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Irving and Dickens: The Authors Who Saved Christmas

Dickens-Irving

When Clement Clarke Moore published “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” anonymously on December 23, 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, he couldn’t have known that it would become an international phenomenon. But the poem not only gave names to Santa’s eight reindeer. The illustrations of the poem’s reprints significantly impacted our perception of Santa Claus. Caricaturist Thomas Nast would later illustrate jolly old Saint Nick, cementing our concept of him as a jolly. bearded man. And Coca-Cola would eventually be the first to bring us Santa in a red coat. We can thank Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, however, for resurrecting Christmas as a holiday for joyful family celebration.

A Brief History of Christmas

Before Christianity took hold, pagan rituals were routinely honored on the winter solstice. On this day, people would celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. Early church officials, eager to supplant these rites with their own, wisely chose to make Christmas celebrations correspond to these pagan rituals. The strategy had one caveat: the Church couldn’t dictate how people would celebrate Christmas. Thus, Christmas had mostly replaced pagan holidays by the Middle Ages, but holiday observances were usually far from pious. Believers might go to church, but afterward citizens would gather for rowdy festivals similar to Mardi Gras. Each year a student or beggar would be named “Lord of Misrule,” and festival attendants would play the role of his subjects. Meanwhile the poor would go to the homes of the rich to demand food and drink. Non-compliant homeowners risked mischief.

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Oliver Cromwell was the original Grinch, canceling Christmas when he took over England in 1645.

But Oliver Cromwell proved to be the original Grinch. A staunch Puritan, Cromwell believed that Christmas was a decadent and unchristian holiday. When he took over in 1645, he vowed to rid England of such indulgences and cancelled Christmas. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne by popular demand and reinstated the holiday. But the holiday wouldn’t immediately take hold. By Dickens’ time, the Industrial Revolution had all but destroyed the holiday in Great Britain–for most people, Christmas was still a work day.

Meanwhile the Puritans had left England to settle in the New World. For the most part, Christmas went uncelebrated in the colonies. In Boston the observation of Christmas even bore a five-shilling fine from 1659 to 1681. (Jamestown was a notable exception: Captain John Smith–the first person ever to consume eggnog–reported in 1607 that the settlement happily enjoyed the holiday.) The American Revolution proved a death knell for traditions of British origin, so Christmas again fell out of favor. It would not be declared a national holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870.

Washington Irving, the Real Father Christmas?

When Washington Irving published Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809) under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, New Year’s Eve was New York’s only real winter holiday. The book parodied American life, and Irving satirized the traditions of New York’s Dutch settlers. He poked fun at their patron saint, Nicholas, whom they called “Sanct Claus.” In Irving’s account of Oloffe the dreamer, Oloffe, a prophet and land speculator, dreams of a night where “the good Saint Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents for children.” Irving’s St. Nicholas not only delivers presents to children in a sleigh; he also smokes a pipe and places the presents in stockings hung by the chimney.

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John Pintard’s St. Nicholas isn’t quite the jolly figure we imagine today!

Irving had some unsolicited assistance in St. Nick’s makeover. New York Historical Society founder John Pintard publicized an engraved picture of St. Nicholas–admittedly looking less than merry–as a symbol of New York City. But Americans remained ambivalent about the holiday. Members of different religious denominations had different concepts of what the holiday should be; some saw Christmas as sacred, while others still believed it blasphemous. Observation was spotty at best, though enterprising Boston merchants advertised ritual Christmas gift exchange as early as 1808.

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A stray leaf from the correspondence of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens

Irving moved abroad in 1815, and it was not until several years later that he would write another bestseller. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon was published in several installments from 1819 to 1820. Sandwiched in between American classics like “Rip Van Winkle” (first installment) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (sixth installment), Irving published five Christmas stories in The Sketch Book’s fifth installment on January 20, 1820. He’d spent time at Astor Hall, recently leased from Adam Bracebridge by James Watt and passed the Christmas holiday with the Watt family. Irving was charmed by their Christmas traditions, reinventing Watt as the benevolent “Squire Bracebridge” in “Bracebridge Hall.” In “Christmas,” Irving writes, “But in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm and wrapped in her shroud of shielded snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources.” He would later explain the tradition of hanging mistletoe to American readers with a footnote in “Christmas Eve.” Irving believed that America could use a dose of English Christmas tradition, particularly the part where the poor are welcomed into the homes of the wealthy for a meal.

Historians mostly agree that Irving idealized the English country Christmas in The Sketch Book, but the veracity of his accounts wasn’t important to Americans. They embraced Irving’s stories. Then in 1828, the New York City Council had to create its first police force in response to a Christmas riot. The upper class decided it was time to reinvent the holiday, and Irving’s accounts fit the bill. By 1835, New Yorkers had all but abandoned Christmas revelry in favor of more idyllic celebrations at home. Christmas was revived in America.

