PENGUINCLASSICS.COM The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Penguin Classics On Air

What better way to get into the festive spirit than by taking at look at Dickens's celebration of Christmas, with an essay by Michael Slater, Editor of Penguin's A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings.

Michael Slater is an emeritus professor at Birkbeck College, London, and past president of the Dickens Fellowship and the Dickens Society of America.

A favorite anecdote of Dickens biographers is one first recorded by Theodore Watts-Dunton about a London barrow-girl whom he overheard exclaiming on June 9th, 1870, "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?" This identification of Dickens with the festival of Christmas, so deeply inscribed in the popular culture of the English-speaking world, began when he was still a young man, just over a month short of his thirty-second birthday, but already firmly established as England's favorite novelist. The process had been initiated by the "Good-Humoured Christmas Chapter" in the tenth monthly number of Pickwick Papers, published at the end of December 1836, but it was what Dickens called the "most prodigious success" ("the greatest, I think, I have ever achieved") of his first "Christmas Book," A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, that clinched the matter. First published on December 17, 1843, this little book had already sold over 5,000 copies by Christmas Eve, and its publishers, Chapman and Hall, were planning the first of many reprints. Since this triumphant debut the Carol has never been out of print, being usually available in a number of different editions, and it has become as much part of the furniture of the Anglo-American Christmas as holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees and Christmas crackers. Nor, of course, is it only in its printed form that the Carol has had so great an impact on us during the past 160 years; in his Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge Paul Davis gives us an illuminating survey of the work's rich history as what he calls a "culture-text," investigating the constant modifications and changes made to Dickens's original text in the various British and American stage and screen adaptations that have proliferated over the years, adaptations that are clearly responsive to changing social conditions and aspirations on both sides of the Atlantic.

What Philip Collins has described as the Carol's "institutional status" in our culture helps maintain the popular belief that Dickens virtually invented the English Christmas single-handed. The case is rather that he was hugely influential, primarily as a result of the Carol's tremendous and enduring popularity, in ensuring that a certain turn was given to the revival of traditional Christmas festivities that was already well under way in Britain during the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century. This turn involved emphasizing the concept of Christian charity. A leading article (headed "The Merriest Christmas to All") in the Pictorial Times for December 23, 1843 shows that Dickens was not the only one making this emphasis:

"At this joyous season of dinners and laughing faces, it becomes all who are worthy to enjoy such mirth to the full, to think of the poor—of the poor who, without their aid, can have no enjoyment... While the fire blazes on our hearth, and the table is covered so plenteously, let us think of the poor in their chilly hovels with bare tables, and of the yet more wretched objects, houseless wanderers in the open streets..."

Such exhortations as this could doubtless be found in many leading articles of the time (it was after all the "Hungry Forties," a period of widespread economic hardship and social distress), and would have featured in many a Christmastide sermon. Punch had, in its first Christmas issue (1841), published an article by Dickens's friend the radical-liberal dramatist and journalist Douglas Jerrold called "How Mr. Chokepear Kept a Merry Christmas," in which a prosperous merchant keeps a "Christmas of the belly," feasting and frolicking but ignoring all claims of the poor on his charity. Jerrold urges his readers rather to keep "the Christmas of the heart" and to "Give - give." The message is found, too, on the first Christmas card which appeared in the same year as the Carol. Designed by John Calcott Horsley, RA, for Henry Cole (later Sir Henry, inaugurator and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum), it was in triptych style showing in the central scene a prosperous-looking family party pledging the viewer with brimming wine-glasses and, in the side-panels, the charitable acts of "Clothing the Naked" and "Feeding the Hungry." But Dickens's modern fairy-tale of Scrooge and the Cratchits with its strong, but wholly non-sectarian, Christian coloring had an impact no leader-writer or moralizing satirical journalist, no preacher or card-designer could have hoped to achieve (for one thing, leading articles and sermons were not susceptible of being dramatized for the delight of thousands who could not, or did not, read the papers and who rarely, if ever, heard a sermon). Dickens's self-appointed "Critic Laureate," Lord Jeffrey, was moved to write to him: "Blessings on your kind heart ... you may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom since Christmas 1842." The Carol's first reviewers similarly emphasized the book's humanity, "beneficial tendency" and sympathy for those suffering "the real grinding sorrows of life." It was, Thackeray declared, "a national benefit and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness."

