“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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Berrying with Thoreau

Cigarette card celebrating cranberries; featured on the Austerity Kitchen by Christine Baumgarthuber
Images from the Fruits series (N12) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes Brands (1891)

 

Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor … Let us understand that the equitable rule is, that no one should take more than his share, let him be ever so rich.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Man the Reformer” (1841)

 

Of those writers who flung themselves against Mt. Monadnock’s steep, rugged slopes, arguably the most famous and widely read, Walden author Henry David Thoreau, came not to pen soaring verse, as his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson enjoyed doing, nor solely to thrill at the view. Over the course of his relatively short life, Thoreau scaled Monadnock four or five times. Each time he’d train to Cheshire County, New Hampshire from his native Concord, Massachusetts wearing hobnailed boots and carrying plum cake and salt beef, his preferred camp rations. He detailed these expeditions in his journals. From them we know that Thoreau certainly admired Monadnock’s views. Yet what excited him even more than the summit were the summit’s berries: blueberries and huckleberries, and even the rare mountain cranberry. On Monadnock the sun-kissed treats thronged in easy abundance. “Nature heaps the table with berries for six weeks or more,” Thoreau wrote, a profusion “wholesome, bountiful, and free.” As they presented “real ambrosia” for anyone with enough energy to reap, Thoreau found it absurd that so few people stirred to the task.

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Observing Christmas with a Mass Observer

Olga Lehmann, A Shelter in Camden Town Under a Brewery (1940; via)
 
I heard the planes go over
With shuttle and with roar
The moon looked down on Dover
And lit the winding shore.
It filled the night with beauty,
Our tired world’s release:
Old wardens at their duty
Invoked a prayer for peace.
–T. A. Agius, O.S.B., “Wartime Christmas,”
 

A sprig of mistletoe was all Pam Ashford wanted for Christmas, 1941. It surely would’ve livened up the office of the Glasgow coal-shipping firm for which the 38-year-old worked — an office she described at one point as “death heated up.” And it would’ve marked a welcome addition to the tin of shortbread biscuits and tiny cash bonus given to her by the firm’s honchos. At the very least, the bit of seasonal greenery would’ve leavened dull routine with a dash of the aleatory. Pam Ashford wanted it “just to see what would happen,” as she confided to a colleague. Later in private she walked back this wish. “But certainly I could never rise to that level of audacity,” she wrote in her diary.

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