But is old, old Christmas gone? Nothing but the hair of his good, gray old head and beard left? Well, I will have that, seeing that I cannot have more of him.—“Hue and Cry After Christmas” in Old Christmas by Washington Irving
Christmas and Santa Claus is a relatively modern invention in America. While one may think that Christmas has always been celebrated in this country, and there has always been a Santa Claus, this is not so. Santa Claus and the way we celebrate Christmas was imported from British tradition by an American author; namely, in the work of Washington Irving. Irving’s description of Santa included in Irving’s History of New York (1809), and his description of Christmas traditions in England in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (published serially between 1819 and 1820), have greatly influenced the way we apprehend the holiday;before Irving’s work came out, Christmas was not generally celebrated in the new United States of America.
Nathaniel Philbrick, in his bestselling work Mayflower chronicles what happened in the Plymouth colony when those who were not Separatists (Pilgrims), known as Strangers, were allowed to have a day off for Christmas, which the Separatists did not celebrate:
The differences between the newcomers and Leideners quickly came to a head on December 25. For the Pilgrims, Christmas was a day just like any other; for most of the Strangers from the Fortune, on the other hand, it was a religious holiday, and they informed Bradford that it was “against their consciences” to work on Christmas. Bradford begrudgingly gave them the day off and led the rest of the men out for the usual day’s work. But when they returned at noon, they found the once placid streets of Plymouth in a state of joyous bedlam. The Strangers were out playing games, including stool ball, a cricketlike game popular in the west of England. This was typical of how most Englishmen spent Christmas, but this was not the way the members of a pious Puritan community were to conduct themselves. Bradford proceeded to confiscate the gamers’ balls and bats. It was not fair, he insisted, that some played while others worked. If they wanted to spend Christmas praying quietly at home, that was fine by him; “but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.” …It was now clear that no matter how it was done in England, Plymouth played by its own, God-ordained rules, and everyone—Separatist or Anglican, was expected to conform. It seems never to have occurred to the Pilgrims that this was just the kind of intolerant attitude that had forced them to leave England. For them, it was not a question of liberty and freedom—those concepts, so near and dear to their descendants in the following century, were completely alien to their worldview—but rather a question of right and wrong. (128-129)
From 1659 to 1681, Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and anyone celebrating it was fined five shillings. The records of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for the year 1659 reads as follows:
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
The ban was revoked by English-appointed governor Sir Edmund Andros in 1681, but even then most people didn’t keep it. This explains the longing in Geoffrey Crayon’s voice when he speaks of “children who have launched forth in life and wandered widely asunder” (5) in the story “Old Christmas,” (perhaps thinking of the early English colonists), where he “recounts” what celebrating Christmas was like in England—or at least, the way Irving himself wanted Christmas to be kept:
Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervour and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony.
“It is a beautiful arrangement, also derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose; of calling back the children of a family who have launched forth in life, and wandered widely asunder, once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of the affections, there to grow young and loving again among the endearing mementoes of childhood” (“Old Christmas,” 3-5).
In “Old Christmas,” there are carols sung, (10), holly hung (Ibid.,) and evergreens hung and presents exchanged (13), and Irving’s merrymaking is tinged with a sense of the sacred as he connects caroling to “celestial choirs announcing peace and goodwill towards men” (14). Rather than Santa, there is a Lord of Misrule (142) who organizes a masque and other games for the guests. Yet Santa Claus does exist for Irving. Earlier, in his A History of New York, (1812 revision) Irving, through the character of Diedrich Knickerbocker describes Santa Claus driving a wagon with horses over houses (http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/xmas). This initial creation of the American Santa Claus would have its co-creators later on in the illustrations of Thomas Nast, and Clement Clarke Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
By portraying himself through Geoffrey Crayon as the “outsider” in England who has no family and friends to celebrate with, he manages to indirectly speak of an America that does not celebrate Christmas, that does not have that same sense of warmth and jollity immersed in sacredness. This is the Christmas that the United States would come to embrace in 1870, when it was officially made a national holiday.
History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. “America and the Creation of Santa Claus.” (http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/xmas/pages/santa.htm). Date accessed: December 23, 2011.
Irving Washington. “Old Christmas.” MacMillan and Co.: London, 1886. E-text version: (http://www.archive.org/stream/oldchristmas00irviarch#page/n9/mode/2 up
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. New York: Viking, 2006.