The revival of interest in Christmas traditions that developed among the literati during the 1820's and 1830's was not primarily inspired by zeal for promoting the exercise of Christian charity. It related more to the growth of a taste for the picturesque as well as to Tory nostalgia for the "good old days" of a more settled state of society, acceptance of hierarchy and supposed class harmony. Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, had commented back in 1807: "All persons say how differently this season was observed in their fathers' days, and speak of old ceremonies and old festivities as things which are obsolete." A year later came Scott's famous evocation, in his introduction to the sixth canto of Marmion, of "olden time" Christmas festivities, centered on the Baron's hall and featuring a boar's head, Christmas pies, yule logs and "carols roar'd with blithesome din." This seized the imagination of many among his thousands of readers and was still a potent vision thirty years later when Dickens's much-loved friend Daniel Maclise created his wide-angle history painting Merry Christmas in the Baron's Hall showing the Baron, his family and, in Scott's phrase, "vassal, tenant, serf and all" celebrating the festival together. Meanwhile, the American writer Washington Irving made a fanciful picture, not without a hint of satire, in his description of Squire Bracebridge's Christmas revels at his ancestral home Bracebridge Hall (in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., 1820) of how an English country gentleman with an antiquarian bent might, with his extended family, servants and guests, still keep up the picturesque seasonal rituals of yesteryear. Dickens, a devoted reader of Irving, was strongly influenced by him in his depiction of the Pickwickians' old-fashioned Christmas merry-making as guests of Old Wardle at Manor Farm in Dingley Dell. Indeed, all this part of Pickwick may be seen, like Maclise's painting, as responding to Scott's and Irving's romantic antiquarianism and idealization of the traditional English Christmas as can T. K. Hervey's The Book of Christmas: Descriptive of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling and festivities of the Christmas Season, (1837; illustrated by Robert Seymour, the first illustrator of Pickwick). We might note too the appearance in 1831 and 1832 of W. H. Harrison's The Humourist, a Companion for the Christmas Fireside and in 1833 of William Sandys's Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. In all this the emphasis was very much on traditional festivity in a setting overflowing with creature comforts in which servants and dependants joyfully shared. Dickens's own first literary treatment of Christmas appeared in Bell's Life in London on December 27, 1835 as part of a series of sketches entitled "Scenes and Characters" that the young journalist was contributing to the paper under the pen-name of "Tibbs." Its title, "Christmas Festivities" (changed to "A Christmas Dinner" when he included it in his earliest Sketches by Boz collection a few months later), perhaps led readers to expect an exercise in Washington Irving-type nostalgia. The sketch has a very contemporary ring to it, however. The traditional rituals of "Old Christmas" are to be found in it but modified to suit the home of a well-to-do London family (the kind of home to which Dickens's parents would have aspired). The "olden day" Baron and his Lady have become the genial hosts Uncle and Aunt George, and the "retainers" are now servants wearing beautiful, new, pink-ribboned caps (but they celebrate Christmas in their own quarters not with the family), the boar's head has become a fine turkey, and the medieval pastimes have become "a glorious game of blind man's buff." When, at the beginning of the sketch, Dickens refers to "people who tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be" he does not mean such praisers of past times as Southey and Scott but those who have suffered personal sorrows, wrongs and misfortunes which this great anniversary occasion must inevitably bring to mind. This theme of dealing, or failing to deal, with painful memories subsequently becomes a leading one in nearly all Dickens's Christmas writings - often associated, as it is here, with the death of a beloved small child. In this sketch Dickens exhorts his readers not to suppress all painful memories as Scrooge will do, nor seek to expunge them as Redlaw the Haunted Man will do, but simply to put them to one side and instead to count their blessings and rejoice in them. A year later in Pickwick, however, he is seeing such memories as actually integral to the joys of Christmas:

"Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then [in the Christmas gatherings of our earlier years], have ceased to beat; ... the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstance connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday. Happy, happy Christmas that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days ..." (Pickwick Papers, ch. 28)

This exordium seems to have no more to do with the scenes that follow, the Pickwickians' Christmas revels, than was the case with the exordium of "Christmas Festivities." Neither Mr. Pickwick and his friends nor Old Wardle and his family seem to have any consciousness of lost dear ones (we may perhaps discount old Mrs. Wardle's fondness for invoking the shade of "the beautiful Lady Tollimglower deceased") or, indeed, any memories at all - apart from that contained in Mr Pickwick's one allusion to sliding on the ice in his younger days. It is as though Dickens had not yet found a way of satisfactorily combining sentiment (the memory theme) and story (Christmas revels).

