Votes : 0

Dickens and Christmas

Joe Unsworth - Wed, Dec 21st 2011

 Dickens and Christmas

It is a favourite story of the time that when Charles Dickens died a London barrow-girl is said to have asked, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”  To claim that Dickens single-handedly created Christmas as we know it, however, despite the growing acclaim as we approach the bicentenary of his birth (in February, 2012), flies in the face of other well-known facts.  It is known that Queen Victoria’s reign brought a revival of Christmas celebrations, boosted by her consort Prince Albert’s introducing the German custom of the Christmas Tree, decked with candles and decorations, some containing sweetmeats, a symbol of the season fantastically elaborated upon by Dickens in a piece we’ll look at later.  The first Christmas cards appeared in 1843, the year of “A Christmas Carol”, which will obviously feature largely in this article on Dickens’ writing on the subject.  To get some sense of order into it I’ll use a chronological approach to see what developments or preoccupations emerge in Dickens’ ongoing treatment of the festive season.


The earliest literary treatment of Christmas I could find is a sketch, “Christmas Festivities”, published in “Bell’s Life in London” on 27th December, 1835.  Interestingly, it takes into account early on the fact that Christmas can exacerbate a sense of loss –“one little seat may be empty” – but urges the reader to count their present blessings.  Christmas family parties are an opportunity for the reconciliation of past differences.  All the generations take part.  Though the party is actually hosted by “Uncle George” and his wife, of the parents’ generation, it is the grandparents who feature more prominently, setting going games like the favourite “Blind Man’s Buff”, encouraging young cousins to kiss and flirt under the mistletoe and presiding over the re-acceptance of formerly ostracized members of the family – one particular renegade cousin’s sin having been “persisting in drinking Burton ale”.  Turkey and Christmas Pudding make star appearances at the table before singing, especially of comic songs, helps bring the evening “of rational goodwill and cheerfulness” to a close.


The first occurrence of Christmas in the novels is in Chapter 28 of “Pickwick Papers” (1836) entitled “A good-humoured Christmas Chapter”.  It is a season that unites for Dickens  “the religious belief of the most civilized nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages”.  It can recall the loss of former friends and family only to overcome it, winning us “back to the delusions of our childish days”.  The actual narration is largely devoted to an account of a wedding so that Christmas Eve comes round almost before we realize it. (There will be another unremarked Christmas Eve in “Great Expectations”, almost 15 years later, but for very different reasons).  There is in the evening a replay of “Christmas Festivities” with Mr Pickwick at the heart of the action beneath the mistletoe, playing Blind Man’s Buff, and so on.  It is remarkable how much licence for physical contact is allowed by these “innocent” games (just have a look at the pursuit of the “plump sister” in Stave 3 of “A Christmas Carol”) given our received notions on Victorian prudery.  There is a little light satire at the expense of the poor relations of the wedding party who ingratiate themselves by kissing the less attractive females who run right under the mistletoe “as soon as it was hung up, without knowing it!”


Christmas Day is dealt with perfunctorily – liquor of some kind seems to be on the go from breakfast-time but people still find a way to go for a walk, get to church, have lunch, go skating, fall through the ice and have an early night.

Between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, however, a self-contained story is told, “The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton”.

It starts on Christmas Eve in an atmosphere of death, shot through with grim humour, as the sexton, Gabriel Grub, prepares to dig a grave, scorning the sounds of Christmas preparations nearby.  Gabriel “thought of measles, scarlet-fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation besides”.  He assaults a young reveller who is passing by and, getting to work, makes his favourite seasonal joke:”A coffin at Christmas – a Christmas Box. Ho! ho! ho!”  He is answered by a troop of goblins from underground who teach him a lesson every bit as effective as that taught Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” for which this story is a clear forerunner.

