Andrew Burstein: How Christmas Became Merry

Roundup: Talking About History

[Andrew Burstein, the author of "Jefferson's Secrets," is writing a biography of Washington Irving.]

IN 1809, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irving published "Knickerbocker's History of New York." In this book-length parody of colonial America, Irving took much glee in satirizing the early Dutch settlers of New York and their traditions, including their patron saint, Nicholas, whom they referred to as Sancte Claus. But in doing so, he also created a Christmas tradition.

Irving was born in 1783. He grew up on William Street, in today's financial district, as the youngest son in a large merchant family. Although three of his older brothers attended Columbia University, he himself never went to college. But by the time "Knickerbocker's History of New York" was published, Irving was in his mid-20's, and his fertile imagination had already distinguished him as a master of satire and sentiment.

Nowhere are the roots of Christmas more apparent than in Irving's tales of Oloffe the dreamer. Over several episodes in the life of the Dutch community, Irving focuses on Oloffe, a mixture of prophet and land speculator, who dreams one night that "the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." Irving's Nicholas smokes a pipe and places gifts in the stockings that children have hung by the chimney.

Sound familiar? Sure, but Irving's book came out some 14 years before a Troy, N.Y., newspaper published the unforgettable children's poem that begins "'Twas the night before Christmas," which turned Santa's wagon into a sleigh and added reindeer.

When "Knickerbocker's History of New York" was published, New Year's Day was New York's one and only holiday of the winter. In converting St. Nicholas into holiday fun, Irving had some help, apparently unsolicited, from John Pintard, a founder of the New-York Historical Society, who publicized an engraved picture of a rather dour St. Nicholas and sought to anoint the old bishop as the symbol of New York City.

Fast forward to England, 1820. Washington Irving had been living abroad since 1815, and it had taken him the better part of a decade to come up with another hit - this time it was "The Sketch Book," in which his enduringly popular stories "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" both appear. But there are also several Christmas tales sandwiched between the American classics, and it is here that Irving succeeded in propelling the celebration of Christmas beyond the relatively modest Dutch model. ...

On two levels, then, Washington Irving profoundly influenced the American Christmas. His melding of jolly St. Nick and an English commemoration of old into a wintry celebration of nostalgia attests to the rich cultural legacy bequeathed to us by this native New Yorker. Within a decade of the publication of Irving's "Sketch Book," New Yorkers were greeting each other with Christmas wishes, and stores on Broadway extended their hours to accommodate shoppers.

And so, on this Christmas Day, as you gather together with friends and family to celebrate holiday traditions, you might want to think of Washington Irving - the New Yorker who brought the festivities to life with his stories.

Read entire article at NYT

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