Saturday, July 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 88: Washington Irving, The Christmas Dinner (#104)

Washington Irving, "The Christmas Dinner" (1819-20) from Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches:

Where I live, "Keep the Christ in Christmas" bumper stickers are more common than, I don't know, let's say Jews. People always have the capacity to surprise me, but I might also hazard a guess that "Keep the Christ in Christmas" bumper stickers also outnumber the people who know that Christmas trees got popular after Prince Albert brought the custom to England from Germany. (Where it probably derives at least partly from Norse rituals. Hence the relative unpopularity of "Keep the Thor in Thursday" bumper stickers.)

I raise this issue because Washington Irving's "The Christmas Dinner" is obsessed with traditions: what they usually are, how they actually get practiced, whether or not the young will keep it up when they're in charge. Here's now interested Irving is in the topic: it's 14 pages--with footnotes! He's not just making this stuff up, ladies and gentlemen--he really knows about the peacock pie.

Even though, on page 5, the narrator (the Geoffrey Crayon character) notes that he has an interest in "old and obsolete things" that might be tedious to the reader, he goes on at length; and even though there's no real story, no anecdote outstays its welcome. It is, in a way, similar to Zora Neale Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang": very little story, lots of observation. So that we learn that peacock pie is traditional, which gives rise to certain sayings--but the old Squire here didn't have the heart to kill a peacock since they had recently undergone some losses, etc.

Perhaps the reason why these 14 pages go by relatively painlessly is hidden there: there's a certain warmth and good cheer, which is both demonstrated (the elders cheer on the youngsters' games) and told at length (as we are told, frequently, that everything is cheery). Perhaps another reason why this story works is that the focus never wavers from the theme of old traditions and is layered in; so, for instance, when the children decide to put on an old-style masque, they raid the old stories (Robin Hood, etc.) and the old clothes.

Which, if you're inclined that way, gives the cheer here an aura of melancholy: these old traditions are sources of good cheer--and they are passing away from the world. And that's another way that Irving moves this story along and makes it palatable. Everyone is happy, but not in a way that annoys the reader. Instead of thinking, "oh, they have it good" (as one is inclined with, say, a Henry James piece), one thinks "How can I get some of that?" Considering that Irving is a crucial figure in the popularizing of Christmas as a holiday in America, I guess this piece had some of its intended effect.

No comments:

Post a Comment