A Christmas episode from the weekly miscellany, “Master Humphrey’s Clock” (1840) recounts the simple tale of the aged narrator taking an evening walk on Christmas Day and coming across a lonely old man in a tavern: “His mind was wandering among old Christmas Days, I thought.”  This awareness of painful memories of loss leads the narrator to befriend the stranger, an act of benevolence that is to assume a pattern in Dickens’ Christmas writings.


“A Christmas Carol” (1843) is so well known that I do not propose to re-tell the story but rather point out what features of Christmas Dickens now chooses to dwell on and how he communicates them.  One of the first things we notice is the much richer characterization.  Scrooge (the name itself is a sound effect) is conceived in terms of winter: “he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”  Again, the expression of the Christmas message by Scrooge’s good-natured nephew is more fully articulated, specifically for a class-ridden society: “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not a race of creatures bound on other journeys.”  Scrooge’s reaction is “Humbug”.  The same word conveys his refusal to believe in Marley’s Ghost, suggesting a closed mind almost comic in its inadequacy.  By the end of this first visitation, however, he cannot get beyond the first syllable.


The Ghost of Christmas Past, the first of the three spirits promised him, is a carefully elaborated figure, both child and old man simultaneously.  The key operation of the Ghost is on Scrooge’s memory – his emotions are stirred instantly by scenes from his past.  The image of his past self as a neglected, lonely boy, left at school alone during holiday time, (an impression of himself Dickens never cast off, abandoned by his parents, as he saw it, to shameful service in a blacking factory by the Thames at the age of twelve) “fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening influence”.  Christmas Eve arrives during Scrooge’s apprenticeship to Old Fezziwig, their place of work transformed into a ballroom.  In a crescendo of conviviality Dickens builds up the assembly through a nine-fold repetition of “In came” until the room is heaving with dancing partners.  Harmony is sustained, however, through the totally unexpected focus on Mr Fezziwig’s legs – his twinkling calves shine in every part of the dance so as to impose an irresistible order on the proceedings.  This release of joyful energy, followed by emotional scenes of family life, highlights by contrast the barren course Scrooge has by now chosen in the pursuit of gain.


The Ghost of Christmas Present appears with a cornucopia, a horn of plenty.  Here, Dickens’ talent for the list comes into its own: “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, cherry-cheeked apples,” the list goes on to catch Christmas’s largesse, or its excess, depending on your point of view.  The city streets that Scrooge is taken to are not picturesque, the snow is dirty, the sky gloomy.  But the people are not.  They make a kind of music as they scrape the snow from the pavement.  The shops still open this Christmas morning are doing brisk business before steeple bells summon people to church.  The visit to the home of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, introduces the pathos of his lame son, Tiny Tim, who brings a specifically Christian message from his visit to church that morning: “he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”  Amid all the merry-making at the impoverished Cratchit household (they can still rise to a goose and a Christmas pudding) Scrooge’s eye, and ours, is especially taken by the serious-minded little boy.  There are two more children to be encountered, “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable”.  This boy and girl are the allegorized figures, Ignorance and Want, turned into monsters by man’s neglect and cruelty.


There is little sense of Christmas as the Ghost of Christmas Future conducts Scrooge on his inexorable way to his grave, a friendless, lonely death where his corpse is robbed and the room he died in stripped.  Only a call at the Cratchit household intervenes where Scrooge’s heart is wrung further by indications of Tiny Tim’s death.  His resolution is to “live in the Past, the Present and the Future” and to keep Christmas all the year.  This acknowledgement of life as an unbreakable continuum is to receive more emphatic treatment in a later story, “The Haunted Man”.

Stave Five restores the Christmas spirit that has been missing in Stave Four.  Scrooge realizes he has become “quite a baby” as his feelings flow unrestrained, particularly on his discovery that it is still Christmas Day.  He finds the rewards for generosity almost intoxicating as he sends an enormous turkey to Bob Cratchit’s and makes a munificent contribution to charity.  Dickens finds no need to describe Scrooge’s Christmas celebrations at his nephew’s, focusing instead on the empowerment the charitable impulse brings next day as he delights in raising Bob Cratchit’s salary, helping his family, thus ensuring that Tiny Tim did NOT die, to the gratification of all concerned, including most of Dickens’ readership.


