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Today the Christmas material in Washington Irving’s The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20) encompasses a jovial and expansive midsection that is as spruce as the belly of Santa Claus. There are five chapters – “Christmas,” “The Stage-Coach,” “Christmas Eve,” “Christmas Day,” and “The Christmas Dinner” (all 1820) – and they fill over forty pages.

A modern reader who is rushing from “Rip Van Winkle” at the start of The Sketch-Book, to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at the end, might grow annoyed that the middle is taking such a generous Christmas break from the more famous content. Yet when one remembers how juvenile the short story was in 1820, the Christmas writing, with its series of themed and interconnected tales, and its unusually fluid shifting between fiction and social commentary, begins to look sharply innovative. Later, far more ambitious short story writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, would not evince such a sure hand, or such delicate fingers, when they tried to bend the format in this way.

You might be considerably surprised to hear that in John Murray’s 1820 edition of The Sketch-Book, the Christmas material was at the front. Murray was Britain’s most celebrated publisher – with Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott on his books – and his backing would give Irving a decisive push towards literary fame. With this, a puzzle is set for us. The Sketch-Book was the first work of American literature to be welcomed and encouraged by British reviewers, but Murray had picked up this project where it is furthest from the USA, in the idealised Englishness of its Christmas stories.

Although Christmas was mostly invented by the Victorians and Coca-Cola, these forces were known only to The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in 1820, as indeed was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol itself (which was published twenty-three years later). It is quite common today for Irving to be credited with shaping our modern understanding of Christmas or for rescuing the holiday from the piteous neglect into which it had fallen. For instance, Christmas Day was still a work day for the majority of people in Britain during 1820. Crayon’s introductory musings on Christmas are immediately associating the festival with yesteryear, nostalgia, and “the lingerings of the holiday customs and rural games of former times.”

This might cause us to fear that Christmas has been abandoned in Crayon’s native America. What exact status does the festival enjoy in his homeland? Do Americans manage to eke out their own versions of the desired “rural games”? Surely every reader will have at some point become irritated that these inevitable questions are left hanging in the air. It is almost as if once Crayon has fastened on to Christmas, America has fled his imagination.

Anticipating the activism of A Christmas Carol, Crayon proposes that the significance of Christmas lies in its confirmation of our humanity. In the winter, or so he argues, we come together around “the glow and warmth of the evening fire” to bask in what is essentially summer by another means. In being an Odysseyan wanderer, far from his native shore, Crayon is initially an exile from Christmas, for whom “no social hearth may blaze.” He soon discovers that this alienation will perish in Christmas’ heady fumes. He feels “the influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of those around me.” This leads him to contemplate the man who can “turn churlishly away” and he decides that such a person cannot be fully human.

Setting aside the blithe dehumanisation of millions of non-Christians, this might be the very moment of Ebenezer Scrooge‘s conception. But instead of recruiting a Scrooge, the dissident who rebels against Christmas’ totalitarianism, Irving grows more interested in the autocrat at the top of the Christmas tree. He gives this figure the name of Squire Bracebridge and the question for us becomes whether we are dealing with a benevolent character or a sinister one.

On a December tour of Yorkshire, Crayon is mentally preparing to spend Christmas alone, or at least alone with some servants at a random inn. Fortuitously, though, he will network his way back into Christmas. He bumps by chance into an acquaintance, Frank Bracebridge, who is travelling home for Christmas and who invites him back to his father’s manor to spend the holiday there. It transpires that in its observance of Christmas Bracebridge Hall represents the extremes of secular orthodoxy. If there existed a map of the world’s Christmas celebrations, then Bracebridge Hall would be found at its dead centre. From the desolate outskirts of Christmas, Crayon is quickly plunged into something akin to its capital city.

Where is Bracebridge Hall? Irving does not seem to have visited Yorkshire when he wrote his Christmas passages, but his biographer Stanley T. Williams argues that he had instead taken Aston Hall in Birmingham as his model. Although the name Bracebridge was connected wth Aston Hall, the Irving scholar Herbert F. Smith protests that there is “no evidence” that Irving had ever spent Christmas here. Smith can espy an affinity between Bracebridge and Sir Walter Scott’s home Abbotsford, which Irving had visited in 1817. It is generally likely that Irving had packaged together Bracebridge out of the texts that he had consulted in the reading room of the British Museum. Joseph Addison’s more widely available account of Sir Roger de Coverley’s Christmas was doubtless a prominent source too.

