Free Christmas Activities for Santas and Scrooges

It’s that time of year when many of us are feeling broke.   Maybe we’ve spent too much on Christmas once again but the damage is done, so if you’re looking for a few free seasonal activities, or ones which require very little money, then read on. 

Take in a small town Santa Claus parade, preferably one at night with lots of  lights.   

Christmas parade Santa Claus

I love being able to walk down to the corner of my subdivision and see our little parade.  It gives you a chance to see with all the neighbors who have been hibernating inside this time of year, and later you can visit the town square for free hot chocolate and cookies.  There are the same floats year after year but who cares, it’s tradition, plus Santa is the main attraction.   Sure beats the city parade where you have to leave so early to get a parking spot and then stand in the cold for hours staking out your curbside space.

Splurge on a fancy specialty coffee at the mall.   $5 for a Cup of Christmas Cheer, complete with burnt brown sugar topping.   What a marketing tool – sign me up. 

Christmas Coffee in a Cup

Verdict – a bit too sweet, but the perfect antidote to shop til you drop.    Personally, I avoid the mall but some people enjoy all the last minute hustle and bustle and need the extra calories to brave the crowds. 

Take in A Free Celebration of Lights Bus Tour:   The city provides special transit buses for half hour tours of the lights, all for the price of a donated can of goods.

Celebration of LIghts

If you don’t have a Celebration of Lights in your area, then take a walk around your neighborhood and enjoy the twinkling displays.  

Christmas Holiday Lights

Avert your eyes when you come to The Inflatable Village, (lost count after thirty), because it shines brighter than Rudolph’s nose. 

Rudolph

Oh my nose!

Go skating.   Many local arenas sponsor free family hours once the kids are out of school.  

Skating Rink

Go Caroling in the Snow.    Many years ago, I had a group of grade school carolers at my front door – what fun they were having!   Our local paper still publishes a free carol song book, but I wonder what happens to the stacks of free copies in the grocery store now that so many people don’t read a print newspaper anymore.   

Carol Song Book

No carolers in your group, then attend a church Christmas cantata or carol sing. 

Carol sing notice

I’m a big fan of those old church hymns from years ago, although the last time I attended church there was folk music?   Christmas Eve mass belongs to Hark the Harold Angels Sing and The First Noel, and always Joy to the World at the end.    Not a church goer, dust off your old albums in the basement and crank up the vintage turntable.

Mitch Miller

Set up your traditional nativity scene, the reason for the season if you are Christian.   My dad made this one back in 1950 from old barn board, long before barn board was fashionable, and my mother bought the figurines at Kresge’s dime store.   The star he made in grade school always sits atop the snow on the roof. 

Nativity scene

Sit in your living room and stare at your tree, or twinkly lights if you don’t have a tree, or light some candles.   

Christmas tree

Open a box of Pot of Gold chocolates ($3.99 on sale), and indulge in your favorites.    

Pot of Gold Chocolates

Watch your favorite classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, The Sound of Music, A Christmas Carol or all of them.

A Christmas Carol movie

Or make reading the book an annual tradition.

A Christmas Carol

Enjoy a wee small glass of port and a slice of Christmas cake late on Christmas Eve (my Irish family tradition), watch midnight mass on TV and wait for Santa to come.    Track his progress on the eleven o’clock news.  Merry Christmas to one and all!

santa and his reindeer

 

 

Santa’s Favorite Chocolate Cookies

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is making several batches of no-bake chocolate/oatmeal/peanut butter cookies a week or two before Christmas and distributed them to all the hungry little elves who are slaving away trying to make Christmas good for everyone.   They are always a crowd-pleaser at pot-lucks too.   I don’t know what they are called, but I inherited the recipe from a sister-in-law back in the eighties so we refer to them as her cookies, but you could call them Santa’s favorites.  

Chocolate cookies

I don’t make them any other time of year, just at Christmas, although with the chocolate they would be suitable for Valentine’s Day too.   It’s hard to justify the calories, but they do contain some good-for-you ingredients, like oatmeal (for lowering cholesterol), milk (source of calcium), peanut butter (for protein) and cocoa (source of antioxidants), even if there is a fair bit of sugar in the recipe.   I find good old-fashioned grocery store Fry’s cocoa works best, as the one year I tried a fancy imported French brand, they were way too chocolaty, so I needed to add less.   (Note: some versions of this recipe only use 1/4 cup cocoa but I’ve always used 1/3 cup of Fry’s, so you could adjust to your taste if you have a richer cocoa.)    

Fry's Cocoa

Recipe:

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup Peanut Butter 

2 cups white sugar

1/3 cup cocoa  

1/2 cup milk

3 cups oatmeal (rolled minute oats)

2 tsp (10ml) vanilla

Mix sugar and cocoa in a pan.  Add butter and milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.    When it starts to boil, boil 1 to 1 1/2 minutes exactly.   This is a full boil, not just a few bubbles.   Do not under boil as the mixture will not set properly after you add the other ingredients.

Chocolate cookies

As the chocolate mixture has to be boiled in a pan on the stove, these cookies are not suitable for kids to make.   Santa’s little helpers could help measure the ingredients though. 

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, peanut butter and rolled oats in that order.    I use Crunchy peanut butter as that’s what I buy, but Smooth is okay too.

Chocolate cookies

Once you have added the peanut butter to the boiling chocolate mixture and whisked it through, and then added the oatmeal, you have to work quickly to scoop out the mixture before it sets.   Drop by teaspoon onto wax paper or non-stick baking pans.   Let cool thoroughly.   Makes 24 cookies.    Keep them in an airtight container.   If they dry out too much after a few days, you can zap them in the microwave for ten seconds to make them moist again. 

