Imagine Christmas without a jolly ol’ St. Nick dashing over rooftops, holiday candles and evergreen boughs, the exchange of presents and holiday greetings, stockings hung on the chimney, or carolers making merry at your door.These are just a few of our iconic holiday traditions that sprang from the vivid imagination and beloved fiction of Washington Irving, America’s first internationally recognized man of letters and one of Westchester’s most famous residents.
Irving was born in Manhattan in 1783, the youngest son in a large merchant family. He began writing as a teenager and was in his mid-20s when he won acclaim at home and abroad for his first book, the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York. The book, written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker, described and parodied many Dutch traditions, including their patron saint, Nicholas (whom they called Sancte Claus).
In his writings, Irving gave Nicholas a pipe and put him in a wagon in the night sky, on his way to tuck children’s Christmas gifts into stockings they had hung by the fire.
He wrote his next big hit, The Sketch Book, while living in England. Published in 1820, it includes his best-known stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” along with several Christmas tales that lit up the American imagination.
Irving wrote fondly of old-fashioned English Christmases, with their convivial community dinners, singing of carols and dancing, festive decorations, and blazing fires to keep the dreary cold away. The wassail bowl was “highly spiced and sweetened, with roasted apples bobbing about the surface” and “the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”
Irving describes a stagecoach crowded with gift-laden passengers who “seemed principally bound to the mansions of relations or friends to eat the Christmas dinner.” The coach “was loaded also with hampers of game, and baskets and boxes of delicacies; and hares hung dangling their long ears about the coachman’s box — presents from distant friends for the impending feast.”
Back in America, Irving’s lovely homage to the holiday resonated with the public and added to the relatively modest Dutch Christmas traditions he had described earlier.
“Of all the old festivals,” Irving wrote, “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.”
In the decades after the Revolutionary War, traditional Christmas celebrations had fallen out of favor, according to Andrew Burstein, author of The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving. It was not an officially recognized or a universally celebrated holiday in the US; New Year’s Day was the only winter holiday.
Many puritanical communities in Colonial America disapproved of the English festivities, even banning them. During the country’s early years, with the Revolution and the War of 1812 still fresh in their minds, some Americans avoided the various traditions, regarding them as suspiciously English. Some communities had also banned the Christmas celebrations because they involved excessive drinking and fighting.
Within a decade of the publication of Irving’s Sketch Book, however, “New Yorkers were greeting each other with Christmas wishes, and Broadway stores extended their hours to accommodate shoppers,” according to Burstein.
In 1835, after many years in Europe, Irving returned to New York. He bought a farmhouse on the banks of the Hudson River, on the border of Tarrytown and Irvington, transforming it into the distinctive and romantic home known as Sunnyside. Aside from a four-year stint as ambassador to Spain in the 1840s, he lived at Sunnyside, still one of the best-known historic homes in Westchester, until his death in 1859.
When gathering this year to celebrate Christmas, with all its many meanings and traditions, be sure to raise a glass to Washington Irving and his rich imagination.