In truth, Bracebridge always looks as unreal, or as clearly separate from the real world, as Utopia. It is possible that Irving had sent Bracebridge up into the wilds of Yorkshire, “in rather a lonely part of the country,” because he had wanted his seat of Christmas to be in the middle of nowhere. The stories might commence with Crayon on the periphery of Christmas, but, as an unrooted, American, unaristocratic “Gent.,” he is increasingly a central feature of the modern world. He brings his peripheral mind-set with him and one that makes him a counterpart to Squire Bracebridge, who is correspondingly descending in social relevance.

Crayon is a spectral entity, a bachelor and a flâneur, who loiters everywhere and never settles down. He wants to get as near as he can to experiences without sharing in them. This is conveyed during a fragment of his stage-coach journey that comes to glow neatly before us like a little holy icon. Crayon has told us about some urchins who are riding home alongside him in the coach. Once they have disembarked, he explains that, “I leaned out of the coach window, in hopes of witnessing the happy meeting, but a grove of trees shut it from my sight.” Here, it is apparent that we are foremostly observing the narrator and his frustrations, rather than complying with his own illusion of himself as being just an unimportant medium for documenting external phenomena. And this narrator’s psychology will become the venue for a crisis, one in which we perceive and grapple with the combined power and vulnerability of the peripheral, American vantage-point.

We are never sure what welcome Crayon really receives at Bracebridge Hall. “I found myself as much at home as if I had been one of the family,” he announces with obvious fakeness. It could be that Squire Bracebridge is so distracted and inattentive amidst his Christmas preparations that he has mistaken Crayon for one of his numerous shabby relatives. Certainly Crayon’s presence excites peculiarly little interest, given that he is an American visitor to rural Yorkshire.

American tourists, or indeed all tourists, will invariably find themselves in the same shoes as Crayon. The tourist wants to be in the midst of the scene whilst being simultaneously able to turn around and leave at any moment. And the Crayon’s idealised, picturesque view over the English landscape is one and the same with his timeless nostalgia for Christmas. Nostalgics will be typically intoxicated with the child’s delight in Christmas without ever wishing to be a child again and to regress to their powerlessness. Similarly, Crayon’s aesthetic appreciation of the rural English Christmas is checked by his knowledge of how undesirable it would be to inhabit the society that has produced it.

However plaintively he mourns the loss of feudalism’s niceties, Crayon is never personally volunteering to live under this system. This is speedily capped with a good metaphor. Moments after describing his conspicuously aloof fondness for Christmas, Crayon dwells upon the lovely feeling of lying safe in bed and listening to the distant carol singers who are doubtless freezing outside in the snow.

With Squire Bracebridge, Crayon is always alert to the innate treachery of the benign despot. Frank remembers that his father “used to direct and superintend our games with the strictness that some parents do the studies of their children.” One imagines that any Scrooges amongst the servants would soon see the door. Revelry is “permitted” in the servants’ hall, by which it is meant that it is mandatory. It is also in Frank’s overwhelming interest that he finds the “pedantry” of his father to be “delightful.” If Squire Bracebridge is ever forced to choose between Christmas and any mutinous children, it is unclear which of them would have to go.

Bracebridge’s ultimate paranoia is that the seeds of an English French Revolution might lie dormant within the Scrooge mentality. That the antisocial pique of a Scrooge might morph into a broader ire at the whole social order. The Bracebridge ancestors had returned “at the Restoration” and the bulk of Bracebridge Hall is “in the French taste of Charles the Second’s time.” This home of traditional Christmas bears a distinct resemblance to Versailles. For all that Bracebridge admires authors who “wrote and thought… like true Englishmen,” his ideal England does not comprise the masses and their periodic popular revolts.

We are assured of the squire that “the worthy old cavalier had not forgotten the true Christmas virtue of charity.” His charity nonetheless entails controlling the poor and dictating what they can do in their family homes at Christmas. He complains that the poor “have become too knowing, and begin to read newspapers, listen to ale-house politicians, and talk of reform.” Christmas will soon put a stop to that! When he wishes to “set the merry old Christmas games going again,” such frolics tacitly include autocracy and feudalism.