Chocolate cookies

Some batches turn out drier than others, depending if I have let it boil too long, but it doesn’t affect the overall taste.   It’s all good.   They can be stored at room temperature or in the fridge, or frozen for later.    

I usually keep a batch in the freezer and defrost when needed, even it it’s just one cookie as a treat with a cup of tea before bed.   Heating them up in the microwave for about ten seconds makes them even better as there’s nothing like a warm chocolate cookie.   Don’t forget to leave some out for Santa!  

Christmas mug with cookies       

 

      

The Literary Salon – The Man Who Invented Christmas

A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books of all time.   I love it for it’s perfect plot, it’s memorable characters and it’s simple message of hope and redemption.  If you want to know the story behind the writing of this Christmas classic then this months Literary Salon selection may be for you.    

The Man Who Invented Christmas Book

I first wrote about Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol in a Dec 2017 blog where there is a link to the 68 page handwritten manuscript on view each year at the Morgan Library in New York.   It’s interesting to see how many revisions he made to the original.   Can you imagine Tiny Tim being called Tiny Fred?  This year it is open to the page with the famous description of the foggy London street and the introduction of Scrooge in his counting-house.   

Last year I blogged about A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life as it struck me how many of the descriptions and themes are still applicable today.   

But back to how the story came about, for don’t we always want to know where other writers get their muse.   

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday SpiritsThe Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ultimate Christmas gift for the Dickens fan, this little book makes a great stocking stuffer!

The Publisher’s Blurb:   

As uplifting as the tale of Scrooge itself, this is the story of how one writer and one book revived the signal holiday of the Western world.   Just before Christmas in 1843, a debt-ridden and dispirited Charles Dickens wrote a small book he hoped would keep his creditors at bay. His publisher turned it down, so Dickens used what little money he had to put out A Christmas Carol himself. He worried it might be the end of his career as a novelist.  The book immediately caused a sensation. And it breathed new life into a holiday that had fallen into disfavor, undermined by lingering Puritanism and the cold modernity of the Industrial Revolution. It was a harsh and dreary age, in desperate need of spiritual renewal, ready to embrace a book that ended with blessings for one and all.   With warmth, wit, and an infusion of Christmas cheer, Les Standiford whisks us back to Victorian England, its most beloved storyteller, and the birth of the Christmas we know best. The Man Who Invented Christmas is a rich and satisfying read for Scrooges and sentimentalists alike.

Why I Liked It:   

I first read Dickens in the summer of 67 when the musical Oliver came out, and believe me, at the age of eleven it was a struggle.   He was so wordy if I hadn’t already known the plot from the movie it’s unlikely I would ever have attempted it, but I was madly in love with my first crush, the Artful Dodger (as played by Jack Wild who sadly later died from throat cancer) and so I persisted.    I fared better in high school when I enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Cities for a book report.   A Christmas Carol is a mere novella in comparison, at barely a hundred pages.   Of course it helps that we have seen movie versions and theatrical performances of it too.    It’s such an accepted part of the Christmas culture that we seldom think about what inspired it? 

The Man Who Invented Christmas delves into how the book came to be written, including even the smallest of details like the name Ebenezer Scrooge.   As well, Dickens was writing from his childhood experience of poverty as his father was frequently in debtor’s prison and he was made to work in a blacking factory at a young age to support the family.   The book also provides some background context to the times, such as Tiny Tim likely suffered from rickets, a common medical condition in industrial London where smog frequently blocked sunlight and vitamins had yet to be invented.  While I was familiar with much of the discussion in this book, having read Jane Smiley’s excellent (link) biography of Charles Dickens, two things stood out. 

The first is the absolute genius of the plot.    I can picture Dickens walking the foggy streets of London, late at night, planning it all out.   Normally he would write and publish in installments, (a feat in itself leaving no room for revision), but this was to be a complete book, and for something he dashed off in a mere six weeks, writing in a manic frenzy until it was just perfect, it is a work of pure genius. 

The second thing is Dickens knew when he was writing it, that it was good and possibly had the makings of greatness, although he could not have foreseen it’s enduring power, and as he mentioned in several of his letters he was quite obsessed with the process.   What a wonderfully satisfying thing to be pleased with what you have written, and then to find out other people like it too.  Isn’t that something we all aspire too?   The reviews were all positive, glowing in fact.   It never went out of print.  

Les Standiford’s book is a fascinating peek behind the scenes into the mind of a creative genius and well worth a read, especially for fans of Dickens.    

Postscript:   Skip the movie by the same name and read the book instead.  What the Dickens kind of miscasting was that?   Dan Stevens will be forever known as Mathew Crawley on Downton Abbey.   Any suggestions for who could play Dickens well? 

      

Bacardi Rum Pum Pum Cake

rum cake      If you want a simple but delicious desert to take to a holiday buffet or help ring in the New Year, then a Bacardi rum cake is a great choice.   This cake is really something to celebrate, but for any non-drinkers you can burn off most of the alcohol in the glaze if you wish.   The recipe originated in the 1970’s but I saw a revised version in one of The Pioneer Woman cookbooks, which inspired me to try it out last year.   Although I remember it as a popular magazine advertisement from the Bacardi Rum Company years ago, I did not cook or even bake back then.    My only experience with a booze-laden dessert was during a late-night visit to a high school friend’s house over Christmas break.   She was of Italian descent and served us some kind of soggy boozy cake which was an Italian tradition.   After an evening of bar-hopping that was probably the last thing we needed, but we had strong espresso with it, as we sat around their ornate dining room table at 1 am  laughing and catching up and trying not to wake her sleeping parents.   (I don’t remember parents staying up worrying back then when their kids went out, certainly mine never did, but those were more innocent times when bad things didn’t seem to happen as often as they do now.  My parents never even locked their doors in the country and I often had to step over the sleeping dog when I got home).   I’m not sure what kind of fancy liquor was in that cake but it was very strong, so the memory has stayed with me…..plus the fact that I occasionally drive past her house, but they have long since moved and I lost touch.    This recipe is not as strong, or as soggy but has just the right amount of rum flavor.   It keeps well too, although I stored mine in the fridge in a covered container.   It was just as moist a week later when there were only one or two pieces left and the New Year’s resolutions had kicked in.      

