“Where All Hearts Meet Together”: Washington Irving’s “Old Christmas”

Illustrations by Randolph Caldecott for Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (1886), via The Internet Archive
Illustrations by Randolph Caldecott for Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (1886)
   

A man might then behold
At Christmas, in each hall
Good fires to curb the cold,
And meat for great and small.
The neighbors were friendly bidden,
And all had welcome true,
The poor from the gates were not chidden,
When this old cap was new.

–From an old song

 

Of the many holiday tales out there, “Old Christmas” remains one of my favorites. Published in 1819 by the American writer Washington Irving, who, as the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” knew how to spin a captivating yarn, “Old Christmas” recounts the observations and experiences of one Geoffrey Crayon, an American gentleman abroad (and fictional stand-in for the author). His exploration of the British Isles carries Crayon to a Yorkshire inn.

There in the inn coziness reigns — a roaring fire, great tankards of ale, and rounds of cold beef to ease the hunger of any guest. Crayon has arrived on Christmas Eve, and the cheerful scene entices him to stay the night. He in fact determines to do just that. Yet, as it happens, he will not, thanks to an unexpected reunion.

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New York City’s Lunch Counter Dance Halls

Lunch among the tombstones would seem a melancholy repast. But not so for the well-dressed girls of Manhattan. In The Personality of American Cities (1913), Edward Hungerford writes that “part of the lunch hour is always a stroll – unless there be a downpour.” With “little packages” of food in tow, the gay ladies head for the churchyards, where they plop down amid the graves to gossip and eat lunch. “No one molests them,” Hungerford reports, “and the church authorities, although a little flustered when this first began, have seen that there is no harm in it.” They let the girls rest in peace.

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Bilberries: A Late-Autumn Treat

Variously monikered “the blood month” for the many animals slaughtered during it, the “wind month” for the icy gusts that swept the land, and “the month of blue devils and suicides” for reasons unstated, November was to those who lived before T.S. Eliot the cruelest page of the calendar. Occult influences of the sun’s moving into the house of the constellation Sagittarius were blamed for the merciless turn taken by the weather, which beset London with endless days of leaden skies, torrential rain, and stifling fog. So sharp, in fact, were November’s winds that farmers believed them to suspend “the vegetable powers of nature,” which would resume only with the arrival of spring.

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