“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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Dystopian Dining

"He saw a confused struggle down a passage." Art by H. Lanos for "When the Sleeper Wakes" by H. G. Wells (1899)
Illustrations by Henri Lanos for H.G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), via Wikimedia Commons
 

A nut was a nutrition-unit, creation of the Ministry of Synthetic Food.
–Anthony Burgess, The Wanting Seed (1962)

 

If you should ever plan a trip to utopia, you’ll want the pack your loosest clothes. The food there is fantastic — and there’s plenty of it. The land of Cockaigne, the subject of legend in Europe going back to the Middle Ages, greets visitors with streets paved with buttery pastries in place of cobblestones. In the New World, the fabled city of El Dorado, said to lie hidden in the jungles of Colombia, offers paradise for gourmands and treasure hunters alike. There fountains, if they don’t spray jets of rose water, issue great gouts of sugarcane liquor. Further north, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, which fueled the dreams of hobos throughout a depression-plagued United States, is home to lemonade springs and hens that lay hard-boiled eggs.

Travel to dystopia, on the other hand, and you’ll want to pack a lunch. There is local cuisine, of a kind. But it will make you question, whether, in a place in which life has reached its greatest potential for awfulness, the food of the place hasn’t, as well.

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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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