Ingredients:

Batter:
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1 package yellow cake mix with pudding in the mix
  • 4 large eggs
  • ½ cup cold water
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup light or dark rum
Glaze:
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup light or dark rum
Instructions
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Prepare one 9 or 10 inch fluted tube pan; generously grease the pan with shortening and dust with flour.
Batter:
  1. Sprinkle the nuts over the bottom of the prepared pan.
  2. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, combine cake mix, eggs, water, vegetable oil, and rum; beat until thoroughly mixed. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula so the mixture blends evenly. Spoon the batter over the nuts and smooth the surface with the back of a large spoon.
  3. Bake: Bake 1 hour or until a long toothpick, wooden skewer, or cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place pan on a wire cooling rack to cool for 10 or 15 minutes.    Poke holes in the bottom of the cake and spoon the glaze over it.   Be generous.  Let it sit for 10-15 minutes to soak in.   Remove the cake from the pan and place the cake on the wire cooling rack to finish cooling.   Drizzle the rest of the glaze over the top.
Glaze:
  1. In a small heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in water and sugar; bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes stirring constantly so mixture does not burn. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum.
  2. Use a long toothpick or skewer to poke multiple small holes in the bottom of the cake.    Spoon the still warm glaze over the cake and allow to soak in. Remove the cake from the pan and repeat the process on the top part (which will have the nuts), until all the glaze is used up.

Rum sauce

It can be impossible to find a cake mix with pudding anymore, so  newer versions of this recipe call for using one 3 oz package of vanilla pudding mix and a regular yellow cake mix. Cake mix

 Although the original recipe does not call for drizzling the glaze over both the top and bottom of the cake, I did both, as I wanted it nice and flavorful.   You do want it to soak in well so make lots of holes and let it sit for awhile before you remove it from the pan and repeat with the top. rum cake

I used a long two pronged fork to make the holes.   I could not find my Bundt cake pan (did I still own a Bundt pan?) so I just used a plain round Angel Food cake tin.   I also used butter instead of oil, a personal preference, and half brown sugar and half regular sugar for the glaze.   (Someday I may learn to follow a recipe exactly!)   The Pioneer Woman recipe called for 1/2 cup brown sugar mixed with 1/2 cup chopped nuts and sprinkled in the bottom of the pan, so I tried that this year and prefer the plain nuts version as it was too sweet and made the topping hard so that when I tried to poke holes in it with a nut pick,  it started to crack, so I ended up just drizzling the remainder of the glaze over the top.   Live and learn….a domestic goddess, I am not.

rum cake

I added the rum while it was still boiling to burn off most of the alcohol.   Of course you don’t have to use Bacardi brand rum…..any rum will do, but I do think a dark rum makes a nicer sauce.   When I went out for a walk and came back in, the kitchen still smelled rummy.  The batter tasted pretty rummy too, if you are the daring type who likes to taste raw batter.   I stored the cake in a covered container in the fridge and it kept well.   If it gets a bit dried out, microwaving it for about 15 seconds, makes it even better.   In fact, served warm with coffee, it’s a nice way to ring in the New Year with family and friends.   

Postscript:  see last years blog Here We Come A’ Wassailing for more New Years entertaining ideas. 

 

 

A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol remains one of my favorite books and I try and read it at least once during the Christmas season.   It is a short book you can finish in a couple of nights, with a cup of tea when you are worn out from shopping, and it always reminds me of the true spirit of the season.   (see last years blog for the inspiration behind the book).     Although it was first published, with great fanfare, in 1843, more than 170 years ago, I was struck by how relevant the story is and how timeless the descriptions are even today in our modern world.   Dickens was always a wordy fellow…but ah…the food, the fun, the family dynamics…

The Weather

Let’s begin, as the book does, with the weather….

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already — it had not been light all day” and a few pages later, “Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold.”

As I write this, it is just the sort of foggy night that Dickens describes, a night which calls for Rudolph to be on standby.   December is a damp bone chilling cold as opposed to January which is just bitter cold.   The book of course is set in England where such damp chilly weather is common but it is as good a description as any for setting out the gloomy atmosphere of the first chapter, Marley’s Ghost.

The Workplace

Of course Scrooge’s miserly treatment of his clerk Bob Cratchit is central to the story, but who among us hasn’t had a Scrooge for a boss, without the heartwarming ending.    And poor Martha late on Christmas Day again.    

“Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how late you are!” said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing her a dozen times, and taking off her shawl and bonnet for her with officious zeal.  `We’d a deal of work to finish up last night,’ replied the girl,’ and had to clear away this morning, mother.’   

And a few pages later, ‘Martha, who was a poor apprentice at a milliner’s, then told them what kind of work she had to do, and how many hours she worked at a stretch, and how she meant to lie abed to-morrow morning for a good long rest; to-morrow being a holiday she passed at home.’

If you haven’t arrived home late on Christmas Eve, exhausted from the demands of too much last minute work (much of it unnecessary and poorly planned – folks, Christmas comes the same day every year, no need to be standing in a lineup at 6 pm on Christmas Eve buying a present or box of chocolates), in order to have one day off, two if you are fortunate like Martha – then count yourself lucky.   I try not to go near the stores in December, certainly never the week before Christmas, as I pity the poor retail workers.  No matter what kind of work you do, there may be many days in the countdown to Christmas where you might wish to borrow that torch the Spirit of Christmas Present sprinkled in order to re-establish goodwill. 

