the great Christmas feast.
Old Christmas is a charming and sentimental look at how an “Old English” Christmas was celebrated.
And speaking of St. Nicholas, writer and illustrator Ned Bustard has published Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver, aimed at children between ages 4 and 8. The story explains who Nicholas was and how he came to be associated with gifts and presents. It’s a retelling of the story, as opposed to the myth, and it places the saint in his historical context (he was jailed for a time during the Diocletian persecution). He served and cared for the people of his town, and he was eventually appointed to be a bishop known for his gifts to the poor and needy. Bustard has a bit of fun with his story, mixing in a bit of “The Night Before Christmas.”
Bustard is an author, illustrator, graphic designer, and printmaker. He’s written, illustrated, or edited numerous books. He’s creative director for Square Halo Books, curator of the Square Halo Gallery, and a member of the board of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art and The Row House Inc. He lives with his family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver is a fun story to read or have young children read aloud, and the illustrations are delightful.