Tag Archives: Washington Irving

Irving and Dickens: The Authors Who Saved Christmas


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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! 


Happy Birthday, Washington Irving!

April 3 marks the birthday of Washington Irving, American author, historian, and diplomat. Though best known for his short stories “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving was a prolific writer who also penned several historical fiction books and biographies.

Washington-IrvingChildhood and Education

Irving was born the same week that Britain’s ceasefire ended the American Revolution, and his joyful parents decided to name their new son after George Washington. Young Irving got to meet his namesake when Washington was inaugurated president in 1789, an event that Irving would later commemorate with a watercolor painting. Irving was an unenthusiastic student; by age fourteen, he was already skipping evening classes to attend the theater. Luckily for him, his older brothers were successful merchants who would later support his budding career as a writer.

Irving began submitting pieces to the New York Morning Chronicle in 1802, when he was nineteen years old. Published under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle, the articles focused on New York’s theater and social scenes. They were quite an impressive debut: Aaron Burr, then the magazine’s co-publisher, snipped several of the articles to send to his daughter Theodosia. And Charles Brockden Brown journeyed from Philadelphia to New York to convince Oldstyle to write for Brown’s literary magazine.

Shortly thereafter his brothers sent him to Europe–only to be disappointed that Irving skipped all the “high spots.” He concentrated instead on accumulating an impressive social circle. The charismatic young man soon earned a reputation for congeniality and was a much sought after dinner guest. Irving also forged a close friendship with Washington Allston, who almost convinced him to give up writing for a career as a painter.

Authorial Success

Irving returned to New York, where he founded “The Lads of Kilkenny,” a group of young literati from the city. In 1807, he founded the literary magazine Salmagundi with his brother William and fellow Lad James Kirke Paulding. Even though Irving again wrote under pseudonyms, the magazine helped spread his name outside of New York. And it was in the November 11, 1807 issue of Salmagundi that Irving referred to New York as “Gotham.” Anglo-Saxon for “Goat’s Town,” the nickname wasn’t intended to be flattering. But for some reason it stuck, and Gotham has been used to refer to New York ever since.

Two years later, Irving perpetrated what was one of the greatest literary hoaxes of his time. He placed a series of missing person advertisements in the local papers, asking for information about the whereabouts of historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving also fabricated a notice from a hotel proprietor, threatening to publish the manuscript that Knickerbocker left behind in the hotel room, if the historian failed to surface and pay his bill. The ploy was so effective that New York officials actually considered offering a reward for Knickerbocker’s safe return.

Irving published A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker on December 6, 1809. The book was an instant success. “It took with the public and gave me celebrity, as an original work was something remarkable uncommon in America,” Irving commented. Over time the name “Knickerbocker” became a name for New Yorkers in general; it has since been shortened to “Knicks,” for which the city’s basketball franchise is named.

Financial Struggles and International Copyright Battles

Despite Irving’s fame, he still struggled financially. For a time Irving was editor of Analectic Magazine, where he wrote biographies of naval war heroes. He was among the first to reprint Francis Scott Key’s “Defense of Fort McHenry,” now famous as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then the War of 1812 destroyed his family’s finances, and he went to England to keep the family trade business afloat. Irving would remain in Europe for the next seventeen years.

Irving declared bankruptcy and had trouble finding a job. In the meantime, he kept writing at a furious pace. In summer of 1817, he penned “Rip Van Winkle” during an overnight stay with his sister and her husband in Birmingham. By spring of 1819, Irving had sent a set of short stories to his brother Ebenezer. These would become the first installment of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It met with instant success, and Irving published seven more installments in New York. The stories were reprinted in two volumes in London.

Irving’s bi-continental reputation introduced a significant challenge: literary bootleggers, who would republish his works without permission, particularly in England. Like Charles Dickens, Irving spoke out about the need for international copyright law, but made little progress. Dickens and Irving corresponded on the topic, and Dickens would stay with Irving during his 1842 American tour. But they still grappled with international copyright issues on both sides of the pond. Irving’s stopgap solution: he hired London publisher John Murray to distribute his books in England and made sure to release all his works concurrently in both the US and Britain.

Travel to Spain

Thanks to an invitation from Alexander Hill Everett, the American Minister to Spain, Irving found himself in Spain in 1826. Many manuscripts regarding the Spanish conquests in America had recently gone public, and soon Irving was working on multiple books simultaneously. He wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828; his first work not published using a pseudonym); Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada (1829); and Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831). These books were historical fiction, rather than biography or history. Irving made one mistake; he helped to perpetuate the myth that scholars of the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. But he wasn’t alone; other authors who promoted this misconception were John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White.

Irving soon moved into the Alhambra, where he expected to finish several writing projects. Instead he was appointed to the American Legation in London. He returned to England to serve as an aide-de-campe to American Minister Louis McLane. Irving helped to negotiate a trade agreement between the US and the British West Indies. He resigned from the post in 1832, returning to the States to publish Tales of the Alhambra.

Western Exploration

That same year, Irving accompanied US Commissioners for Indian Affairs Henry Leavitt Ellsworth and Charles la Trobe, along with his friend Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtales to survey Indian Territory. The expedition inspired A Tour of the Prairies. Irving also met fur magnate John Jacob Astor during the trip, and Astor convinced Irving to write his biography. Astoria was published in February 1836. Meanwhile Irving encountered Benjamin Bonneville and, fascinated with his tales, convinced Bonneville to sell his maps and notes for $1,000. Irving used these as the basis for The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837).

Irving undertook these works, often called his Western series, for a few reasons. First, he was broke. Second, he’d been criticized for becoming a more European writer. Both James Fenimore Cooper and Philip Freneau thought he’d turned his back on America. Fortunately for Irving, the books were received well in the States, though predictably less so in Britain.

After a stint as the American Minister to Spain, Irving returned to his Tarrytown, NY property, called Sunnyside, in 1846. He worked on the “Author’s Revised Edition” of his works for publisher George Palmer Putnam. Irving also turned his attention to biographies, writing about Oliver Goldsmith, the Islamic prophet Muhammed, and George Washington. His biography of Washington was released in five volumes, and Irving died within months of its completion.