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Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas gift-books and holiday stories:
The rise and demise of lucrative markets for nineteenth-century authors

A cover of The Token and
Atlantic Souvenir: a Christmas
and New Year's present
(c. 1852)
Courtesy of the Library Company
An 1895 article in The Publishers’ Weekly notes the passing of a trend that had lasted most of the century: “Sets of an authors’ works or a special work profusely and artistically illustrated have almost entirely superseded the old-fashioned Christmas gift-books so largely at one time a feature of the holiday publishing season.” Initially a British development, these “old-fashioned” Christmas annuals spread to America early during the early 1800s. Their heyday was the first half of the century, although a number of them continued to be published until the 1860s, and attempts to resuscitate them continued until the early 1900s. A century ago, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature emphasized their importance to American literary history by devoting an entire chapter to Christmas gift-books: “Almost or quite all of those published in America were literary miscellanies, the contents being original, or, in case of some of the cheaper volumes, ‘selected.’”

Most of the material published in the annuals was what we would describe as “down-market,” but, attracted by the lucrative pay, many prominent authors were featured as well. William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Edgar Allan Poe, Lydia H. Sigourney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Greenleaf Whittier all contributed to annuals. (In fact, many of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales first appeared in holiday gift-books.) Because the annuals were meant to be read—and sold—all year, the contents were rarely seasonal; readers didn’t buy holiday annuals for Christmas stories.

The rise of the holiday story was instead a separate, later development; as the annuals waned, seasonally themed issues of magazines provided an alternative source of income for authors. Penne L. Restad, in her book Christmas in America, puzzles over how initially these stories “appeared only sporadically and during seemingly odd times of the year. Harper’s Monthly, for example, made its first reference to Christmas in a poem, ‘The Approach of Christmas,’ in its August 1850 issue. Godey’s first literary tribute to the holiday, ‘A Christmas Hymn,’ ran in February of 1841.” Indeed, the grandfather of the American Christmas story, Washington Irving, published his famous sketches as part of the serially-published Sketch Book. His four holiday pieces—“Christmas,” “The Stage Coach,” “Christmas Eve,” and “Christmas Day”—originally appeared in January 1820—and they were not published until July in England. (In the English and subsequent American editions, the fourth piece was split into two: “Christmas Morning” and “The Christmas Dinner.”)

Eventually, however, magazines began publishing Christmas-themed stories, recipes, and illustrations in their December issues every year. By 1865 their prominence was notable enough that Mark Twain would publish a devastating parody, “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls),” in the December 23, 1863, issue of The Californian. In a study of Kate Chopin’s career, Emily Toth writes, “The market for conversion and happily-ever-after stories for Christmas and Easter was immense. It was also one of the best sources of income and recognition for professional writers.” It was a Christmas story that first brought Chopin to the attention of a national audience when it was syndicated by the American Press Association.

Like the Christmas gift-books that preceded them, magazine issues devoted to holiday stories have virtually vanished; with occasional exceptions, Christmas-themed fiction seems to have been largely relegated to the children’s literature market or, less frequently, to “regular” issues of literary magazines. When William Maxwell published a Christmas story in 1986 (“The Lily-White Boys”), it appeared in the Summer-Fall issue of The Paris Review.

With best wishes to our readers for a happy and healthy holiday season, we present three selections for Christmas from Story of the Week:

Washington Irving, “The Christmas Dinner” (1820)
Irving’s alter-ego Geoffrey Crayon is invited to Bracebridge Hall for an old-fashioned English Christmas celebration.

Mark Twain, “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls)” (1865)
An impishly wicked story about the monstrously wicked little boy to whom only good things happened.

William Maxwell, “The Lily-White Boys” (1986)
Arriving home to a ransacked townhouse after a lovely Christmas party, a married couple experiences a moment of grace.

1 comment:

  1. What, no "Christmas Banquet" by Nathaniel Hawthorne? Where's your sense of malcontent during the holidays? :)


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