Christmas Holidays at Chestnut Hill is a collection of stories published in 1853 by an author who gives her name informally as Cousin Mary. The familiarity of the name this author chose gives a prelude to the warmth and familiarity that comes within the text. The author dedicated the book to her sister Caroline, who wrote the introduction to the collected stories.
In the introduction, Caroline tells of one particular year’s Christmas festivities when her large extended family traveled to Chestnut Hill from as far away as New York and Calcutta. As she recalls, most of the family’s leisure time was spent listening to the stories her Grandpa told, an activity that seems to have been the backbone of their holiday tradition: “There was never a merrier Christmas-party than that … last year, at Chestnut Hill.”
What follows this nostalgic introduction is a collection of ten stories, retold as accurately as Mary’s memory could muster, of those that she and her Grandpapa had told to entertain their family. Several provide a religious moral: their plots center on characters engaging in acts of charity despite their own poverty. Eventually, the lives of these characters become intertwined, and the tales culminate when their protagonists realize that charity produces happiness.
These types of moralizing Christian tales are typical of 19th-century literature, and the book’s original patrons may have deemed them appropriate for family gatherings with small children. Not only are they instructive, but the stories also allude to Christmas celebrations with children. The final text is a poem entitled “Who was Santa-Claus?” and describes children pondering this question. The original purpose of the book may therefore have been to impart lessons unto youth about how to live Christian lives, as well as to keep these young children entertained.
In accord with the bookbinding style of the mid-19th century, the binding of Christmas Holidays was made to impress possible buyers as art to be admired. Though worn in many areas, the cover’s ornateness indicates the economic status of its publishers and initial owners. Most cover impressions were blind-stamped, but the center of this volume boasts a crest embossed with real gold. The book’s royal blue cloth binding, intricate designs, and gold embossing suggest that it was made both by and for wealthy Bostonians. This was a luxury item beyond the reach of the average book buyer in the 1880s. Christmas Holidays more likely served as a personal gift rather than as a book to be handled by many children as at a school.
Wearing occurred most frequently in places where a reader’s hands wrap around the cover. This is telling of the book’s usage primarily for reading rather than for decoration on a shelf. The book has no handwritten markings or signatures to further gauge its usage or readers’ enjoyment thereof. It presents very limited clues as to how it was perceived by its readers besides, perhaps, the worn cover, which indicates a well-read and oft-used book.
Though no information is preserved regarding how Boston College acquired this volume, the proximity of the contemporary Boston College campus to the book’s setting in Chestnut Hill leads to several conjectures. It is a regional relic, often alluding to areas in the near vicinity of Boston College. Not only does Chestnut Hill appear in the title, but a character named Tom O’Connor is also said to be “living with a farmer in Brookline.” Several other characters have Irish names as well, such as Mary O’Conner and Patrick Mahoney, suggesting that Christmas Holidays had Irish-Catholic authorship, or, at least, Irish-Catholic sympathy.
Christmas Holidays at Chestnut Hill encompasses a variety of aspects that could appeal to the educators of a Catholic college. These aspects include the didactic lessons geared towards youth, communal sharing of that imparted knowledge, and a basis of Christian messages. Boston College was founded with Irish Catholic backing, making it a viable repository for such Irish Catholic relics. The history of this Christmas volume reveals that much can be learned about an old book’s history, and the expansive collections of the Boston College Libraries suggest there are many more such stories to be told.
- Emma Dwyer, BC ’16 & Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2014 Early Printed Books: History and Craft.