‘And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was. God love it, so it was.’

Count yourself even luckier if your work doesn’t follow you home…..I recall one Christmas night spend huddled in the back bedroom with all the coats piled on the bed, the only quiet place in the house, trying to solve a work problem on the phone and thus save myself a drive over dark snowy roads.  How many of us are often simply too exhausted to enjoy Christmas, although too little sleep never seems to affect the children, who just get more and more wound up from the excitement of it all!   Of course, work can be a refugee if you are experiencing an overdose of family dynamics  – one year I went in for a few hours on Boxing Day just to get away from all the drama, (popping out to the Boxing Day sales works too, or taking the dog for a walk).  

But then we often have to pay for our merry-making with a backlog of work, as did poor Bob Cratchit, being caught late for work the next day, a full eighteen and a half minutes behind his time.   

`It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. `It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

Although I doubt bosses today would be inclined to invite you out for a bowl of Smoking Bishop, which brings us to the Christmas work party.  

The Office Party

Was there ever a better office party than the one old Fezziwig put on for his staff, including his two young apprentices Scrooge and Wilkins, and how they admired him for it.   

A Christmas Carol

‘Clear away…..the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book…..and made an orchestra of it…..In came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couples at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them. When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out,’ Well done.’ 

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler struck up Sir Roger de Coverley. Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr and Mrs Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.’

We will leave the lads signing the praises of their boss who had spent but a few pounds of his money but who ‘has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’

Well, I can’t say that I’ve ever had that good a time at a work Christmas party, which was likely to have been a more sedate affair, usually dinner at a fancy restaurant, but maybe the key here is “plenty of beer” and “negus” (a beverage made of wine and hot water, with sugar, nutmeg and lemon).    From my recollection, there was sometimes more fun to be had in getting ready for an evening out than in the event itself, which brings us to the clothes….

The Fashions

Even the poorest church mouse likes to dress up at Christmas.   Who can forget, 

‘Mrs Cratchit, dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence; and she laid the cloth, assisted by Belinda Cratchit, second of her daughters, also brave in ribbons;

and those girls sallying forth for a party,

‘and there a group of handsome girls, all hooded and fur-booted, and all chattering at once, tripped lightly off to some near neighbour’s house; where, woe upon the single man who saw them enter — artful witches, well they knew it — in a glow.’

What man hasn’t at some point been bewitched by a woman in a velvet dress and a bit of glitter?   I even remember wearing velvet dresses and fur trimmed coats and hats to attend Christmas Eve services…..now at my age I might don a casual pair of velveteen pants and a dressy top to stay home, but I know the fashion magazines are still full of dressy evening wear.  

The Food

While the Cratchit’s dinner of goose and stuffing is legendary, we seldom dine on goose anymore, but we still like to comment about how this year’s turkey rates.  

A Christmas Carol

‘Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah.

Christmas on the Farm

Christmas Dinner on the Farm – 1920

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.

And then there is the famous turkey scene where Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning and yells down to the boy in the street.  

‘ Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one.’

`I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s.’ whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. `He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. ‘

Dickens descriptions of the marketplace are also marvelous to behold, as fruit was a rarer commodity than it is today, with oranges being an annual Christmas treat. 

A Christmas Carol

The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts……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 might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown…..there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner….

The Grocers, oh the Grocers, nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses……the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible;’ 

Then there is the bounty at the foot of the Ghost of Christmas Present when he makes his first appearance:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’

I always thought it would be interesting to make a twelfth-night cake, which brings us to dessert.

The Dessert

Who can forget that famous pudding…

‘But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up and bring it in.

Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper…..In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding. Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.’   

While Christmas pudding may not be as popular as it once was, it is still a part of many Christmas traditions, in my case a store-bought version from The British Shop, although the rum sauce is homemade. 

The Table:

While the Cratchits may have toasted their Christmas punch from a meager collection of glassware and tumblers,  Scrooge’s nephew Fred laid out a more prosperous spread.   Who can remember the anxiety of cooking their first Christmas dinner,

‘They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.’

and the satisfaction of pulling it off successfully.

`”Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence. He don’t lose much of a dinner.’

`Indeed, I think he loses a very good dinner,’ interrupted Scrooge’s niece. Everybody else said the same, and they must be allowed to have been competent judges, because they had just had dinner; and, with the dessert upon the table, were clustered round the fire, by lamplight.

`Well. I’m very glad to hear it,’ said Scrooge’s nephew, `because I haven’t great faith in these young housekeepers. What do you say, Topper.’

Topper had clearly got his eye upon one of Scrooge’s niece’s sisters, for he answered that a bachelor was a wretched outcast, who had no right to express an opinion on the subject. Whereat Scrooge’s niece’s sister — the plump one with the lace tucker: not the one with the roses — blushed.’

The Decorating

‘It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone.’

Proof that a little decorating can make any room more cheerful, and don’t we all love to decorate when there are so many lovely new things to be found each year.        

The Presents

While there weren’t many presents exchanged in 1843, there is one scene in the book where they are mentioned, 

‘But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that she with laughing face and plundered dress was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group, just in time to greet the father, who came home attended by a man laden with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenceless porter. The scaling him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round his neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection. The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received. The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a doll’s frying-pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter. The immense relief of finding this a false alarm. The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy. They are all indescribable alike. It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the parlour, and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the house; where they went to bed, and so subsided.’

The Music

There is music throughout the book, from the Fezziwig’s ball, to Tiny Tim’s plaintive fireside song, to nephew Fred’s party, as well as scenes of the miners and sailors singing on Christmas Eve with a pint in hand.   And it’s nice to know that God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is still being heard today. 

‘The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

`God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!’

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror.’

The Church Service

And how did little Tim behave”asked Mrs Cratchit…..”As good as gold,’ said Bob,’ and better.  Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that 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.’