As to the theme of loving kindness to the poor, that is simply absent from the Bell's sketch and, insofar as it is present at all in the Dingley Dell scenes, it is matter for comedy - the sycophantic "poor relations" are pure figures of fun (in the game of blind man's buff, for example, they "caught the people who they thought would like it; and when the game flagged, got caught themselves"). Interestingly, however, the poor who appear in the inset fireside tale related by Old Wardle are endowed with both dignity and pathos. This tale of Gabriel Grub, the solitary old misanthrope converted by supernatural means to benevolence and belief in human goodness, is Dickens's first Christmas Story, and the daily heroism of the poor struggling to lead decent and loving family lives is at the very heart of it.

As John Butt was the first to point out, this "Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton" is the prototype for the Carol. The Cratchit family and the doomed child are already to be discerned in it, though not yet named and individualized, and old Grub is moved by the visions of their mutual love and endurance of suffering that the goblins compel him to witness. But he has no personal connection with them, his conversion from misanthropy has no consequences for them, nor has it anything to do with the workings of memory. We learn no more of his personal history than we do of Mr Pickwick's. Some of the main elements of the Carol are present in the story but they are still in solution as it were. Dickens's next step towards the realization of his Christmas masterpiece comes with a passage written in 1840 for his new weekly miscellany Master Humphrey's Clock.

Dickens had, by the end of 1839, been writing solidly for four years with ever-increasing success. Oliver Twist had succeeded Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby had succeeded Oliver, the serialization of each book overlapping with its successor or predecessor. Dickens now wanted some relief and hoped to achieve it by means of this miscellany, to which it was intended that other writers should contribute, though in the end this did not happen. Master Humphrey, the supposed "editor" of the miscellany, is a reclusive old bachelor, a cripple (a sort of grown-up Tiny Tim avant la lettre), whose memories of his younger days, though tinged with sadness, predispose him towards a love of humanity. His Christmas Day behavior seems to be modeled on Leigh Hunt's 1817 advice in one of his essays on old Christmas customs and the "Desirableness of their Revival" in what he saw as the money-obsessed, utilitarian-minded world of the second and third decades of the nineteenth century: "Stir up your firesides, and your smiles, and your walks abroad ... every fresh thing done to give joy to a fellow-creature, every festivity set a-going among friends, or servants, or the village ... every rub of one's own hands, and shake of another's, in-doors, - will be so much gain to the spirit and real happiness of the age." It is as a result of walking genially abroad on Christmas Day (something that Dickens himself delighted in doing) that Master Humphrey encounters and rescues another afflicted solitary, the Deaf Gentleman, who seems to be in danger of becoming a prototype Haunted Man as he sits in a deserted tavern coffee-room brooding over lost happiness resulting from some kind of betrayal or desertion by someone he loved. In this little episode Dickens first makes the link between painful memories and Christmas benevolence that thereafter becomes so fundamental to his Christmas writings.

Three and a half more years were to pass before the Carol was conceived. Dickens wrote two more novels, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, made his traumatic tour of the United States, and returned to the twenty-monthly-number format of Pickwick and Nickleby for his new work, Martin Chuzzlewit. The climactic scene of The Old Curiosity Shop with its snowy landscape and the beautiful, much-loved dying child (who, unlike Tiny Tim, really "DOES die") seems to hover on the edge of becoming a Dickens Christmas Story and, indeed, as Malcolm Andrews has shown, "is transformed into a kind of Nativity." Dickens did not write directly about Christmas again, however, until a sudden inspiration in October 1843 precipitated the creation of the Carol.

