A book discovery brings distant voices of Christmas

Christmas is many things, not least an opportunity to remember past years, celebrations and people. With this offering, we’re reprising a Christmas story we published in 2014.

A ghost of Christmas past recently appeared at the “Goody Pile” corner of the Recycling Center.

It took the form of a book, filled with handwritten entries from 1849 to 1852.

The book is what was known as a “Christmas album,” popular in the mid-19th century here and in Britain as gifts for the holidays.

The object itself tells stories, but it’s the voices of a group of young adults — with all their quirks, humor and longings recorded by hand inside — that speaks across the decades.

About the size of a contemporary hardcover, it was once bright, beautiful and expertly crafted, with red leather covers front and back. Now it’s broken and weathered by more than 160 years. The front cover, once vivid with raised etchings in gold leaf, is faded and worn bare around the edges. 

But it still caught the eye of Islander Colin Hoye. He spotted it half-hidden in a box of other falling-apart paper records and books at that corner of the Recycling Center where people drop off objects or pick them up for free.

Mr. Hoye describes himself as a “picker,” someone who mines the different sections of the Recycling Center looking for recoverable items. His mother lode discoveries are old paper records and books, which on occasion he gives to the Shelter Island Historical Society.

Mr. Hoye took the battered Christmas album home. There are mysteries within, including the identity of the group of friends who wrote in the book.

When he began to decipher it — many lines and passages are showing their age — he was on a journey, carried back by the voices of a circle of friends from long ago.

Mysteries across the years

The finely produced paper of the pages of Christmas albums were blank, to be used as hand-written diaries, or more commonly as places to record poetry — as well as lyrics and random thoughts — either composed by the receiver of the gift or to quote professional writers. Friends were invited to fill its pages with their own favorite quotes, or to write something original.

Mr. Hoye’s album was published by J.C. Riker of Fulton Street, Brooklyn. According to S.J. Wolfe, cataloguer with the American Antiquarian Society of Worchester, Mass., Mr. Riker was a superb craftsman who published many Christmas albums.

He’s listed as a publisher from 1827 through 1859 by the AAS. Mr. Riker was something of a moving target in those days, due to itchy feet or perhaps because creditors were on his trail, since his company is listed at seven different locations over the 32 years he was in business.

Mr. Hoye came by the Reporter office last week to drop off the book and tell of his discovery. “People wrote in this book for a reason,” Mr. Hoye said, speaking about the writers expressing love for Shelter Island and each other. In at least one passage a relationship is indicated that at the time would have been considered scandalous.

Throughout the album are pages of fine illustrations reproduced from engravings, all protected by transparent tissue sewn into the binding by the publisher. The images are from the school of “Orientalism,” or 19th-century depictions by European artists of what they ignorantly thought were representations of Middle Eastern scenes and culture.

A typical example of this is an image titled “The Miniature,” showing a young European woman in a long, Victorian-era gown with a form-fitting bodice, holding an oval-framed miniature picture on a chain. Looming over her is a rake in a beret adorned with a long feather, a short dagger on his fine coat.

Another shows a young woman, languidly holding a basket of flowers with distant valleys and mountains behind her. She pensively holds a finger to her cheek, with the title, “Why doesn’t he come?”

‘Fair Shelter Island’

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the album is a series of love poems, written and signed by men to a woman named Asenath, sometimes referred to as “Asene, ” who is praised for her beauty, wit and charm.

But it seems Asenath had a female suitor, as well. A woman, revealing herself only as “H,” copied out a published love lyric of the time, titled “Mary Lee,” but changed the beloved’s name to “Asene.”

“My wreathed flowers are few,

Yet no fairer drink the dew,

My bonny Asene …

Some may boast a richer prize

Under pride and wealth’s disguise:

None a fonder offering bore

Than this of mine to thee;

And can true love wish for more?

Surely not, Asene.”

It’s a testament that the writer of those lines was joined by another, desiring to leave something more serious and heartfelt than just pieces of happy Christmas verse. An example is a passage that begins:

“Write, write you bid me in your album write,

I heed the mandate to truth invite.”

It isn’t just love for each other that the correspondents declared. Love for the Island at Christmas is memorialized. This is from an original poem, dated 1851, most likely from a seafaring man, comparing Shelter Island to Eden:

“Few spots there are in this wide world

Where sin has found no home:

Yet I have found one wonderful place where it is scarcely known.

It is on Shelter Island: True friendship bloometh here

There is no room for sorrow, or reason for a tear …

I must leave your fair isle for places far away

And to it I may not return for many a weary day.

In arctic snow, in torrid heats, or in the Spanish west,

My spirit on fair Shelter Island will ever seek rest.”

Counter-balancing a lot of the dreamy romanticism are entries with a wicked sense of humor. One is a hilariously scathing verse about teaching, written by one of its practitioners who has come to a crossroad:

“To teach — or not to teach — that is the question,

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

Insults and impudence from outrageous brats

Or to resign this life of trouble,

And by resigning, end them.”

It goes on for another 25 lines, all written in an elegant hand.

Not fade away

The handwriting throughout the album is in ink, presented in what’s called a “fair copy,” or a painstaking and time-consuming final draft, with no scratch outs or emendations.

Which brings to mind what is lost and gained in the celebrations and gifts people in a technological age give or send to each other.

Not all has changed. Now and in times gone by, Christmas is not just a season marked on a calendar, but a permanent memory bank of holidays past, especially when the one remembering looks back happily on a simpler time.

Near the opening of Mr. Hoye’s Christmas album, someone wrote, in the fairest hand:

“Here, too, dwells simple truth,

Unsullied beauty,

Unbroken youth.”


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