While attendance at church may be dwindling, many people still make the effort to attend Christmas Eve services or watch midnight mass at the Vatican on TV.     

The Hustle and Bustle

‘He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.’

Some people actually enjoy the hustle and bustle of the days leading up to Christmas, while others prefer to avoid it altogether…..but the reformed Scrooge was like a child reveling in all the festivities for the first time. 

The Company Coming

“By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them. Here again were shadows on the window-blind of guests assembling; …..But, if you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high.’

Christmas Day doesn’t officially start until your company has arrived, which is always a relief if the weather has been snowy and the roads bad.  

The Fun

Nothing beats the description of nephew Fred’s party for sheer fun and games. 

‘But they didn’t devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. Stop. There was first a game at blind-man’s buff. Of course there was. And I no more believe Topper was really blind than I believe he had eyes in his boots. My opinion is, that it was a done thing between him and Scrooge’s nephew; and that the Ghost of Christmas Present knew it. The way he went after that plump sister in the lace tucker was an outrage on the credulity of human nature.’  

A Christmas Carol

Scrooge himself remarks, in the final chapter, that it was a wonderful party,

`It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred.’   Let him in. It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, wonderful happiness.

The Family Dynamics

As Tolstoy remarked, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.”     Although Dickens family appeared to be a large and happy one (he had ten children), his own childhood was not a carefree one, with a stint in a black-making factory and a father in debtors prison, and in his later years he was separated from his wife due to rumors of an affair with a young actress, plus he was frequently debt-ridden – it was a far from perfect life.    Still, A Christmas Carol was written early in his career and you don’t want to spoil a perfectly happy book with tales of dysfunctional families, no matter how often they may exist in real life.   If you have a happy fun-filled family like Fred or are poor but content like the Cratchits, consider yourself blessed.

“They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.’

The key phrase here is pleased with one another…and contented with their  own company.    Sadly, some families are not content with each other’s company…or they were at one time but have fallen apart.   I wonder if this is due to modern times, families no longer live close by, it takes more of an effort to get together and social media seems to have promoted the expressing of hostile opinions which years ago people may have kept to themselves for civility’s sake.   If divorce, money quarrels or BB (Bad Behavior) have torn apart your once happy family celebrations then it’s best to accept it, and realize that a) no one can take those happy memories away from you and b) be grateful you are not the person exhibiting the Bad Behavior who most likely is a desperately unhappy soul otherwise why would they act the way they do.    Scrooge was nasty and cruel because he was miserable.   If the same people exhibit BB year after year or if the thought of spending even a few hours with Drama Queen Debbie, Mean Tease Tony or Narcissistic Nina, is ruining your Christmas once again then it may be time to wish them well and move on.   Some things cannot be mended.   Real Life is not always like a Hallmark movie.    The only reason the theme of the book works is that Scrooge is WILLING and ABLE to change.  He wants to be a better person, a nicer kinder man.   Sadly, some people lack the ability or desire (be it because of alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness, self-centeredness or just a general lack of self-awareness), to express goodwill towards others. 

A Christmas Carol

      Most people want a bit of a crowd around at Christmas, the more the merrier.   But if you find yourself alone at Christmas, remember that many people in the world share this as a sad time, as 40% of the population now lives alone, many of them older people who have lost love ones.  Keep busy, and concentrate on the parts of Christmas you enjoy – the lights, the music, the decorations, the food, the movies, the company of good friends – there is much to love about Christmas.   If you are grieving and just can’t face the pressure of trying to act festive, it is perfectly okay to skip Christmas this year.   Stay home or travel someplace new, a friend of mine went to Paris one year.  Far better to be home alone with a good book for company, as the young Scrooge was in his schooldays, than to suffer through another round of socializing which may only end up making you feel worse.

‘The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.

`Why, it’s Ali Baba.’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. `It’s dear old honest Ali Baba. Yes, yes, I know. One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. 

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.

`There’s the Parrot.’ cried Scrooge. `Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is. Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. `Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe.’

The Theme 

Was there ever a better message of goodwill towards men?

‘These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily. Then Bob proposed:

`A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us.’

Which all the family re-echoed.

`God bless us every one.’ said Tiny Tim, the last of all.’

A Christmas Carol

My favorite part of the 1951 movie is the scene at the end where a hesitant Scrooge, with a bit of encouragement from the maid, opens the door to his nephew’s parlour.   He is ready, and his transformation and redemption are complete.     

‘He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:

`Is your master at home, my dear.’ said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl. Very.

`Yes, sir.’

`Where is he, my love.’ said Scrooge.

`He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.’

`Thank you. He knows me,’ said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. `I’ll go in here, my dear.’

A Christmas Carol

And so we come to the perfect ending…  

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

A Christmas Carol

(Post script:  The illustrations are by John Worsley from my 1985 edition) 

Toys of Yesteryear

        “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo March famously, in the opening sentence of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.   Statistics say that the average child in the developed world owns over 200 toys but only plays with 12 of them on an average day, and only 3% of the world’s children live in the US but they own 40% of the world’s toys.    Certainly we have become a nation of excessive consumption of toys as well as every thing else, but it wasn’t always this way.   Last summer while visiting a local library branch I snapped some pictures of a museum display on Early Toys which I found quite interesting and would like to share….if only to give you pause to think before you buy someone yet another stuffed animal.  (Guilty as charged – but those Panda Bears are so cute).        

Toyland

Early toys simply reflected everyday life and activities.   It was generally accepted that children were attracted to toys along gender lines.  

Toyland

Toyland

Dolls were always popular and were often homemade.