Earlier in the year he, like Elizabeth Barrett and many others, had been appalled by the brutal revelations of the Second Report (Trades and Manufactures) of the Children's Employment Commission set up by Parliament. Barrett published a powerful poem, "The Cry of the Children," and Dickens, "perfectly stricken down" by the Report, contemplated bringing out "a very cheap pamphlet, called 'An appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child'." Speaking at the first annual soirée of the Manchester Athenaeum, an institution which sought to bring culture and "blameless rational enjoyment" to the working classes, Dickens dwelt on the terrible sights he had seen among the juvenile population in London's jails and doss-houses and stressed the desperate need for educating the poor. This occasion seems to have put into his mind the idea for a story, building on, but also utterly transforming, the old Pickwick Christmas Eve tale of Gabriel Grub, which should help to open the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless but which should also bring centrally into play the theme of memory that, as we have seen, was always so strongly associated with Christmas for him.

The Carol was written at white heat in such "odd moments of leisure" as Dickens could snatch from his work on the eleventh monthly installment of Chuzzlewit. Describing its composition to his American friend Cornelius Felton, he wrote: "Charles Dickens wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner, in the composition; and thinking whereof, he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed." The little book's triumphant reception has already been mentioned. It was attractively produced as a Christmas gift book, price five shillings, with salmon-brown covers, gilt lettering, colored end-papers, gilt edges and wonderful illustrations by Dickens's friend the Punch artist John Leech. Four of these were dropped into the text and four were hand-colored full-page insets. Catherine Waters has acutely noted that, since an important part of Christmas tradition was fireside story-telling ("Ghost Stories, or more shame for us," Dickens insists), a publication like the Carol has a "doubled function" in that "it forms part of the ritual ... it is concerned to portray." Dickens enhances this effect by using a particularly intimate narrative tone as here in the description of Scrooge's encounter with the first of the Spirits: "[he] found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor ... as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow."

The chief interest of the story for us today is centered around the brilliantly named figure of Scrooge, evoking the sense both of 'screw' and of 'gouge'. He is an extraordinary combination of, on the one hand, such mythic creatures as Jack Frost and child-quelling ogres and, on the other, a rusty, surly, mean-spirited old London money-dealer. This figure is one of the most exuberant of Dickens's great grotesques (when Chesterton said that we suspect Scrooge of having secretly given away turkeys all his life, he was, in his own inimitable way, responding to this exuberance). But, as Paul Davis has shown, for the Carol's earliest readers it was the Cratchit scenes that were "the emotional center of the tale." This should remind us that it was very much a book of its time, the "Hungry Forties," when the very survival of poor families outside of the workhouse was a precarious matter. There is something defiant about the Cratchits' frugally succulent Christmas dinner, their loving family solidarity and their tender care of Tiny Tim that would have given heart and hope to thousands of struggling families, some of whom actually wrote to Dickens to tell him, "amid many confidences, about their homes, how the Carol had come to be read aloud there, and was to be kept upon a little shelf by itself, and was to do them no end of good."

At the same time, by steering clear of too much topical reference (not having Bob Cratchit tempted to become a Chartist, for example) Dickens avoided alienating his middle-class readers. True, the Westminster Review condemned him, in June 1844, for his ignorance of political economy and the "laws" of supply and demand: "Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them - for, unless there were turkeys and punch in surplus, some one must go without - is a disagreeable reflection kept wholly out of sight [by Dickens]." But this was a predictable reaction from Utilitarian extremists. In general, middle-class readers would have recognized in the horrifying little figures of Ignorance and Want an all-too-true presentation in allegorical terms of the grim truth about the children of the poor that lay behind the somewhat fairy-tale character of Tiny Tim (we notice that Leech depicts Dickens's symbolic children against a background not of the streets of Scrooge's London but of grim workhouse-like buildings and "dark satanic mills"). In putting his dire warning of potential social catastrophe into the mouth of the Ghost of Christmas Present Dickens is using a rhetoric with which middle-class readers would have been familiar from the fulminations of Dickens's intellectual hero Carlyle, whose scarifying "Condition of England" diatribe, Past and Present, had been published only a few months earlier. In contrast to Carlyle's fuliginous social pessimism, however, Dickens offered his readers the vision of an alternative, altogether more hopeful, future, imaged in the beneficent cavortings of the reclaimed Scrooge. Desperate as the state of the nation might appear, it was not yet too late for a total change, of course with charity beginning at home among the better-off and spreading outwards from there in ever-widening circles to bring about a kinder, juster society. Even Carlyle himself, for all his criticism of Dickens's soft-hearted sentimentalism, was not immune to the power of the Carol. The descriptions of feasting in the book had "so worked on [his] nervous organisation," Jane Carlyle wrote to her cousin Jeannie Welsh on December 23rd, "that he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and has actually insisted on improvising two dinner-parties with only a day between."