Out of the stories Dickens wrote for Christmas after the phenomenal success of “A Christmas Carol” only “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain” (1848) may be said to be strictly about Christmas.  This latter story bears comparison with “A Christmas Carol” but is much more thematically focused.  Mr Redwell is a more complex figure than Scrooge.  He is a teacher of Science, solitary, thoughtful and gloomily cut off from his fellow-men by memories of a painful past, unable to see how Christmas can be “merry and happy”.  Cast off by parents to fend for himself he is then disappointed in love and loses a caring sister. He asks the Phantom who haunts him (a kind of alter ego) to release him from all past memories and immediately enters a new nightmare existence.  Without the emotional pressure of memory he finds himself unable to respond to the most intimate appeals. Meantime we get a glimpse of consumer jealousy at Christmas through the character of Mrs Tetterby: “such delightful things to have…(but) my stock of money was so small”, as she views the Christmas goods on display.  Most striking of all, however, is the figure of the vagabond child, found shivering on a doorstep, “a creature more like a young wild beast”, an even more harrowing vision than Ignorance and Want in “A Christmas Carol”.  Parents and guardians are castigated by Dickens as never before, for their responsibility for this child’s condition, bereft of any human touch.  As in “A Christmas Carol” repentance and reform are key aspects of the story’s resolution. The principal emphasis here is on the power of memory, resurrected in this story by the sound of Christmas music, without which there is no hope of redemption.  And so, beneath “a verdant wreath of holly”, the story ends with a prayer: ”Lord, Keep my Memory Green”.


The essay, ” A Christmas Tree”, was published in the Christmas edition of the weekly magazine Dickens edited, “Household Words”, in 1850.  It is a full-blooded, even fantastical, elaboration of this German addition to an English Christmas.  It is “that pretty German toy”, decked out in rosy-cheeked dolls, real watches, toy furniture, sweets, musical instruments and more, “a lively realization of the fancies of childhood”.  Going back to these turns out to be an intriguing mix of delight and terror, as the tremulous sensitivity of the child comes through. The “Orphan Boy”, almost a constant in Dickens’ Christmas stories, makes an appearance as a reminder of child neglect and the threat of child mortality.  Memories of “the sweet old Waits” and their music (the carol singers of earlier days) bring more comforting associations and the piece ends with overtly Christian references to the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion”.


“What Christmas is, as We Grow Older” formed Dickens’ contribution to the Christmas edition of “Household Words”, 1851.  It contains some intriguingly autobiographical material as it opens an ironic gap between ideal perceptions of Christmas family harmony and joy and the implied contrasting reality.  There is then an appeal to the spirit of forbearance and love to make the most of what has been and is to come though a combination of the “old aspirations” and the cherished recollections of those no longer with us.  It is Dickens’ attempt, perhaps, to come to terms with troubled relations with his in-laws, with his own parents and the pain of the loss of particular family members.

The Extra Christmas Number of “Household Words” for 1854 has Dickens’ “The Seven Poor Travellers”.  The narrator himself is the seventh traveller who contrives for the other six, in a special act of hospitality, a Christmas Eve feast at the charitable lodging house in Rochester, Kent, founded by a former citizen of that place, a place important in Dickens’ childhood.  The next day, Christmas Day, he sets off to walk to London to celebrate Christmas at his own home  It’s as if Dickens, in the person of the narrator, has brought the presence of his childhood along with him to inform this latest celebration. Prodigious walker as he was, his taking to the road enables him to experience, at a universal level, delight in the day: “I felt as if all Nature shared in the joy of the great Birthday”.


