Christmas is many things, not the least of which is a chance to remember past years, festivals and people. With this proposal, we are retelling the Christmas story that we published in 2014.
Recently the ghost of Christmas past appeared in the “Good Pile” corner of the recycling center.
It was in the form of a book, filled with handwritten entries from 1849 to 1852.
The book is what became known as a “Christmas album,” popular as a gift for the holidays here and in England in the mid-19th century.
The object itself tells the stories, but it’s the voices of a group of young adults—all their speculation, humor, and excitement recorded by hand—that speak across the decades.
About the size of a contemporary hardcover, it was once bright, elegant and expertly crafted, with a red leather cover front and back. Now it has been broken and weathered for over 160 years. The front cover, once illuminated with raised engravings in gold leaf, is darkened and worn around the edges.
But it still caught the eye of Islander Colin Hay. He found it half-hidden in a box of other discarded paper records and books in the corner of the recycling center where people drop things off or buy them for free.
Mr. Hoy describes himself as a “picker,” who mines various parts of the recycling center looking for recyclables. His mother lode finds are old paper records and books, which he donates to the Shelter Island Historical Society.
Mr. Huey took home a broken Christmas album. There are secrets inside, including the identity of the group of friends who wrote the book.
When he begins to understand it – many lines and passages show their age – he is on a journey, long ago brought back by the voices of a circle of friends.
Mysteries over the years
The pages of Christmas albums were blank, produced blanks, used as handwritten diaries, or generally used as places to record poems – as well as lyrics and random thoughts – or by the recipient of the gift. Made or for quote. Professional writer friends were invited to fill the pages of this page with their best quotes, or write something original.
Mr. Huey’s album was released by JC Ricker of Fulton Street, Brooklyn. According to SJ Wolfe, cataloger with the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Mass., Mr. Ricker was a master craftsman who published many Christmas albums.
He is listed by the AAS as a publisher from 1827 to 1859. Mr. Ricker was on the move these days because of itchy feet, or perhaps because creditors were on his way, because his company had been in seven different bankruptcy filings in 32 years. It is listed in the places where he was in business.
Mr. Hui came to the reporter’s office last week to drop off the book and describe his discovery. “People wrote in this book for a reason,” Mr. Hoy said, referring to the authors who express their love of Shelter Island and each other. At least one episode indicates a relationship that would have been considered scandalous at the time.
Throughout the album are pages of fine illustrations reproduced from engravings, all protected by transparent tissue sewn into the binding by the publisher. The paintings are from the “Orientalism” school, or paintings by 19th-century European artists of what they naively thought represented Middle Eastern scenery and culture.
A typical example of this is a picture called “Miniature,” which shows a young European woman in a long Victorian gown with a form-fitting bodice and holding an oval-framed miniature picture on a chain. On her head is a vessel decorated with a long plume, a short dagger in a fine coat.
Another shows a young woman holding a basket of flowers against minarets and the distant valley and mountains behind her. He stares intently at the title, “Why doesn’t he come?”
Perhaps the most touching part of the album is a series of love poems written and signed by a man to a woman named Asanat, sometimes referred to as “Asin”, for her beauty, wit and charm. is appreciated.
But Asanat seems to have had a female room as well. A woman who identified herself only as “H” copied a love song published at the time, titled “Mary Lee”, but changed the name of the beloved to “Aisin”.
“My flowers are few,
Still no good camel drinks
My dwarf Asin…
Some may boast of rich rewards
Under the guise of pride and wealth:
No hobby offers
From me to you;
And does true love want more?
Certainly not, Asin.
It is a testament that the writer of these lines was accompanied by another, wanting to leave more serious and heartwarming pieces of Christmas verse. An example is a section that begins:
“Write, write, you wrote me on your album tender,
I regard the authority of the true summons.”
It is not just love for each other that the journalists declared. Love for the island is commemorated at Christmas. This is from an original poem dated 1851, most likely by a sailor, comparing Shelter Island to Eden:
“There are few places in this wide world
Where sin finds no home:
Yet I found an interesting place where it is much less known.
It’s on Shelter Island: True friendship blossoms here
There is no room for sorrow, or reason for tears…
I must leave your fair island for distant places
And I may not be back for many boring days.
In arctic snow, in tropical heat, or in the west of Spain,
My soul in fair shelter isle Shall ever seek rest.
Many of the anti-emotional romanticisms are infused with a sense of smell. One of them is an incredibly horrible verse about teaching, written by one of its experts who came along the way:
“To teach—or not to teach—that is the question,
Is it better for pain in the mind
Scornful and rude sisters
Or resign from this miserable life
And ended with resignation.”
This goes for another 25 lines, all written in beautiful handwriting.
It doesn’t go away
The handwriting throughout the album is in color, presented in what is called a “fair copy,” or a painstaking and time-consuming final draft, with no scratch-outs or edits.
It brings to mind what is lost and gained at festivals and the gifts that people give or send to each other in the technological age.
Not all has changed. Now and in the past, Christmas is not just a season marked on the calendar, but a permanent memory bank of past holidays, especially when the memory looks back fondly on a simpler time.
Near the opening of Mr. Huey’s Christmas album, someone wrote in a very fine hand:
“Therein also lies the simple truth,