Toyland

Toyland

My mother grew up in the during the 1930’s Depression when times were hard.   Her few dolls were cheap versions with stuffed bodies and porcelain heads and she never had a really nice one, although some of the richer kids in town did.   One of her friends never even had a doll.   She remembers getting a toy tea set one year and they would always receive an orange (which they never had any other time of year), a popcorn ball, some hard candy and candy canes which would be placed on a chair on Christmas morning.   Her brother got a baseball and bat or a hockey stick and puck, and one year a steel car (my dad had the same model so it was probably the Hot Wheels car of the time).    They never had a Christmas tree until the 1940’s – just once in her childhood and then they had nothing to put on it except red crepe paper and a string of popcorn.   I know this sounds like Little House on the Prairie, but there were no Christmas lights until later.     

If you didn’t have money for a real doll there were paper dolls, and I remember playing with these a bit in the 1960’s.    It was fun to change their clothes about but then we played with our Barbie dolls until we were ten or older as most of the fun was in the fashion, including sewing their little outfits. 

Toyland

Toys for boys gave them skills needed for adult life such as building things.    

Toyland

Toyland

Toyland

When my older brother was about ten he got a train set for Christmas.  My dad had nailed the track to a big sheet of plywood and after the supper was cleared it was placed on the long dining room table and all the guys in the family, including the adults, had great fun watching that little train chugging round and round the track, the engine breathing a plume of smoke.  

Books were popular for both boys and girls, and were always one of my favorite childhood Christmas presents.    I was thrilled to get a new Trixie Belden (girl detective) or a classic like Little Women, and could usually be found reading it on Christmas night while everyone was playing euchre and card games with my grandparents and eating Pot of Gold chocolates and chips and drinking Coke.  We never had those (junk food) treats other than on holidays or occasionally on Saturday nights when Hockey Night in Canada was on.   Toyland

Toyland

Even if you didn’t grow up in the Depression era like my parents, children didn’t have as many toys back then because they had to help out with the chores both inside and outside the house.   

Toyland

My dad said when he was growing up, Christmas was just a big meal and going to church.  It was not about presents, because people couldn’t afford them.   His best present was a pair of ice skates he got when he was 13.  He had saved towards the $5 to buy them.   This was in 1939 when the Depression was ending, which was also the first time he saw a movie,  A Christmas Carol, with his brother and sister.   He said they were scared to death, and I remember finding the Ghost of Christmas Past quite frightening when I was a child.   It was always on Christmas Eve and I would go to bed before the scary part came on.   I don’t think his skates looked like this ancient pair – I don’t know how they were attached but my mother says her roller skates had straps to fit over the shoes.

Toyland skates

Skates were always a favorite in Canada, but compare this rusty pair with today’s modern technology of molded boots and super sharp blades which could easily cost several hundred dollars.   While we may have fond memories of skating on outdoor ponds when we were children, will today’s kids have the same fond memories of their video games and electronic gadgets?   They may still have story hour at the library, but I have noticed even the tiniest 4 or 5 year olds are eager to get their allotted time on the children’s computer.

Toyland

But what if you have no toys?   It is a sad fact that half the world is living in poverty.

Toyland

My dad recalled making mud pies in the Depression…..and I remember my younger brother and I lining up the chestnuts we had gathered at Thanksgiving as fields and fences for his farm animal set.   My dad made him a wooden barn one year –  it was painted white with a green retractable roof.  I crept down to the basement a few nights before Christmas while Santa was at work sawing the wood – fortunately the paint was dry by Christmas morning.   Playing is instinctual in a young child, and children are ingenious for inventing games out of what is at hand, which is why you see children in refugee camps playing games with improvised materials such as a pile of rags wound tightly to make a soccer ball.    (see link to last years blog on The Good Samaritan Shoebox Project which sends toys to impoverished countries).   

Who can forget the excitement of lying awake on Christmas Eve and wondering what Santa would bring.   We all have our favorite presents that we remember as a child….and sometimes the worst, like those bunny suit pajamas poor Ralphie got in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. 

Xmas presents (3)

I don’t remember making a Christmas list as a child.   Our parents just bought us things they thought we would like, but can that really be a toy ironing set in that box, as ironing is now my absolutely most hated household chore?    My best ever present was my Skipper doll when I was nine and had to go in hospital after Christmas to get my tonsils out….looking back it was probably a bribe of sorts.   Skipper was Barbie’s younger sister and she had bendable knees.   She came with at least twelve different accessorized outfits which I credit with my ability to coordinate any outfit today (see skills needed in later life).   I can still remember the thrill I felt when I opened that stack of individual boxes of tiny clothes and accessories.   I already had Midge (Barbie’s best friend), who my mother had convinced me was far superior to my older sisters Barbie, in the same way that Chatty Cathy (she talked when you pulled the string on her back), was superior to her boring ballerina doll who never said a word, (lesson learned, it is better to be different and unique and to speak out than to just look pretty).    While money was not as plentiful then, especially compared to today’s standards, and we never got toys other times of the year, my parents always made sure we had a good Christmas, (although I have never quite forgiven my mother for those pixie haircuts her French hairdresser talked her into when all the other girls in the class had long hair and curls).  

How many toys are too many toys?  Can a child really appreciate anything if they have such an excess of stuff.    I once spent a Christmas in a house where the entire living room floor was covered with so many presents it took the better part of the day to unwrap them all and a ten year old whined because they didn’t get the one present they wanted.   It was sold out by mid-November, every parent’s nightmare, a sad phenomena which started with the Cabbage Patch Kids in the eighties and recently those $80 Hatchimals which this year are gathering dust on the store shelves.   It is far better to give a child the one toy they really want than a pile of stuff they don’t, but perhaps that is a teachable moment too?  

