As 2012 is the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth, and Dickens had a major influence on how we celebrate the Christmas season, I thought it would be a good idea to read and comment on his Christmas writings. The best known of Dickens’ Christmas writings is, of course, A Christmas Carol. But Dickens produced a vast array of fiction with Christmas themes, as well as essays, every year. A portion of these can be sampled in the Penguin Classics edition of A Christmas Carol and Other Writings. I specify the Penguin edition because the notes in back are invaluable in providing background for modern readers. I label this review as contradictory because Dickens’ message concerning Christmas is contradictory. Sometimes his purpose to expose his readers to the harsher realities of life in Victorian England is undercut by his sentimentality. This review itself is contradictory as it is highly favorable to the literary merits of these writings while highly critical concerning Dickens’ message and influence concerning Christmas. Part I will cover the positive aspects of his writings.
A Christmas Carol is certainly the best of the selections. Its merits go beyond a great plot and memorable characters. Dickens’ use of humor was no small part of his success in making Ebenezer Scrooge a permanent fixture in our imaginations. This is the first description we have of Scrooge:
“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his coffee in the dog-days (July 3-August 11, when the dog-star Sirius rises with the sun, supposedly the hottest days of the year. I told you the Penguin notes were invaluable), and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, nor wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely (slang-give money generously), and Scrooge never did.
“Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, ‘My dear Scrooge, how are you? when will you come to see me?’ No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘no eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”
Dickens’ humor is on display in the short story which was the genesis of A Christmas Carol. In The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton (a person employed by a Church to care for the church property, ring the church bells, and dig graves), we have this description of Gabriel Grub, the forerunner of Ebenezer Scrooge:
“Gabriel Grub was an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow—a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket; and who eyed each merry face as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humor, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for.
“A little before twilight one Christmas eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself toward the old churchyard, for he got a grave to finish by next morning, and feeling low he thought it might raise his spirits perhaps, if he went on with his work at once.”
What was Gabriel’s reaction to meeting little children in the street?
“…groups of children bounded out of the houses, tripped across the road, and were met, before they could knock at the opposite door, by a half a dozen curly-headed rascals who crowed round them as they flocked upstairs to spend the evening in their Christmas games, Gabriel smiled grimly, and clutched the handle of his spade with a firmer grasp, as he thought of measles, scarlet-fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation besides.”
As he digs the grave he sings to himself:
“Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
A few feet of cold earth when life is done;
A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,
A rich juicy meal for the worms to eat;
Rank grass over head, and damp clay around,
Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground!
“ ‘Ho! ho!’ laughed Gabriel Grub, as he sat himself down on a flat tombstone which was a favorite resting place of his; and drew forth his wicker bottle. ‘A coffin at Christmas—a Christmas Box. Ho! ho! ho!’”
Though the Dickens portrait of a Victorian Christmas contains a great deal of sentimentality, there is a great deal of truth in the picture he paints. After all, he was writing of his own times for his contemporaries. If there was no truth in his portrayal of Christmas, he would not have had the credibility he had with Victorian readers. We learn the holiday rituals of Londoners when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a journey through the city. We learn what grocers had on stock on Christmas day in 1843:
“There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking in their wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced up demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths may water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins (Norfolk cooking apples, rusty red in color), squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among the choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that something was going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.”
Dickens describes how families brought their Christmas dinners to bakers’ ovens on the way to church. This was done on Sundays and Christmases to keep the ovens hot because the bakers themselves were prescribed by law to use their ovens themselves on those days. We learn about twelve-cakes, large frosted cakes with figures made of icing, to be consumed on January 6th, the last day of Christmas festivities. London terraced houses are described as having central gutters in which snow would accumulate. Residents would have to shovel the snow off the roof (causing hazards for the pedestrians below) before it melted and drained into the houses. Neighbors took advantage of this necessity to engage in snowball fights. (I’m sure that most, if not all of these houses were destroyed in WW II.) When the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to observe the festivities at Scrooge’s nephew’s house, we learn how adults amused themselves. We also learn the kinds of gifts people gave. It’s surprising how people were satisfied with plain gifts, while at the same time, it is amazing how sophisticated some of the toys were back then. For someone who loves history, and likes to imagine what the past was like, these details are invaluable.
However, Dickens showed his readers the unfortunate lived. The Ghost of Christmas Present had two children under his robes:
“They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish, but prostrate too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with their fairest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked; and glaring out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters so horrible and dread.”
The Spirit explains that the boy is dread and the girl is ignorance. He warns Scrooge to avoid both, especially the boy, for what is written on his forehead is doom, unless it is erased. The Spirit challenges the city of London to deny their existence and to slander those who make their existence known. “Deny it…Slander those who tell it ye? Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!” According to the notes, Dickens was referring to the failure to reform education because various factions disputed the nature of the religious instruction to be provided. Earlier in the story, when solicited for a charitable donation to help the poor, Scrooge condemns the poor to the workhouse and prisons. When Scrooge asks in real concern what help can be given to the two children, the spirit replies, “Are there no prisons?…Are there no workhouses?” Scrooge’s words are thrown back on him to shame him.
In giving Scrooge a vision of how others live, the Spirits provide a truthful picture of how those in unfortunate circumstances model contentment. Whether its Bob Cratchit’s family, or some couple, the wife who was once been engaged to Scrooge, we see Dickens’ ability to rise above sentimentality to accurately portray families who have learned to love and support one another and find happiness in the midst of want.
These are the positive aspects of Dickens’ Christmas writings. Part II will be an examination of the weakness of Dickens’ vision of Christmas.