In the novels, as perhaps in Dickens’ own life, Christmas later seems to lose some of its glamour.  “Great Expectations”, of 1860-1, opens on Christmas Eve, though you would be hard-pressed to recognize it.  It is “a memorable raw afternoon towards evening”,out on the marshes near his home, memorable for our hero Pip not because it is Christmas Eve but because of the terrifying encounter he is to have with an escaped convict.  The first mention of Christmas Eve is in connection with Pip’s chore of having to stir the pudding for the next day, back at his home where, an orphan, he lives with his harsh and much older sister and her docile husband, the local blacksmith, Joe Gargery.  Such is this shrewish woman’s domination over her husband that she has even usurped his name and is known in the story as “Mrs Joe”.  Pip has been forced by the convict he stumbled across into a promise to bring him a file ( to get rid of the iron on his leg) and food early the next day.  The hunk of bread and butter he is given by his sister for supper he hides down his trouser leg, is accused of “bolting” his food, and dosed by his sister, ever ready to find fault, with a pint of “tar water”, a revolting disinfectant.  Pip gets little sleep that night, not because of his eagerness to see what Santa might have brought but because of his promise to steal food for the convict.  In the early hours of Christmas morning he takes bread, cheese, half a jar of mincemeat, brandy and a pork pie.  So the escaped convict on the freezing marshes enjoys the first meal of this Christmas Day, handing the food down his throat “like a man who was putting it there in a violent hurry”.  With the brandy, he is shaking so much “it was as much as he could do to keep the neck of the bottle between his teeth, without biting it off”.


Back at home Pip finds Mrs Joe “prodigiously busy in getting the house ready for the festivities of the day”.  Dinner is to consist of a leg of pickled pork and greens and a pair of roast stuffed fowls.  The little state parlour is opened up for the only day of the year.  Pip and Joe are dispatched to church and on their return Mrs Joe is ready to welcome their guests.  Chief among these is “Uncle Pumblechook”, a self-important relative of Joe’s who is singled out for special notice by his wife.  He, along with the other adult guests, find their chief source of entertainment in chastising Pip for his position of dependency.  Revenge of a kind is had on Pumblechook when Mrs Joe pours him a brandy which Pip has inadvertently topped up with tar water (to cover up his theft for the convict).  The meal is interrupted by a party of soldiers seeking a blacksmith to mend a faulty pair of handcuffs they need to apprehend the escaped convict.  Joe and Pip join them in their manhunt later and now Pip’s mental agony, which hasn’t let up since the start of the story, concerns his fear that the convict will think he has betrayed him.  The latter is recaptured and taken back to the prison ship in the Thames estuary.  Pip watches as the darkness becomes complete: “Then, the ends of the torches were flung hissing into the water, and went out, as if it were all over with him.”  Thus ends one of the most tortured Christmas Days in Dickens’ writings.


Christmas Eve, in Dickens’ last, unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (1870), is less tortured, but not much more cheerful.  The setting is Cloisterham, an ancient Cathedral town, probably based on Rochester, already mentioned as important in Dickens’ childhood. Here the past seems more alive than the present.  “Seasonable tokens are about”, sprigs of holly, sweetmeats in the shops, a bunch of mistletoe, but they remain just that, tokens.  “Public amusements are not wanting”; note the negative passive mode.  There is a Christmas pantomime at the theatre, for instance, but the joys of the season seem lost in another time and any celebrations of Christmas Eve or the next day are left unremarked.


So the Christmases for which Dickens is remembered belong to an earlier period of his output.  Even here, scenes of deprivation and neglect can be regarded as more powerfully presented than their somewhat sentimental and pious resolution.  Be that as it may, the power of memory as an emotional and moral force is paramount in Dickens’ depiction of Christmas.  As itself, the feast is a commemoration of a past event, the Incarnation, and its most vivid evocation probably belongs to the earliest part of our lives.  Let the conclusion be Dickens’ own, taken from “A Christmas Carol” – “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.