 I long for the days when toy shopping was as easy as buying a playdoh set (which is fun for grownups too), but I haven’t toy shopped in years.   This year as I have some little ones to buy for (as in younger than two and more likely to play with the box), I discovered to my disappointment that Tickle Me Elmo does not laugh as much as he used to…..two laughs and that’s it?   He used to laugh so long and hard it made you laugh….we had one in the ER department for prn use if a child was crying inconsolably.   No doubt they have modified this feature for the sake of the parents sanity, but as he was on sale for half price ($20) I bought him anyway….plus some books….you can’t go wrong with books.   If you think a child might have too much and doesn’t need more of the same, a small present to open and money for the education fund might be appreciated……someday.     

Sometimes it is fun to buy toys for the grownups too, as Charles Dickens said in A Christmas Carol, “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”  Last year I started someone on an animated Christmas village with an ice rink, thinking she could use it in her waiting room, (I remember the fish aquarium which kept me entertained as a child while waiting to see the doctor), but I don’t believe it ever made it to her office. Toyland

This year I have been on the hunt for a musical carousel, with no luck, as they are all too big or like this one some of the horses are going backwards? Toyland

The Facebook blog where I happened upon the statistic about the number of toys children own, was encouraging parents to buy experiences, family outings, lessons etc instead of things which is a great idea as long as it is something the child really wants as opposed to the parents wanting to re-live or replace something they missed in their own childhood.    Hopefully in the end what a child will remember most is not the toys so much, but the time spent with family.

So whether your Christmas morning is a sea of wrapping paper or a more modest affair like the Cratchits, we should be reminded of the rest of the opening scene of Little Women, because that is what Christmas is all about. 

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

Toyland

My mother’s Christmas Angel Doll

PS.  What was your favorite Christmas present growing up?

 

 

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

       We have Charles Dickens to thank or blame, depending on your perspective, for the present Christmas madness.   The movie about The Man Who Invented Christmas is currently in theaters, and was based on a 2009 book by Les Standiford.   
The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday SpiritsThe Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

Maybe Santa will bring me this for Christmas…hint, hint.

      Although I have not seen or read either, I am currently in the process of re-reading A Christmas Carol, the illustrated version, an annual tradition I try to keep, although I don’t always succeed.    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A Christmas Carol is my favorite book of all time.  I love it for it’s perfect plot, it’s memorable characters and its simple message of hope and redemption.   While I like the movie (especially the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, although the 1938 version has a better Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and a much scarier ghost of Christmas past which would have me scurrying to bed when I was Tiny Tim’s age), the book itself is pure perfection.   You wouldn’t change a thing in it.  It’s so ingrained in our memory that we couldn’t imagine it any other way.  Desperate for money, with a mortgage overdue and six children to support, Dickens produced it in a mad six-week frenzy in October of 1843.   It was published on Dec 19, just in time for the Christmas trade, and immediately sold out, and has been in print ever since.

      If I am ever in New York at Christmas time, my first stop will be the Morgan Library, where every year Dickens original handwritten sixty-eight-page manuscript is on display over the holiday season.  Dickens chose the red leather binding himself and gifted and inscribed it to his friend, Thomas Mitton.   Here is an online link to the manuscript, and you can now buy a facsimile copy from the Morgan shop online.      

http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/charles-dickens-a-christmas-carol

      A few years ago, the library held a contest for Dickens fans and scholars to study the manuscript in search of the most noteworthy editorial changes.   While he may have written it in an outpouring of creative genius, he still did a lot of crossing out and revising.  Can you imagine Tiny Tim being called Fred?   It is a sad part of history lost that our present writing methods no longer permit this peek into the creative process.    

      Dickens was long-winded, (why use one word when ten will do), so for a short tale, it is wordy, but it’s not as bad as Oliver Twist (which I read at age twelve when the movie musical came and found a difficult read), or A Tale of Two Cities or any of his other works.   In A Christmas Carol the descriptive passages are pure bliss.   Some of my favorites include, the description of the damp piercing cold at the beginning of the story, (foggier yes and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold), the entire passage about the Cratchit household and their Christmas dinner, (Mrs. Crachit dressed out poorly in a twice-turned gown but brave in ribbons and Belinda too, and Peter with his collar done up), the dancing and food at old Fezziwig’s party, (away they all went, twenty couples at once), the games (blind man’s bluff and charades) and music at his nephew Fred’s, and the town and the grocer’s all dressed for Christmas with the people sallying forth full of goodwill and good cheer.        

     And who can forget those classic lines, “Why, where’s our Martha?….not coming on Christmas Day?”  “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas,”  “come and see me, will you come and see me,” and “there’s such a goose, Martha.”    The goose description alone is priceless. 

         ”Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.” 

img026           My ancestors always had a goose for Christmas, as was the custom back then as they were readily available on the farm.   This post card was given to me by a descendant of a great uncle who had moved to Seattle around 1920.   He must have been home for Christmas one year as he has written across the bottom in pencil, Xmas dinner on the farm.   I inherited the crystal bowl on the table, but not the goose tradition, only a turkey will do for Christmas. Even Scrooge preferred turkey, as he bought the prize turkey and sent it anonymously to the Cratchit family at the end.  (That delivery boy must have been Canadian as he said, “EH?….why, it’s Christmas Day.”)

The pudding description is spectacular too.     

“In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”

  

Unlike Mrs. Cratchit, I won’t be worrying about the quantity of flour,

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or like Tiny Tim, hearing the pudding singing in the copper.  I’ll just be listening for the ding of the microwave.   Although I bought the pudding at the British shop, the rum sauce will be homemade, and is equally good on vanilla ice cream for those who don’t care for Christmas pudding. 

      My standard rum sauce is just a mixture of butter, brown sugar, water and some rum added in the last five minutes, with most of the alcohol boiled away just leaving the flavor.   I tend not measure, so it’s never the same from year to year, including the rum which can vary depending on the stress level.  It can be made ahead, and stored in the fridge and microwaved later, along with the pudding.   You can also buy individual portions of plum pudding at the British shop, but it is more economical to buy the larger size.  

