The last few ‘windows’ of this literary advent calendar have been shedding light on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and Dickens’s role in helping to popularise the idea of the modern Christmas. But there is another writer who probably did more for Christmas than even Dickens did.
Although we often talk about Dickens (1812-70) as the one who helped to popularise and rejuvenate Christmas as a time of festivity, through his celebrated 1843 book A Christmas Carol, Dickens himself was highly influenced by American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859), the author of fairy tales such as ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip van Winkle’. Irving helped to inspire the modern American notion of Christmas, drawing on traditional English Christmas celebrations that had, at the time, fallen out of fashion on both sides of the Atlantic. Irving spent some time in England and appears to have learnt of various festive traditions during his stay.
But what’s also intriguing is that Irving came to England in 1815, when the young Dickens was just three years old. It has been suggested that the idea of the white Christmas was largely a result of Dickens’s Christmas stories, and that Dickens himself was inspired to connect snow with the Christmas season because, during his childhood, there was a flurry of white Christmases between 1812 and 1821 – the first nine years of Dickens’s life. If this is so, then perhaps the adult Irving, living in England during this snowy spell, may also have been inspired by the weather to create our very modern idea of Christmas.
Irving’s contribution to Christmas folklore began before he came to England, when he published the revised version of his A History of New York in 1812. This book features St Nicholas flying over the treetops, an early version of Santa Claus in his sleigh that would become more famous in the poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ eleven years later.
But in 1820 he would publish a short sketch called ‘Christmas‘, in which Irving’s narrator Geoffrey Crayon ponders the meaning of the festive season. Irving wrote five Christmas stories (just as Dickens would later write five Christmas Books), all of them published in January 1820, near the end of the long series of white Christmases in England. Irving had been staying at Aston Hall in Birmingham, where he had rediscovered numerous Christmas traditions.
Snow turns up in Irving’s vision of Christmas. In ‘Christmas’, for instance, Crayon remarks: ‘But in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources.’ In ‘Christmas Eve’, he tells us that the ‘lawn beyond was sheeted with a slight covering of snow, which here and there sparkled as the moonbeams caught a frosty crystal’.
Irving would go on to help establish the modern notion of Christmas in America, but he would also influence Dickens. We’ve written about Irving before: here are our nine favourite interesting facts about him.
Image: Painting of American author Washington Irving by Gilbert Stuart Newton, 1820, public domain.