“No! It tastes too 20th century guys. It's gotta shout Washington Irving, not Irving my accountant. It needs something, help me. What is it?” - Sookie (Season 2, Episode 10)
Many of us can probably remember watching a television show's episode riff on either O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi" or Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Through their plots, characters learn to appreciate The Spirit of Giving. As our worries and longings echo across the centuries, the lessons of the past are rendered relevant to our modern lives.
In Washington Irving’s The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, written in the 1820s, the narrator doesn’t claim to instruct. He writes, “It is so much pleasanter to please than to instruct - to play the companion rather than the preceptor." He continues, "If I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself - surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.”
You could say that’s the larger point of serial television: to smooth away the wrinkle on our collective forehead through sympathetic identification with people who are and are not like us. We may learn a thing or two, but not necessarily through overt didacticism.
More descriptive than prescriptive, Gilmore Girls didn’t trade on Henry’s ironic gifting or Dickens’ ghostly visitors, but it did borrow significantly from Irving’s Christmas sketches.
The episode referenced above, called The Bracebridge Dinner, is named for a key figure in Irving's sketches. Crayon, the American narrator, is traveling through England during the Christmas season, admiring the revelry and good cheer around him. On Christmas Eve, he stops at an inn for the night and runs into an old friend of his, Frank Bracebridge, who invites Crayon to spend the holiday at his father’s estate, Bracebridge Hall. The senior Mr. Bracebridge is, we discover, keen to preserve English history, especially when it comes to celebrating Christmas, and maintains traditions dating back to the Elizabethan period. He’s also referred to by a traditional English name for the head of an estate, The Squire.
If you’ve seen The Bracebridge Dinner episode, you might remember Lorelai and Sookie roping Jackson into playing the squire. Dressed in period threads, he presides over Sookie’s meticulously crafted period dinner, originally intended for a group of Independence Inn guests. After they get stranded in Chicago, Lorelai decides to move forward with the (pre-paid) event as a celebration for Stars Hollow. In a fit of good cheer, she even invites her parents. Horse-drawn sleigh rides before dinner add to the evening’s appeal and pick up a theme of Irving’s original sketches: nostalgia for the past.
Reading Irving’s richly descriptive pieces, it's easy to feel nostalgic for a time I never lived through personally. After all, I don’t have to deal with the hard realities of that period - the absence of hot running water, corsets, the rigid class system, to name a few. That's what nostalgia is, isn't it? - a romanticized version of the past. "In the sunset of dissolution," Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, "everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine."
The nostalgia I feel for the narrator’s time, the narrator feels for a past even more distant to himself and his fellow revelers. It’s one of the links in the chain of human emotions that connects us all, including the Gilmore girls. At the end of the episode, Lorelai and Rory drive home in one of the sleighs. Nostalgia strikes again in their desire to extend the bliss of a happy moment, to smile a little bit longer, and for that moment to become fuel for dark days ahead.