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Holiday Traditions: Early Modern Stories of Christmas Miracles and Puns

by Matthew Morley 12/11/2013 9:05:00 AM

Between the magical realism of The Polar Express (2004) and the humor of A Christmas Story (1983), it’s clear fantasy and comedy are both popular elements of contemporary Christmas stories. But how do these movies compare to the holiday entertainment of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Earlier Christmas stories set the precedent for future generations of holiday entertainment with enjoyable combinations of wit and fantasy. Two examples of earlier works include The Humourist: A Companion for the Christmas Fireside (circa 1832) by W. H. Harrison and The Goldfish: a Christmas Story for Children Between Six and Sixty (1914) by Julian Street.

Title page of The HumoristFrontispiece of The Humorist

The new found luxury of time, a consequence of the industrialization of London, fostered a greater interest in recreational books and periodicals than ever before. This societal transformation shifted the themes of writing from academic and heroic quest stories to serialized and humorous accounts of common people, which entertained a greater number of people. One representation of this new trend in nineteenth-century print culture, author of The Humourist, William Henry Harrison – not to be confused with William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States – began his anthology containing short stories and poetry with a witty preface to hook readers and keep them interested:

ON presenting an addition to the already extensive list of Annuals, the Author feels called upon to say a few words by way of preface, in going which he cannot but acknowledge that the Publisher and himself are very much in the situation of the sailors in the Frontispiece : they have just launched a new vessel, and are soliciting the favour and patronage of the Public, in the absence of which they will inevitably be found in one of the most awkward of all nautical dilemmas, namely; without a sale.
Through each of the subsequent poems and short stories, Harrison amuses the reader with both a wide variety of subjects, including medical anomalies, marriage, a quest story, and shipwreck, as well as with puns, sprinkled throughout his writing. A surefire collection to keep any group happy while gathered around a delightful fire and away from the frightful weather of December.
Frontispiece of The Goldfish
Approximately eighty years after The Humourist was published in London, Julian Street published his short story, The Goldfish, in New York City. In addition to his comedic title (“a Christmas Story for Children Between Six and Sixty,” which at the time virtually included the entire literate population in America) Street reiterated the theme of Christmastime wishing and miracles. In this short story, a young boy wishes he could have an older brother for Christmas so that he can have a friend and discovers that his pet goldfish can speak to him. Given the boy is granted his wish for a friend because of the nature of Christmas miracles in the story’s universe, this short story embodies the childlike wonder toward the magical realist element of wishing and discovery.

Special Collections and Archives wishes everyone a happy holiday and new year!

For additional information on the two books referred to in this blog, contact SPCA at: or stop by Special Collections and Archives in the John T. Richardson Library, room 314.

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