Charles Dickens Follows Irving’s Footsteps

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Report of the Dinner Given to Charles Dickens in Boston (Feb 1, 1842)

Charles Dickens visited the United States in 1842, and Washington Irving hosted a dinner in his honor on February 1 of that year. Numerous luminaries attended, and the event made headlines. When Dickens addressed the audience and thanked his host, he admitted his own devotion to Irving: “I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.” In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens evokes Irving’s Squire Bracebridge in the character of Mr. Wardle, who merrily reminds his guests that it’s customary to while away the hours of Christmas Eve with games and ghost stories. Dickens again adapts Irving’s presentation of Christmas in A Christmas Carol, placing them in Mr. Fezziwig’s hall and in the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Thus he takes Christmas out of the country manor and brings it to working class London. Dickens’ Christmas is also centered on family and children, rather than church or community, another paradigm shift that Victorians readily embraced.

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Dickens brought suit against five defendants for selling a piratical edition of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Only one fought the charges, and the account makes for interesting reading!

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in only six weeks during the autumn of 1843. It was published on December 19, and all 6,000 copies sold out that day. Dickens had chosen to illustrate the book with colored plates, but the expense associated with that method cut into his profits. It would be the first and only book he published with such plates. The illustrations, however, helped to bring Dickens’ Christmas to life and have since inspired a number of talented illustrators–not to mention printers and book binders who have also been taken with the work. A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print, and so many editions exist that the book is the perfect subject for a single-title collection. Dickens would write other Christmas tales, but none of these would have such an influence on the way the holiday was celebrated. Dickens’ exhausting schedule of reading tours–the first of which was for A Christmas Carol– doubtless helped promulgate his vision of Christmas, as well.

Washington Irving and Charles Dickens helped to pave the way for a rich tradition of Christmas literature, ranging from community cookbooks to children’s books. But these contributions are merely one facet of the authors’ incredible legacies.

Related Posts:

Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas? 
Charles Dickens Does Boston
Charles Dickens’ Debt to Henry Fielding
Happy Birthday, Washington Irving! 

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Meet Art Conservator Extraordinaire, Karen Zukor!

Karen-Zukor

Karen Zukor, Senior Conservator at Zukor Art Conservation. Photo courtesy of SF Gate.

This week we welcome special guest Karen Zukor to our blog! Zukor is the senior conservator at Zukor Art Conservation. She’s been a professional paper conservator for more than thirty years and is a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. She’s been responsible for many collections, both public and private, trains both pre- and post-program interns, and offers lectures and workshops to the public. This week she was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss her career path, how conservation has evolved, and how rare book collectors can preserve and protect their collections.

Tav Books: You’ve been in conservation for over thirty years. How did you decide on this career?
Zukor:Initially I was teaching Art History on the East coast, but when I moved out to California in 1974 with my husband, I couldn’t find a teaching position. My interest in art & history also included a curiosity about materials and techniques, so conservation seemed like a good fit. However, I didn’t know really what it entailed or whether I’d have aptitude for it. So I apprenticed with two different conservators and took many courses in related fields. When those apprenticeships were over, I continued to work in the studio with the conservator who initially trained me; that was great because I always had a more senior person there to help me over rough spots. I opened my business four years after those apprenticeships began and worked out of his studio. Eventually, about two or three years later, I moved out on my own.

Tav Books: How have conservation techniques changed since you began your career?
Zukor: I would say that chemical research, particularly in paper conservation, has advanced quite a bit. We’ve gotten a lot more information about the processes that were in place for many decades and also potential treatments in the future. In some ways it’s been a subtractive rather than a cumulative process; long-term research has shown that many conservation techniques are simply not as successful as we’d like them to be–and in some ways can be detrimental. We know more, but we do less. The attitude has changed quite a bit.

Conservators these days are more conservative and practice more restraint. In this field, you’re always implementing some kind of intervention, no matter how subtle. But in the last 25 years, I’ve seen more conservators choose the most minimal treatment and opt for housing an object properly, to slow down the deterioration, rather than to reverse its damage. I think this is my approach, but we also do more full treatments. We have a great deal of experience, though! Right now about seventy percent of our projects are art on paper. The rest is archival material, manuscripts, maps, documents, and books.

Tav Books: Explain the differences among preservation, conservation, and restoration.
Zukor: Restoration usually involves removing as much of the damage as possible, returning the object to a condition that most closely resembles the way it looked when it was originally manufactured. When you conserve an item, you try to remove damage–ravages of time, stains and soil…but you acknowledge that the piece can really not be returned to its original appearance. The focus is instead on trying to stabilize the object both physically and chemically, while acknowledging that the object will continue to deteriorate. There’s less emphasis on cosmetic appearance.