The phenomenal popular success of the Carol (even though it proved a financial disappointment to Dickens as a result of the high costs involved in its production and the keeping-down of its price) made it inevitable that he should produce a series of successor volumes for the following Christmas and several Christmases after that. He wrote four more "Christmas Books" (as they were collectively titled when first gathered into one volume for the Cheap Edition of Dickens's works in 1852). All were published in the same format as the Carol and illustrated by distinguished artist friends of Dickens, but the expensive hand-colored plates were dropped. The Carol's immediate successor was The Chimes. A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (1844), followed by The Cricket on the Hearth. A Fairy Tale of Home (1845), The Battle of Life. A Love Story (1846), and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain. A Fancy for Christmas-Time (1848). The non-appearance of a volume for Christmas 1847 stemmed from Dickens's imperative need that autumn to concentrate wholly on his new novel, Dombey and Son, then well over half-way through its serialization in twenty monthly parts. He had to put on hold the working-out of the "very ghostly and wild idea" that he had conceived for the expected Christmas Book but this postponement was not done lightly. Dickens was, he wrote to Forster, not only 'very loath to lose the money" but "still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill," thereby signaling his recognition that for the British public he himself had by now become a significant element in the annual celebration.

Dickens's major Christmas theme of home and family love is prominent in all these little books, and the use of the supernatural, that element he deemed so essential for a real Christmas tale, is crucial to them all (except the Battle, where its absence is damaging, as Dickens recognized). But it is only the Carol and The Haunted Man that have Christmas settings and can be said to be actually about Christmas. The fiercely political Chimes is, as its subtitle proclaims, very much a New Year's book, the pretty fairy-tale Cricket also has a New Year's setting and the Battle, though it does have one scene taking place at Christmas time, ranges over different seasons. I have, therefore, included only the Carol and The Haunted Man in the present collection of Dickens's writings about Christmas.

The Haunted Man not only has a Christmas setting but actually returns to some of the main figures of the Carol - the solitary central character somehow dislocated from common humanity, the poor family sustained by mutual love and the terrible apparitions Ignorance and Want, here made flesh (or rather skin and bone) in the person of the unnamed but unforgettable savage street-child. From them Dickens evolves a story about the inter-relationship between memory, especially the memory of wrongs and sorrows, the moral life, social responsibility and the survival of human feelings among the very poor that, in some ways, probes these issues more deeply and painfully than does the Carol. Redlaw is a more complex figure than Scrooge, no quasi-ogre but a famous scientist and teacher whose life is blighted by memories of the painful past but whose last state is fearfully worse than his first when he opts to be supernaturally released from them. The Tetterby family's devotion to its youngest and weakest member, Little Moloch, is not quite (as the sinister overtones of the comic nickname suggest) the unambiguously heartwarming thing it is in the case of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim. Dickens, too, is out to shame his readers in a much more direct way than in the Carol (he will not be quite so confrontational again until the famous address to the reader after the death of Poor Jo at the end of chapter 47 of Bleak House). Pointing to the savage child, Redlaw's haunting Phantom admonishes him:

"There is not a father ... by whose side in his daily or his nightly walks, these creatures, [such as the savage boy] pass; there is not a mother among all the ranks of loving mothers in this land; there is no one risen from the state of childhood, but shall be responsible in his or her degree for this enormity. There is not a country throughout the earth on which it would not bring a curse. There is no religion upon earth that it would not deny; there is no people upon earth it would not put to shame."

The Haunted Man was hardly a success in Dickens sales terms but it was better received than The Battle of Life, which was generally panned by the critics although, helped by its predecessor's enormous popularity, it sold 23,000 copies on publication day. In The Haunted Man critics praised the depiction of Johnny and Little Moloch ("Dickens," declared the Atlas reviewer on December 23rd, "is a dead hand at a baby"), and also that of the savage child, but the work was found in general to be too incoherent and "metaphysical." For modern scholars such as Harry Stone its main attraction has been its obvious autobiographical overtones. The presence of these overtones is hardly surprising since in the later 1840s Dickens was evidently thinking a great deal about his own past - especially about what Forster calls those "hard experiences in boyhood" that feature so prominently in the so-called "Autobiographical Fragment" (written about this time but not published until Forster included extracts from it in his biography). Significantly, the novel on which Dickens began working immediately after The Haunted Man was the quasi-autobiographical David Copperfield.

