The vitality of Christmas and Washington Irving

Updated: Dec 24, 2014, 13:49 PM IST

Akrita Reyar Christmas is one of the most colourful and cherished festivals of the world. Besides the religious significance associated with it - because of the birth of Jesus - the occasion grew in popularity over the centuries for a more practical reason. In the land of its birth and most significant spread – Israel and the West, the occasion proffered a welcome break from the drab and icy environs, and harsh attitude of nature for those fighting its merciless severity.

Warm hearths and hearts lit hope in the people crushed by the frigidity of circumstance and struggling against shortage of supplies and optimism. How dark and gloomy it would have been a few centuries ago, when man was not even acquainted with electricity. All snowed in, cold and endeavouring to survive, Christmas and the entire month of advent would have brought respite. Human soul hungers for brighter prospects and charitable caring; Christmas would have been just the answer for those beleaguered hordes. As well-known American author Washington Irving said: “The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other`s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment.”

Olden Xmas had rural sports, yule log bonfires, mulled wine and humble pies, but slowly the concept of Christmas took a different hue. Decorating trees came into fashion after Prince Albert and Queen Victoria took up the 16th century German tradition for the first time at the Windsor Castle in 1841. The first greeting card was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott in 1843. Moving but cheery singing of carols got entrenched as a ritual in 1880s, as carollers sang at churches and were invited to perform at gates of homes. The 4th Century St Nicholos – the adorable fat old man, riding the red-nosed reindeer sledge all the way from the North Pole, became a part of popular culture, especially in the US, following the huge fame of Thomas Nast cartoons in Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s. But one of the biggest influencers, at least in America, in shaping the ideal Christmas into a mega celebration was Washington Irving, who has been quoted above.

Born in 1783 in Manhattan, he was named by his parents Washington as a tribute to George Washington – Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States. During his early years and preliminary education, Irving was the child of unremarkable aptitude, but as he grew so did his fondness for story-telling. Sponsored by his elder brother, he undertook a journey to the Continent, observing the lives and habits of people. The experience became a turning point in his life.

He absorbed what he saw, smelt and heard - the lives of people in Europe and the traditions they observed, prime among them being Christmas. Irving imbibed all the hues of the festivities and began to write prolifically. Many of his works like Old Christmas and The Sketch Book (containing many Christmas stories besides Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) had imprints of his impressions gathered particularly in England and soon became a rage in America. Describing his journey to England in the Holiday Season, he said: “Stranger and sojourner as I am in the land,--though for me no social hearth may blaze, no hospitable roof throw open its doors, nor the warm grasp of friendship welcome me at the threshold,--yet I feel the influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of those around me. Surely happiness is reflective, like the light of heaven; and every countenance, bright with smiles, and glowing with innocent enjoyment, is a mirror transmitting to others the rays of a supreme and ever shining benevolence.”

Of what the festival began to mean to him, he wrote with extreme fondness: “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... ... ..Amidst the general call to happiness, the bustle of the spirits, and stir of the affections, which prevail at this period, what bosom can remain insensible? It is, indeed, the season of regenerated feeling--the season for kindling, not merely the fire of hospitality in the hall, but the genial flame of charity in the heart.” Much like Charles Dickens was a famous Christmas writer in England, he became famous for his Holiday Season penning among other well-known pieces.

Washington Irving has been attributed particularly for his depiction of Santa Claus – the way we perceive him in his red and white clothes, flowing and curly snowy beard and riding a sledge in the sky, carrying gifts made by elves in the Santa factory in the North Pole! So Irving’s depiction of Santa and how he is envisaged today is in many ways his contribution and has brought smiles to millions of faces around the world.

The great American author said about his Christmas writings: “If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humour with his fellow beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.”

He has not written in vain, indeed.

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