Christmas pudding no doubt

I don't know what Christmas used to be like in America in the olden days, but from all I've heard, it wasn't much fun for a lot of people.  We have Washington Irving to thank for rescuing the American Christmas from its dour Puritan non-celebratory observance.

Washington Irving in his younger days

He wrote a series of sketches published in 1820 about an Old English Christmas and the proper way to celebrate it.  He's also the first to describe St Nicholas flying through the sky in a wagon, something Clement C Moore (or someone Moore plagiarized from, depending on who you believe) picked up on and transformed into a sleigh.  Irving also influenced Charles Dickens' views of what Christmas ought to be, as expressed in his famous stories, like A Christmas Carol.

And what's more, Irving was the first person to refer to New York City as Gotham (which means "Goat Town" in Anglo-Saxon), and if that doesn't put you in mind of Christmas, I don't know what will.

I've had Washington Irving on my mind the last week or so, partly because I've been reading "An Old English Christmas", and partly because it snowed ten inches yesterday but I can't find my sled so the snow is of no practical use to me.  But it looks pretty.

Last summer (talk about extremes of weather), one of the things I wanted to do most while in New York was visit Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, NY.  Irving is not an author I read on any regular basis, but I enjoy him when I do read him.  And he can be laugh-out-loud funny.  So we visited his house.

Sunnyside, on the banks of the Hudson

On the piazza - proof I was there
Irving's impressively book-lined study -- there was a nice little couch in there 
where he could take a nap.  I like that idea.  PS  No interior photography was allowed.

Irving never married (sadly, his fiancée of his younger years died, and later, another girl he loved turned down his marriage proposal -- oh, but by the way, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, had a big crush on Irving, but he did not reciprocate; I think that's really interesting), so he pretty much opened his house to his nieces and other relatives, who stayed on after he died, and so on and so forth.  In that way, the house remained in the Irving family's possession until the 1940s, when it was bought by John D Rockefeller as part of a historic preservation project.  The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and is now operated by the Historic Hudson Valley organization.  Because of the history of the house -- going right from family possession to museum -- things were left pretty much the way Irving had them, and it was easy to find his own possessions (clothing, books, furniture) and restore it.  There is therefore a great sense or spirit of the man in his own house, much stronger than what you find in Twain's house, for instance.  The tour guide was also very knowledgeable and entertaining, as a good tour guide should always be.

In addition to visiting the house, we also drove into Sleepy Hollow to visit the cemetery where Irving is buried.  This, of course, is the cemetery made famous in his story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".  It was rather exciting to see the famous bridge over the Pocantico.

 The original bridge was so old, they had to replace all the nails.  And all the wood.  
Please note the bridge is not a covered bridge, as it has erroneously been depicted in films.

Of course it's not the same, original bridge that Ichabod Crane never crossed over (never because he never existed), but it's supposed to be in the same style and not far from where the bridge would've been in Irving's time.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1858)

It was a little solemn-making to see Irving's grave, as well as the memorials to those who died in or were veterans of the Revolutionary War and Civil War.  There were a lot of Van Tassels listed on the Revolutionary War memorial.

Sunnyside and the accompanying towns of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow (where the high school mascot is the Headless Horseman) made a very satisfying literary pilgrimage.  I'm glad we had the opportunity to visit.

Recommended reading:


Adrien said...

Goat Town! I wish it was called that in the Batman things instead of Gotham.

Shannon said...

I agree, I would love Batman more if it was called Goat Town. Also, the Washington Irving places we went helped me have a greater appreciation for the Knickerbocker man. (I'm calling him that)