Even so, it turns out that the squire is a little too inept to ever truly triumph. When previously attempting to minister to the poor and to brainwash them with Christmas, by keeping an open house (as Sir Roger de Coverley had once done), his manor was “overrun by all the vagrants of the country.” Now there is a vetting process in place. Faint stirrings of opposition are seen following a rustic dance, which is clearly a cynical attempt to freeload on the squire’s incontinent profligacy. As soon the old man’s back is turned, possibly and rather ominously during a toast to his health, Crayon spots some of the drinkers grimacing behind their tankards. After a few bad harvests, the “rustics” might be no longer hiding these faces.

Until then, the patriarch is vigilant in his policing of Christmas. Much of the hilarity at Bracebridge Hall is cast in a dubious light by the watchfulness of the squire. Every time that Crayon brays simple-mindedly about how much fun the guests are having, it is like a sly little nudge to remind us of the squire’s authoritarian character and behaviour. When one poor fool tries to sing a French song, the squire instantly corrects the mistake. Crayon is wise enough not to break into “Yankee Doodle.” If he did, then one wonders whether the squire would be more offended by the American English or by the reminder of liberty.

We should pause here over certain disruptive ironies in the squire’s position. He is a “bigoted devotee of the old school… and is deeply read in the writers, ancient and modern, who have treated on the subject.” This begs the question of whether Bracebridge senior is any nearer to the authentic wellsprings of tradition than Crayon is. The squire has to tutor himself about Christmas using the same reference books that Crayon has plucked all of his quotations from. Moreover, since Crayon is himself authoring an anthropological study of Christmas, Bracebridge could be feasibly one day learning about this English holiday from the writings of the American outsider who he is unwittingly entertaining.

Crayon comes to identify with Master Simon Bracebridge, a devious hanger-on who has ensured that he is always on the squire’s most favourable side. Both Crayon and Simon are a fund of “apt quotations from authors who certainly were not in the range of every-day reading.” And both presumably remain knowledgeably silent whenever they can see that the squire is in fact tweaking his supposedly stern observance of Christmas.

Contrary to the assiduous research of his parson, the squire is happy to make up history as it so suits him. The armour of one cherished crusader ancestor was really, it is reported, found in a lumber-room. The custom of ceremonially serving a pig’s head at Christmas dinner is carried over from the squire’s university experiences. Turkey, hardly a venerable English bird, is on the table at Christmas dinner, just as tea and toast are available to appease the squire’s disgruntled modern breakfasters. The squire makes his excuses as to why the peacock pie is actually packing pheasant. All of this demonstrates that traditions are negotiable and that the negotiations are permanently ongoing.

In these stories, the crisis never rises to the surface. Instead, the squire is gently undermined and alternative sources of leadership vaguely stir and everybody consequently scrapes through Christmas without any upset.

When Crayon surprises some infant carol singers outside his chamber door, this is evidence of a genuinely gleeful and unaffected Christmas spirit. Later in the story, as the alcohol flows, Christmas is becoming more relaxed and the children are taking over. We might suspect that Christmas is no country for old men. As everyone nostalgically listens to the parson telling ghost stories, they are suddenly interrupted by “many small voices and girlish laughter” bursting from the next room. The fancy-dress costumes of these children are the only component of the festival at Bracebridge that is not dictated by the squire. The Lord of Misrule, an anti-authoritarian totem, is ever more at large. Luckily for Squire Bracebridge and for the long-term prospects for his regime, he is reduced to “the simple relish of childish delight” by the resulting antics.

It is not immediately evident how Crayon’s descriptions of Christmas can be matched by the folk of the Kentucky backwoods. His Christmas is a product, formed through the prism of the Picturesque, and it will be sold to his fellow Americans as a labour-saving substitute for a faraway tourist experience. He is often ruefully aware that this product is tacky and plastic. There might be nonetheless some consolation for Americans, as well as something that modern readers will recognise and connect with, in the stillness of Bracebridge Hall on Christmas day. Crayon observes this from his chamber window and he is equally conscious of the uniquely frail beauty of a Christmas morning during his walk to church. Is Christmas in this tale most universally and authentically conveyed when it is muted?