       If you have a moment of peace and quiet over the holidays, A Christmas Carol is a good read, and a simple reminder of what Christmas is all about.  And so, in the words of Tiny Tim,  God Bless us Every One! 

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A Tiny Caroler – Dec 2017

Song of The Day:   God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman (because it’s in the book) – click here for music link  –  The New York Philharmonic Orchestra

PS.  Edited Dec. 2018 to add that while I found the movie while interesting I could not get past the fact that Dan Stevens did not suit the role as he will always be Mathew in Downton Abbey.    I have not read the book yet but I know Santa will bring it this year, as I bought it myself while shopping for others!

   

 

   

How to Deck the Halls Like Scrooge

      We need more Christmas decorations – said no one ever.    Well maybe the pagans during the winter solstice.   Ever since the time of the pagan festivals we have felt the need to bring light and festivity into our homes during the coldest darkest month of the year.   While the pagans may have been content with a few laurel wreaths with lighted candles and some boughs of holly strung through the drafty halls of their medieval castles, we have evolved into a much more sophisticated consumer of all things bright and shiny.   Christmas decorating has become a big business all on it’s own. 

It wasn’t always so.   This was the Christmas decorating of my childhood. A string of Christmas cards

Does anyone remember stringing cards along the wall or decorating the windows with a can of artificial snow?    Christmas trees were simpler too (and real), and their decorations were a hodgepodge of bright colored baubles collected over the years, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 and often made of glass.  Of course every year one would break and there was sure to be a sibling argument over which child would be blamed?  If you look closely you can see that plastic angel on the tree below. 

Christmas tree angel &  me
Christmas tree angel & me

I still have that family heirloom, plus the fuzzy candy canes, a glass partridge from the 1940’s I inherited from a great aunt and the tin-foil covered star my dad made in 1932 when he was seven, which always held the place of honor at the top of the tree. 

 

      Last year I went on a downsizing frenzy and cleaned out my whole house (watch for January New Years Resolution blog).   I got rid of tons of tacky decorations, except for a few favorites for sentimental reasons.   I organized what was left in the basement storage area so it was easier to find things, and patted myself on the back for having all that space.   Then at an outdoor craft sale in Sept, I saw this adorable little ladder – it was a husband and wife team, he did the wood, she did the decorating, and for only $15.  The husband told me they didn’t make any money on it, they just liked to craft together – how could I resist?  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I spiced it up with a red plaid bow – 2 boxes of ribbon – Winner’s $10 – because our topic is how to save money while Christmas decorating, or rather how to justify buying new decorations when we already have way too many…   

      Things were fine until December…but that is always a dangerous time of year – the stores are full of such glittery sparkly things.   I did splurge on a Lemax skating rink (Canadian Tire $45) in mid-November as I had always wanted one, but was unable to wait for a sale as previous years they had sold out.   I realize you can buy these online, but you can’t actually see the little figures whirling around. 

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I placed the rink on a silver placemat from the dollar store ($2), and wove some ribbon lights ($11 Michaels with 40% off coupon) around the base, (ribbon lights are also good for along a fireplace mantel), then I sprinkled some artificial snow around. ($2 dollar store).  

      My other splurge was a glittery crystal Christmas tree (like a lava lamp), ($50) which I had bought as a present for someone, but when I went to wrap it up, it looked so nice I decided I had to have one too.  It is important to be charitable to yourself at Christmas too.

 

I bought a glittery green garland ($4 – dollar store, where else, by now I own stock), for around the base, but see how pretty they look together on my dining room table, and the best thing is they can keep small children (and big ones) entertained for hours.  There is something mesmerizing about light and motion.

          Thrift shops are good options for wreaths, (someone else’s clearing out project), especially if you will be putting them outside.  I found these three wreaths for $2 each, and put one on my front door, with some ribbon.  (Can you have too many wreaths?)  

 

 

But the blue wreath, (75% off after Christmas Sears), was too pretty to put outside.    Continuing with our thrifty theme, these outdoor wreaths for the picket fence were $5 each, with an ornament and some plaid ribbon added for a festive touch.

 

           I have been known to stock up on bird cages at Michael’s when they go on clearance, (so much so that once a five year old visiting my house for the first time, asked me if I liked birds.)   You can do a lot with bird cages, both outside, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and inside – this one was $25 at a Big Sisters craft sale, but I am sure you could make it for less….just add some greenery, a bird and a string of lights.

 

             I saw this idea at the entrance to a restaurant last year – take any festive container (I used a blue bowl to match the balls), line it with a strand of lights, and add some pine cones and Christmas balls. 16002728_10154978745004726_4173701965934975852_n

          My biggest scavenging find (literally), came when my friend offered to help me do a Christmas urn with some greens she had foraged in the woods – those years of buying pathetic looking greenery for $7 per bundle are over!   I would say her results were much more professional than any of my previous attempts.   She used real berries on hers (which had quite a horrible smell), but I used artificial on mine.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If you can arrange a little snow, it looks even better…. 

 

There is a reason those partridges prefer pear trees…..shelter from the storm.   

 

Not that much snow……maybe this much….

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 Just enough snow to make it look pretty but still allow Santa to get here.

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Santa’s boots

        Anyway, I hope this gives you some ideas for cheap and cheerful Christmas decorating.  

        One final thought, when I was in Canadian Tire early in the season I saw the nicest Nativity scene.  

 

I was tempted, but it was huge, $400 and I didn’t own a church, plus there were no animals or shepherds, but then I remembered I already had the nicest nativity scene ever.    My dad built the barn for it in 1952….that is his homemade star on top.   Remembering the reason for the season. 

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May all your presents be as glittery and shiny as the star in the east.

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