Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Golden Christmas: A Chronicle of St. John's, Berkeley

Novella | Walker, Richards & Co. | 1852

                Published by Walker & Richards in 1852, The Golden Christmas is novella of social manners set in the lowcountry of Berkeley County near Charleston, South Carolina.  Geography is of central importance to both the book itself and the story within.  Charleston, as the home of the author, the setting of the story, and the location of the publisher and printer is as much the focus of the work as any characters or details of plot; in a 2005 introduction to the novella, critic David Aiken claims that The Golden Christmas “today provides one of the most comprehensive and accurate chronicles of the lifestyles of antebellum Carolinians”; he also notes that the  story exhibits many of the common traits of a plantation romance, while alluding to such classic literary works as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  The fast-paced and energetic tale features Ned Bulmer and Paula Bonneau, two star-crossed lovers of English and French aristocratic families.  Throughout a series of comic mishaps and misadventures, the two lovers must reconcile their feuding plantation families by marrying on Christmas — a religious holiday that appropriately celebrates the reconciliation between God and man, as well as the peace and goodwill abundant during the season.[1]

                Simms wrote the story sometime in 1851, and it appeared in the January and February 1852 issues of the Southern Literary Gazette.[2]  A 17 February 1852 letter to Francis Colburn Adams, the former manager of the Charleston Theatre, indicates that Simms was solicited during this time to write an adaptation of The Golden Christmas for a stage play.  While Simms showed some enthusiasm, he ultimately had to defer this stage project as he was already engaged in a number of in-progress writing tasks.[3]  One of those other writing projects was perhaps his novel The Sword and the Distaff (later republished under the title Woodcraft) which he completed sometime late that summer and published — like The Golden Christmas earlier — in the Southern Literary Gazette in 1852.  James Kibler notes how the two stories pair well together: “Both novel and novella center on plantation life and deal with the question of whether or not it will continue, in other words, of whether or not plantation civilization and its traditions will survive.”  Kibler observes that, in addition to their similar themes, the stories also share “important symbolism and diction, and in their contrasts of the single vs. married plots, each improves from the richness that the other provides, and each should be read with the other to receive its full importance.”[4]  The Golden Christmas also complements Simms’s earlier novellas, Castle Dismal (1844) and “Maize in Milk” (1847), both of which portray Christmas festivities on the plantations of the Old South.

                The Golden Christmas garnered minimal and mixed critical notice while attracting meager sales.  In March 1852, the Literary World characterized the work as “full of vigor and animation.”[5]  Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, on the other hand, considered it a “slight story” that was “more careless than the usual writings of the author.”[6]  Simms wrote to James Henry Hammond on 24 November 1852 that the story had “yet yielded me a cent.”[7]  Despite the early lack of attention and sales, The Golden Christmas emerged over time to be regarded among Simms’s best writing.  In his 1892 biography of Simms, William P. Trent remarked upon the “amusing description of some of the oddities produced by six generations of intermarriages between first cousins”; when Simms aims his social satire at the Charleston aristocracy, Trent asserted, he makes “a thin love story rather entertaining reading.”[8]  By 1952, Donald Davidson considered the story representative of Simms’s best achievements as a writer.[9]  John C. Guilds contends that despite the “lackluster reviews and poor sales, The Golden Christmas is one of Simms’s better efforts — perhaps his best at social satire in a comedy of manners.”  Simms highlights the social and ethnic distinctions, Guilds asserts, in a manner “finely attuned to the peculiarities of class, speech, custom, and tradition that constitute the distinctive charm of his home region.”[10] 

                The cover of the 1852 edition of The Golden Christmas housed at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina features faded black boards patterned on the front and back covers; spine is largely torn off with only two fragments that remain attached.  The title page reads: THE | GOLDEN CHRISTMAS: | A | CHRONICLE OF ST. JOHN'S, BERKELEY. | COMPILED FROM THE | NOTES OF A BRIEFLESS BARRISTER, | BY THE AUTHOR | "THE YEMASSEE," "GUY RIVERS," "KATHARINE WALTON," ETC. | CHARLESTON: | WALKER, RICHARDS AND CO. | 1852.

Michael Odom

[1] David Aiken, Introduction to The Golden Christmas by William Gilmore Simms (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), iv-v.

[2] Southern Literary Gazette, N.S., I (January 10, January 24, and February 10, 1852).

[3] See Letters, 3:161-62; Simms took the opportunity to instead solicit Norman Maurice, a drama published the previous year, which he was repeatedly unsuccessful at having staged. 

[4] James E. Kibler, “On the Pairing of Woodcraft and The Golden Christmas,” The Simms Review 2.1 (Spring 1994): 13-15. 

[5] Literary World X (March 10, 1852): 206.

[6] Harper’s New Monthly Magazine IV (May 1852): 853.

[7] Letters, 3:212.

[8] William P. Trent, William Gilmore Simms, American Men of Letters (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1892), 195.  Scholars of Simms would note that this is a rare instance of praise from Trent; for that reason, some are inclined to read his affirmation ironically when he references the “oddities” of southern intermarriage.

[9] Letters, 1:li

[10] John C. Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayatteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 203.