It’s posted a couple of days later than intended, but here’s the latest installment of “Beyond Sleepy Hollow,” which explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.
Before Washington Irving fired the autumnal imagination of Americans with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he helped script Christmas celebration into existence in our Macabre Republic. In early January 1820, Irving published a series of Christmas-related pieces in The Sketch-Book that clearly anticipate “The Legend” (which appeared in the next installment of the book three months later). Within the linked Christmas sketches, Irving’s narrating stand-in, Geoffrey Crayon, is invited by an old traveling companion to come spend the holidays at his family’s mansion in the English countryside. Bracebridge Hall is a bastion of old-time custom, located in “a sequestered part of the country” (just as the unmodernized Sleepy Hollow is removed from the metropolitan bustle of Manhattan). Master Simon Bracebridge (as I discuss in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) is an Ichabod-esque figure, a busybody bachelor exuding self-importance, and who is satirized by Irving in terms strikingly similar to Sleepy Hollow’s hapless schoolmaster.
“Christmas Dinner” constitutes the last of the Bracebridge-centered sketches (Irving would return to the family a few years later in the more expansive collection Bracebridge Hall). After dining on traditional fare (e.g., a boar’s head; peacock pie) and happily imbibing from the circulating Wassail bowl, the gathered celebrants break off into groups. The younger members of the family engage in a game of “blindman’s buff,” while the adults retire to the drawing room. There the village parson begins “dealing out strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” His yarning focuses on the “family hero” of his hosts, a Bracebridge ancestor said to have fought in the Crusades, and whose portrait and purported armor decorate the Hall’s dining room. As Crayon relates:
[The parson] gave us several anecdotes of the fancies of the neighboring peasantry, concerning the effigy of the crusader, which lay on the tomb by the church altar. As it was the only monument of its kind in that part of the country, it had always been regarded with feelings of superstition by the good wives of the village. It was said to get up from the tomb and walk the rounds of the churchyard in stormy nights, particularly when it thundered; and one old woman, whose cottage bordered on the churchyard, had seen it through the windows of the church, when the moon shone, slowly pacing up and down the aisles. It was the belief that some wrong had been left unredressed by the deceased, or some treasure hidden which kept the spirit in a state of trouble and restlessness. Some talked of gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the specter kept watch; and there was a story current of a sexton in old times, who endeavored to break his way to the coffin at night, but, just as he reached it, received a violent blow from the marble hand of the effigy, which stretched him senseless on the pavement. These tales were often laughed at by some of the sturdier among the rustics, yet, when night came on, there were many of the stoutest unbelievers that were shy of venturing alone in the footpath that led across the churchyard.
These fireside spook tales shared by the parson, which have quite an unnerving effect on certain listeners, prefigure the events of/following the Van Tassel quilting frolic in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Just as the galloping Hessian forms the “favorite specter” of the credulous inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, the crusader in “Christmas Dinner” appears “to be the favorite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.” And just as Brom Bones follows old Brouwer’s tale of a run-in with the Headless Horseman with an even more marvelous account, the old porter’s wife in “Christmas Dinner” picks up from the parson and adds to the lore of the crusader: she affirms “that in her young days she had often heard say that on Midsummer Eve, when it was well known all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies become visible and walk abroad, the crusader used to mount his horse, come down from his picture, ride about the house, down the avenue, and so to the church to visit the tomb.”
But no attendee of the Christmas dinner encounters the crusader later that December evening, let alone finds himself spirited away by the supernatural rider. The eerie atmosphere pervading the drawing room of Bracebridge Hall is soon dissipated when Master Simon and other costumed revelers burst in to perform an impromptu “Christmas mummery.” This intriguing “Legend” precursor sketched by Irving ultimately places more emphasis on “wild-eyed frolic and warmhearted hospitality breaking out from among the chills and glooms of winter”; the creation of frisson, though, will prove integral to the more sustained Gothic narrative that conveys “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”