By the time Christmas 1849 was drawing near Dickens was well into the writing of Copperfield and there was no mention of any Christmas Book. His 1846 experience of writing one whilst also working on a major novel was not something he would have wished to repeat. No doubt he was disgusted also by the host of pseudo-Dickens "Christmas Books" that now regularly flooded the market each December. In any case, by autumn of 1850 he had ready to his hand a different vehicle by which to convey the expected seasonal salutation to his eager public. Since the end of March he had been editing a weekly journal called Household Words and the obvious thing was to devote to Christmas themes the last issue to appear before December 25. Accordingly, he filled it with a series of articles by various hands with such titles as "Christmas in Lodgings," "Christmas in the Navy," "Christmas Among the London Poor and Sick," and so on. He wrote the first, as it were leading, article himself. This was his superlative "Christmas Tree" essay, a virtuoso variation on the memory theme. He used the "pretty German toy," as he called the decorated tree (referring to its introduction into Britain by Prince Albert in 1841), as a device on which to build this essay in which one notable modern Dickensian has claimed to find "in little the essence of Dickens's world," a paradoxical blend of delight and terror, reality and deception, "childhood ringed by mortality," and fancy and gravity.

Encouraged by the excellent sales of this issue, Dickens determined that the following year there should be a special "Extra Number for Christmas" of Household Words, and so began a tradition which continued for the next sixteen years, being carried over from Household Words to its successor, All The Year Round, in 1859. Sales of these Christmas numbers were consistently prodigious, reaching a quarter of a million in the 1860's. As with the 1850 issue, Dickens recruited other writers to collaborate with him on these issues. He began in 1851 with a simple linking formula, "What Christmas Is" (e.g., Harriet Martineau's contribution is entitled "What Christmas Is in Country Places") and then, when all the individual essays had come in, decided that the number needed "something with no detail in it, but a tender fancy that shall hit a great many people." The year 1851 was one during which he had lost both his much-loved father and his infant daughter Dora, so it was natural that his favorite Christmas theme of the need to be open to the loving remembrance of lost dear ones should find its fullest expression to date in this essay, "What Christmas Is as We Grow Older."

From a simple formula linking the various self-contained stories Dickens moved on in 1852 to the framing device of a "Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire." From that, two years later, he developed the idea of a framing narrative into which individual stories would be slotted, thus reverting to the basic scheme of his beloved Arabian Nights which he had already tried to make work in Master Humphrey's Clock. The first Christmas number in this form was the one for 1854, "The Seven Poor Travellers," in which the framing narrative is set in Rochester, beloved haunt of Dickens's boyhood, on Christmas Eve. Earlier in the year he had visited Watts's Charity in Rochester High Street and had perhaps reflected that the chance coming-together of half a dozen wayfarers for a night's lodging would provide an ideal setting for group story-telling, with the character of each traveler being assigned to one of his literary collaborators, who would then invent a story appropriate to that character. In succeeding Christmas numbers Dickens's framing narrative tended to become more elaborate, especially for those numbers in which Wilkie Collins was his chief or even sole collaborator. The immediately succeeding one, "The Holly Tree Inn" (1855), still had a Christmas Eve setting but more incidentally so than "The Seven Poor Travellers," and after that the annual frame stories, on which Dickens continued to lavish so much care, ceased to have any relationship to Christmas.

