Washington Irving's Solitary Walk Through Christmas

"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." - Washington Irving

It's well known that New York native and storyteller Washington Irving made Christmas an important holiday in the United States, reworking Dutch folk tales of Saint Nicholas to invent the jolly, though obese, Santa Claus and publishing popular "sketches" of the time he spent Christmas in rural England with an aristocratic family.

A subtle and important aspect of Irving's writings about the holiday is how he approached a convivial family-oriented time of year as a homesick solitary man. The back story: The much loved and charming youngest child of a large New York merchant class family, Irving was pressed to study for the law though he loved literature and drawing. He and his brother Peter started writing the witty satirical history of New York, but he was left with finishing it when Peter was called away to England for the family business. During this time Washington fell in love with Matilda Hoffman, the 17-year-old daughter of a judge, and he put his literary career aside to join the judge's law practice to demonstrate his responsibility. Matilda soon took ill of consumption and died in April of 1809. Irving never married.

Irving left the United States in 1815 and remained overseas for the next seventeen years, with most of the time spent in England. There he wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, the book that includes his most well-known stories, including the Christmas sketches.

In describing his experiences with the traditional English Christmas celebration, he admits to fighting what we would call seasonal affect disorder and the temptation to feel bitter about being all alone. He writes, "He who can turn churlishly away from contemplating the felicity of his fellow beings, and sit down darkling and repining in his loneliness when all around is joyful, may have his moments of strong excitement and selfish gratification, but he wants the genial and social sympathies which constitute the charm of a merry Christmas." You can tell he's been there.

So, in describing how he feels, he advocates letting the merry holiday contagion to reach those dark places inside. The important story is not that Washington Irving popularized the ideal of the family Christmas, but that he figured out also, as a single person, how to cope with it. We tend to forget that part in school.

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