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.
Were you to visit Presque Isle — a small peninsula on the Erie, Pennsylvania lakefront — during any mid-nineteenth-century autumn, you’d likely see marshes thick with cranberry bushes. The largest marsh of all occupied the peninsula’s middle. September’s arrival would see the berries at their reddest, a development that summoned the folks of Erie County to their harvest.
The picked cranberries would go into jellies and preserves or into stalls at public markets. And in doing so they precipitated a tragedy of the commons: greedier sorts would steal a march on their unsuspecting fellows, leaving them to find the marshes of Presque Isle bare of fruit. The phenomenon became so acute that in 1841 the state legislature of Pennsylvania intervened. It deemed such deviousness to be “contrary to the peace and dignity of the commonwealth.” To this end, it forbade the picking of cranberries on Presque Isle from “the first of July” to “the first Tuesday of October.”
The mariners stranded in the icy wastes of Antarctica, where, as an 1850 edition of Household Words reports, “crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships”; the mariners icily bearded, enjoying no company besides animals and birds white as though “they too were born of the desolate snow and frost” – how did they observe the year-end holidays? With merriment and good cheer, as it turns out.
The 1841 South Pole expedition was the very picture of high spirits on the high seas. The crew celebrated Christmas in grand English style, unfriendly environs notwithstanding. Such animal life as existed there paid no heed to them. Seals basked sleepily on floating chunks of ice. The black curve of a whale’s back peeked through a fissure and disappeared again. Two ships, the “Terror” and the “Erebus,” occupied a small opening in ice pack seven hundred miles wide. Ice covered the decks; a dense, gray fog, the ships. Except for flocks of shrieking terns that sometimes passed by, all was still and silent.