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 as a wordy fellow…but ah…the food, the fun, the family dynamics…
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.
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, on the phone trying to solve a work problem 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.
‘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 party, which was likely to have been a more sedate affair, usually dinner at a 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….
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 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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
‘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.
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.’
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 especially a relief if the weather has been snowy and the roads bad.
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.’
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.
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. 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.’
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.’
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.
`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.’
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!
(Post script: The illustrations are by John Worsley from my 1985 edition)