Preservation is about finding the best long-term care and storage for an object, so that deterioration is minimal or at least slowed down as much as possible. When we preserve something, we often ask, “What kind of enclosure or package will give the most protection?” For a book, that would be a box–it keeps out light, dust, and should made out of good quality archival material.

The only times we do restoration is when we fill losses with paper that’s as close as possible to the original. If it’s not a terribly valuable object, we’ll draw in the missing image or tone the paper. For preservation we sometimes do enclosures, especially boxes, for clients so that we know the piece will be properly housed for long-term storage.

One of Zukor’s more unusual commissions: to open a time capsule from 1896! Check out what she finds inside. 

Tav Books: What are the most common issues you address?
Zukor: We work on a lot of prints, drawings, and watercolors, and the most common problem is that they come in having been mounted to a board of poor quality. So they were either at some point glued down to a rigid support (because people always seem to think the piece looks better flat). Unless those supports are really good quality, they’ll transfer their properties to whatever’s attached–if you mount something onto an acidic board, that acidity will migrate to the piece. And you also change the nature of the piece; that print attached to a board is no longer a print; it’s a board with an image on it.

A second mistake we address on a regular basis is the use of pressure sensitive tapes. These are usually either used to make repairs or to attach a work of art to a mat. Paper conservation is relatively new. It’s only about sixty years old. And people only started studying paper chemistry and the factors that caused paper to deteriorate in the 1930′s and 1940′s. Research about pressure sensitive tapes is even more recent than that. And formulas for manufacture change periodically–masking tape from 50 years ago is a completely different product, so it will age differently than masking tape manufactured today.

Tav Books: What’s the most challenging or interesting project you’ve tackled?
Zukor: Oh, there are too many to single out! But probably the most challenging was a project in India with a very large, extremely damaged book, all hand written and illustrated in water-sensitive colors. The volume was close to 1,000 pages. It took three people six months, spread out over five years, to do the text. It was very difficult because we were working in an extremely remote location, so we had to bring everything we needed with us, which also led to some instances of interesting improvisation!

Tav Books: Any favorite materials to work with?
Zukor: The first thing that comes to mind is really Japanese papers. We do all of our repair, mending, and backing with very good quality Japanese papers because they’re thin, strong, and flexible. They are wonderful to work with! They’re much better quality than what we could get in the West. It’s pretty much all paper conservators work with. Most of them are handmade, and not dyed. They’re made of different kinds of fibers than they have here in the West. Japan makes the best paper without a doubt, and it’s certainly an arduous process. The conservation community has been partly responsible for keeping Japanese paper manufacture a viable craft.

Tav Books: Tell us a little bit about the kinds of works on paper that are most durable. What about the ones that are most delicate or fragile?
Zukor: Older papers are made from better quality fiber, such as cotton or linen. They also don’t contain a lot of additives or bleaches that would contribute to their deterioration. Later papers had sizings, bleaches, brighteners…all kinds of components that made paper less durable than the earlier ones. The absolute worst quality is newsprint, which is ground wood pulp.

Tav Books: To what extent does the material impact the way it should be stored and preserved? Zukor: The poorer quality the paper, the more likely it is to become brittle and darkened with exposure in just ordinary conditions. Pages made from low-quality paper need more protection from light, heat, humidity, and one another. They often need interleaving material. This can present a problem with antiquarian books, because you can’t interleave the entire book. That would put too much stress on the binding. But owners can definitely put acid-free tissue over the illustrations.

Tav Books: What’s the biggest mistake that private collectors make in caring for/storing their collections?
Zukor: Neglect. Not paying enough attention, not investing in the right materials, and ignoring the need to provide protection with the right kind of materials. Not only to slow aging in the individual item, but to protect different items from influencing and damaging one another. Collectors also tend to handle their items with less than very clean hands. I’m a hand washer because I think that white gloves, no matter how well fitted, give you a less secure grip on the item. There are some instances where gloves are imperative, but most of the time we recommend that people just wash really thoroughly.

The other thing I would emphasize is that collectors should not try to do their own repairs. If they don’t want to take something to a conservator, the best course of action is to leave the piece alone. Don’t attempt to do any repairs or add any material that you think will work! We spend a lot of time undoing work done by people with good intentions.

Karen Zukor and her team specialize in the repair and preservation of art and artifacts on paper, from prints and drawings, to documents, maps, manuscripts, and rare books. Their field of expertise covers a broad spectrum, from small repairs to the treatment of severely damaged and deteriorated objects. Zukor Art Conservation is equipped to handle large-scale works on paper, and can host on-site workshops for up to twenty people. Their lab is designed to provide conservation treatment for both single artifacts and larger collections. Whether of artistic, historic, or personal significance, every item is viewed in context, with consideration for how it will be used.  

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