Christmas Past

By Thomas Ruys Smith

In the new anthology Christmas Past, Thomas Ruys Smith brings together an array of seasonal stories from a deeply formative period in the history of American literature. Here, Smith comments on some of the surprising insights he received as he delved into American Christmas stories of the nineteenth century.

Front cover of the 1868 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly, published January 2, 1869.

Late in 1909, Mark Twain wrote to a friend with a seasonal sentiment that—while rather terse and to the point—might elicit a pang of sympathy from some of you reading this. Apparently saturated with the prolific print culture of Christmas that had boomed over his lifetime, he brusquely declared, “I hate Xmas stories.” Nor was he alone. A couple of decades earlier, his close friend and ally William Dean Howells had lamented the way that the “literary worship” of Christmas had inspired what he felt to be “a whole school of unrealities so ghastly that one can hardly recall without a shudder those sentimentalities at second-hand.” Those of you who have felt bombarded with Hallmark movies since before Halloween might again nod your heads approvingly.

Having happily immersed myself in the rich and diverse world of festive literature during the creation of Christmas Past: An Anthology of Seasonal Stories from Nineteenth-Century America, I have to respectfully disagree with such Scroogeish pronouncements. What’s more, I think that the stories in this collection might change the hearts and minds of even the most hardened Christmas naysayers.

The seasonally suspicious among us may expect a familiar scene: dusty ornaments, browning trees, faded cards, and other stale feasts from yesteryear. But in the pages of this collection, the ghosts of Christmas past live again—and they take shapes that may surprise modern readers. They offer both the shock of the old and a thrill of recognition: the same concerns and tensions that animate the festive season today were equally felt by those living across the nineteenth century. Characters in these stories lament the commercialization of the season, agonize over the selection of presents for loved ones, argue about its spiritual significance, flagrantly politicize the holidays, and use this time of year to highlight inequalities that seem even more stark when displayed against a festive backdrop. Contemporary discourse about the so-called war on Christmas looks rather tame when framed against Christmas sketches about literal Civil War. 

The Christmas-Tree, from Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1869.

I hope, too, that this collection reshapes our understanding of the relationship between Christmas and literature as it developed across the American nineteenth century—and beyond. Far from being peripheral or occasional or ephemeral, Christmas sat at the heart of the constantly changing literary landscape in America, evolving and adapting with it. As this diverse holiday chorus makes clear, Christmas was a subject that American writers found endlessly useful to tell very different stories. It is a thread of tinsel that ties together the most disparate of American voices. From the first generation of American writers who tried to shape a national literature, to the wildly popular sentimental writers of midcentury, to authors dealing with slavery, the Civil War, and their aftermaths, to the generation of realists who looked to reshape American literature, to those writers on the margins of American life who looked to triangulate their own identity and to contest their ostracism—Christmas united them all.

So, whether you keep your Christmas lights up all year round or scowl humbug at the first whiff of eggnog, I think there is a Christmas story in this collection for you. And what’s more, I think the ghosts of Christmas past have a lesson to teach us: The stories we tell about this time of year have been told and endlessly retold, reimagined and reinvented for centuries; we, too, are free to shape this season for our own ends. However you celebrate—or don’t—I hope you enjoy writing your own Christmas stories this year.

Thomas Ruys Smith, professor of American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, is the author or editor of several books, including Deep Water: The Mississippi River in the Age of Mark Twain.

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In Christmas Past, Thomas Ruys Smith brings together a diverse range of voices to showcase the many ways in which Christmas was imagined across the nineteenth century, offering images that echo down to the present. The introduction that frames the anthology provides a new literary history of Christmas, contextualizing the selections and making clear the links both between them and to the wider trajectory of American literature.

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