A Pictorial Regency-era Christmas

Irving by Jarvis (1809) “Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart. ”

It is ironic that an American author describes the sights and sounds of Regency Britain as well as any native diarist of the time. In a previous post, this blog examined Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) remarkable talent for charming the jaded ton. Today’s post takes a look at his first great success, the 1819-1820 serial Sketch Book.*

The chapters on Christmas are written in a visual way that is unusually striking. They have since been printed in a separate volume many times–

A coffee-table book of late-Georgian Yuletide.

Colorful, accessible to everyone’s understanding, Irving’s style might be considered unduly sentimental. Regency-era readers in particular, steeped as they were in the Romantic movement’s faraway, exotic locales, were bound to find a Yankee’s observations of everyday British life provincial and dull.

On the contrary,

“…(the Christmas sketches) are written to engage the finer feelings of the heart, they operate upon the imagination like the polished weapons of modern surgery; they make a deep, but a delicate wound.”

— The Atheneum, Vol I No. 10, February 1828

“Every ragamuffin that has a coat to his back thrusts his hands into the pockets, rolls in his gait, talks slang and is an embryo Coachey.”

The chapters begin with a journey to Squire’s estate via public coach. As an aside, I consider this snippet as good as any primary resource on Regency-era holiday travel.

There is the coachman “with a large bunch of Christmas greens stuck in the button-hole of his coat.” The English inn kitchen is detailed down to the last pot.

Young students returning home from school for the holiday are among the passengers in the coach. They seem perfectly ordinary to the naked eye. After Irving gets through with them, these schoolboys are impossible to forget. When the coach finally rolls to a stop before an ornate country estate gate, they eagerly look to see who has been sent up from the house to wait for them. It is Old John, the family footman. He has brought with him their childhood pony Bantam, an intrepid steed who will clear any hedge. The beloved dog that greets them “wriggles his whole body with joy.”

“..(the boys) held John’s hands, both talking at once, overpowering him with by questions about home, and with school anecdotes.”

Arriving at his own destination, Irving joins a large company of extended family and friends hosted by Squire at Christmas. No creature escapes his keen attention. Squire sings a stanza of an ancient carol, “his eye glistening, his voice rambling out of all the bounds of time and tune,” and the parson scolds the sexton for decorating the church with pagan mistletoe amongst the greens.

Squire’s cousin, Master Simon, acts as master of ceremony.

“..a tight, brisk little man, with the air of an arrant old bachelor…an eye of great quickness and vivacity, with a drollery and lurking waggery of expression that was irresistible.”


A disapproving Mama finds Master Simon’s efforts deplorable, as they encourage giggling that is only barely stifled and unbridled merriment among the younger set.

The Christmas Eve meal displays Squire’s singular character. He is a man who loves nothing more than researching the old customs so he can recreate them on important occasions. The sideboard is laden with generous amounts of rich, elaborate dishes, but  Squire forsakes them to eat the simple, traditional meal of frumenty —  ‘England’s oldest national dish.’

For his part, Irving was glad to see the familiar minced pie.

Christmas Day dinner is full of ceremony. The wassail bowl, the boar’s head and meat pie decorated with peacock feathers all warrant extensive explanatory footnotes at the end of the Christmas chapters. It seems Irving was compelled to prove to his astonished London audience that ‘the grave and learned manner of old custom’ was still being carried on in many parts of the country.

‘The tide of wine and wassail fast gaining,’ one might just recognize the outlines of the timeless Christmas party getting out of hand.

Of course there are games and dancing afterward the main meal. Squire’s sons, an army officer and an ‘Oxonian,’ step out with their maiden aunts. Most amusing is the boisterous schoolgirl trying Master Simon’s patience when he partners her in a stately rigadoon. There are masques and mummeries, enacted in costume fashioned from old clothes brought down from the attic, and an ancient hoodening rite whereby the young parade a hobby horse covered in cloth, demanding tribute from the adults.

Charles Dickens by Gillies — He, too had an ‘eagle eye,’ according to  Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Squire worries the Christmas spirit will disappear without the pastoral traditions to sustain it. He may not have been aware that his American guest was about to revive the Yuletide holiday’s former glow. Certainly he did not know that another great storyteller would follow Irving, one who would rekindle the Christmas spirit into a roaring blaze.

*Quotes (unless otherwise noted) are taken from Old Christmas by Washington Irving. This extract is from volume II of the original Sketch Book published in serial form in 1821. The clever illustrations by Randolph Caldecott appear in the 1886 printing.

An American in Lansdowne House

If Tom Moore was Anacreon, Washington Irving (1783 – 1859) was the “upstart American who dared to write English well.”

It is difficult to coax a Brutus from a receding hairline, but he has a lovely mouth.

Irving had initially sailed to England to bail out his family’s business in the aftermath of the War of 1812.  The conflict had been ruinous for American merchants and despite their son’s best efforts, the Irving clan’s cross-Atlantic enterprise was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Over his family’s protests, Irving remained in England to pursue a writing career.  His Sketch Book became a great success and soon Irving was fast friends with the Scottish bard, Sir Walter Scott, as well as the Irish one.  Sketch Book was really a series of installments first published in American and then in London.  The short stories it contained, like Rip Van Winkle and Legend of Sleepy Hollow, gained Irving admission into the highest circles of the ton and into the best houses of London, particularly Lansdowne.

Like many authors of new-found success, Irving was almost immediately a victim of literary piracy.  His publication in America was hastily copied and distributed in England without any compensation to him, there being no international copyright law at the time.  Eventually he acquired a more reputable (!) publisher and from then on his works were released concurrently on both sides of the Atlantic, to protect his copyright.

His presence in Lansdowne House was frequently noted.  There, Irving was:

“modest, shy and retiring…not the man to shine in large companies of perfect strangers.  Moore laughingly said of him that he was ‘not strong as a lion, but delightful as a domestic animal.’ “

Irving was also victim to that other scourge of authors–writer’s block.  He went to the Continent in search of new material, spending some time in Germany where he was well-received by the royal family.  There he made a frustrated attempt to woo a fellow American, Emily Foster, then living with her mother in Dresden.  Disappointed when she rejected him, he left for Spain to seek inspiration for new writings on the history of Christopher Columbus and that frontier of medieval conquest–Grenada.  He made popular the new genre of historical fiction, called romantic history at the time.

Eventually, after an absence of seventeen years, Irving returned to America to continue his writings.  This was briefly interrupted with a stint as U. S. Minister to Spain, a difficult position since he had to deal with warring factions vying for control over the twelve-year-old Queen Isabella II.

He died at Sunnyside, his beloved cottage in Tarrytown, NY.

Sunnyside Cottage--a long way from Lansdowne House, but just as charming.

It is no surprise that Lansdowne House should desire to have the First American Man of Letters, the first to earn his living by the pen in that new nation, to be one of its brightest luminaries.