Though Dickens told his contributors that he was not at all concerned that their stories should have any direct reference to Christmas, he did nevertheless want them to "strike the chord of the season." He defined "the Christmas spirit" in "What Christmas Is as We Grow Older" as "the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness, and forbearance" and we find that these qualities feature prominently in his Christmas Stories, tales that centre around themes of forgiveness, restitution, reconciliation, tenderness, the power of self-sacrificing love even in the most terrible circumstances, the blighting effects of trying to isolate oneself from the rest of humanity, and, always, the vital importance of memory and imagination to the moral health of the individual. Though no longer writing in the "whimsical kind of masque" mode of the earlier Christmas Books, one of Dickens's main aims in these special Christmas numbers could still be described in the words of his general preface to the Carol and its successors: "to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." From the earliest numbers the idea of a first-person narrator seems to have been central to Dickens's conception of a Christmas number and the mid-1860s saw some of his greatest triumphs in this form: Christopher the waiter in "Somebody's Luggage," Mrs. Lirriper in "Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings" and "Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy" and Dr Marigold in "Dr. Marigold's Prescriptions."

The Household Words and All The Year Round "Christmas Stories," as they came to be known collectively, naturally helped to perpetuate the public's association of Dickens with Christmas (insofar as the festival featured at all in his later novels, it was, interestingly, in a distinctly non-festive way: witness the young Pip's tormented Christmas dinner in Great Expectations and the uninspiring Christmas scene in Cloisterham in Edwin Drood that is, apparently, the setting for a particularly horrible murder). But what above all caused the idea of Dickens as the great celebrator of Christmas to continue to flourish were his hugely popular public readings of the Carol, at first for charity and then professionally, between 1853 and 1870. Philip Collins describes the Carol reading, which Dickens gradually whittled down to a one-and-a-half hour performance, as "the quintessential Dickens reading ... the greatest of platform pieces from his works" and lists no less than 127 performances in all of this particular item. Dickens also drew on some of the later "Christmas Stories" for his readings repertoire, as well as on some of the novels, but the Carol remained one of the two perennial favorites, the other being the trial scene from Pickwick. The Carol reading was very much focused on the Cratchit sequences with the family's Christmas dinner as the high point (Fezziwig's ball, the least cut scene from Scrooge's past in the final version of the reading, was also much relished by audiences). Ignorance and Want were soon excised from the reading text - no doubt Dickens felt that they were too much creatures of the 1840's - leaving Tiny Tim as the sole focus for pathos and evidently a very effective one. A great number of testimonies survive extolling the power of Dickens's reading of "his blessed Christmas gospel," as one American admirer called the Carol: "unlike the other Readings," Collins comments, "there was about this one an element of a rite, a religious affirmation."

John Ruskin is not known to have attended a Dickens reading of the Carol. Even had he done so, he might not have altered his famous verdict that Christmas for Dickens was nothing more than "mistletoe and pudding — neither resurrection from the dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds." In fact, the star, the angel and the shepherds and the wise men are all present in Dickens's description of the Nativity in his Life of Our Lord, written for the private use of his children (it remained unpublished until 1934). Nevertheless, the presentation of Jesus here would probably not have met with Ruskin's approbation. Dickens presents him as very much a human child, the son of Joseph and Mary, who will grow up to be so good that God will love him as his own son "and he will teach men to love one another." For Dickens, temperamentally and intellectually averse to theological debate, Jesus was above all the greatest teacher and healer who ever lived. He it was who, as Tiny Tim says, "made lame beggars walk and blind men see" and the miracles he performed were made possible through the power that God gave him. He was goodness incarnate and for Dickens, admiring reader of Wordsworth as he was, we are closest to being like Jesus when we are children. And it is essential for our moral and spiritual health that we never lose touch with our childhood "for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself" (Carol, p. 89). Dickens wrote to the Reverend David Macrae that his Christmas Books were "absolutely impossible ... to be separated from the exemplification of the Christian virtues and the inculcation of the Christian precepts," adding that in every one of them "there is an express text preached on, and that text is always taken from the lips of Christ." This would be hard to illustrate, I think, but about the strong Christian coloring to be found in them there can be no doubt, quite apart from specific Scriptural references. And at least one notable reader found great spiritual depth in them. Van Gogh told his brother in the spring of 1889 that he had been rereading Dickens's Christmas Books and added, "There are things in them so profound that one must read them over and over again." Certainly, there is more to them than "mistletoe and pudding."

Buy the book here:
A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

Further reading by Charles Dickens:

The Pickwick Papers

Oliver Twist

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

The Old Curiosity Shop

Barnaby Rudge

Martin Chuzzlewit

Dombey and Son

David Copperfield

Great Expectations

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings
read more »

« back to essays