Christmas: A Dickens of a time

Cheer and churchgoing, feasting and dancing, drinking and kissing, bonhomie and benevolence. If these are the things we think of when we think of Christmas, then we've got the Victorian era's greatest novelist to thank, argues John Walsh

This Christmas, you can hardly stir out of doors without encountering curmudgeonly men in nightshirts, crippled but saintly children, gigantic turkeys, clanking chains, and the Ghosts of Christmas Present, Past and Yet To Come. A Christmas Carol is everywhere. Three theatre productions are on in London alone (at the King's Head, Jackson's Lane and Lion and the Unicorn,) one in Kingston at the Rose Theatre, one at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, and two in Cumbria, at the Brewery Arts Centre and the Theatre by the Lake.

In DVD outlets, you can buy the 1951 Scrooge (with brilliantly weary Alastair Sim,) the ghastly 1970 Scrooge (with Albert Finney singing "I Hate People" and an emetic Tiny Tim emoting through "The Beautiful Day") or Clive Donner's 1984 A Christmas Carol with George C Scott rasping "Humbug!" to himself and a snow-bound Shrewsbury standing in for mid-Victorian London, or the hilarious 1988 Scrooged starring Bill Murray as a miserly TV network boss, or the 1992 Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine, or the 2001 cartoon version with Simon Callow. Jim Carrey is to play Scrooge and all the ghosts in Robert Zemeckis's animated motion-capture version next November.

If ever there's a hardy annual in the world of imaginative literature, it is Dickens's 1843 story of a miser and Yuletide-hater who is visited by four ghosts and forced to re-evaluate his life. Re-reading it today, we may be startled to find Scrooge's pre-conversion attitudes strangely congenial. Dickens's narrator cannot stand him ("Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster") but modern readers may admire his single-mindedness, his bracing cynicism, his refusal to see the point in uneconomic jollity.

Scrooge is an early sighting of a Conservative monetarist who, when asked for alms for the poor and destitute, replies that his taxes pay for the prison, the treadmill and the union workhouse; and if people die of poverty – well, they decrease the surplus population of useless citizens. When he delivers to his nephew Fred his condemnation of the festive season – "What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older but not an hour richer" – we may feel a twinge of guilt that we have for years been blithely living in "a time for paying bills without money".

We do not, however, come to A Christmas Carol to entertain negative thoughts. We come for an affirmation – that the hardest and coldest and most brutally pragmatic human heart can be melted into benevolence by being shown how others suffer. But we also come to the Carol, again and again, because it's the most ringing evocation, in any format, of the idea of communal Christmas cheer.

***



The evolution of Christmas from a pagan Saturnalia to a two-week, semi-Christian, commercial free-for-all is a complex story, but the 1840s were a crucial part of it. Christmas had fallen into a decline in the early 1800s: the spread of the Industrial Revolution didn't encourage holidays or excessive consumption of food and drink. The accession of Victoria in 1837 spurred a revival of Christmas like a cork from a festive bottle. In 1840, Prince Albert introduced to the English his German ancestors' custom of decorating a Christmas tree. Two years later, the first Christmas card appeared. The old carols, all but forgotten by 1800, were sung in the streets again.

But at the forefront of the revival was Charles Dickens, creating a noisy charivari of cheer and churchgoing, feasting and dancing, drinking and kissing, bonhomie and benevolence. If Clement C Moore, in "The Night Before Christmas", invented the reindeer and sleigh and St Nicholas coming down a chimney, in 1822, and Coca-Cola gave us Santa Claus in red robes and white beard in 1931, it was Dickens who invented, or rather codified, the spirit of the season. It was, he wrote, "a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

Dickens was nuts about Christmas. He wrote more Christmas scenes, more paragraphs of Yuletide affirmation, more lists of seasonal paraphernalia, than any other writer. He wrote one of the early Sketches by Boz, about a Yuletide "family party", in 1835 when he was only 22. He was still at the subject in his unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood ("Lavish profusion in the shops: particularly in the articles of currants, raisins, spices, candied peel and moist sugar"). In between, he wrote A Christmas Carol and four other "Christmas books," each 80 pages long; wrote special Christmas editions of his weekly magazine, All the Year Round; and knocked off essays on seasonal themes, with titles like "What Christmas Means To Us, As We Grow Older".

But when we look at his Christmas writings, darker currents glide beneath all the beaming and laughter. "A Christmas Dinner", his earliest exercise in Yuletide-worship, is a yelpingly naive and callow invitation to the feast. It tells readers to buck up their ideas, pull up to the fire, fill their glasses and just jolly well join in being merry. The author has no truck with party-poopers, misery-guts, pessimists, misanthropes or the recently bereaved. He can be simultaneously sentimental and heartless when writing about children: "Look on the merry faces of your children (if you have any) as they sit round the fire. One little seat may be empty; one slight form that gladdened the father's heart, and roused the mother's eye to look upon, may not be there. Dwell not upon the past; think not that, one short year ago, the fair child now resolving into dust sat before you, with the bloom of health upon its cheek, and the gaiety of infancy in its joyous eye. Reflect upon your present blessings..." (Thanks for that, Charles.)

He rhapsodises about the details of "the family-party" in which petty discords are healed, slights forgotten, mutual coldness thawed out and good relations reinstated among family members. He imagines excitable children, infirm-but-game grandparents, hospitable uncles and aunts, a schedule of activities and games in which grown-ups and children can join; stirring the Christmas pudding, stoning the plums, kissing the cousins. Grandfather rambles over dinner about the magnificent turkeys he bought in earlier years, everyone applauds the arrival of the pudding, and "the evening passes in a strain of rational goodwill and cheerfulness" that disposes mankind to his neighbour more effectively than any sermon could.

This sentimental tosh would not be worth reading, but for a single detail: poor Aunt Margaret. In stark contrast to the welcome given to well-to-do relatives, Aunt Margaret's arrival is greeted coldly and with embarrassment, for she has gone and married "a poor man" without her mother's consent, and been banished from the home. In the story, the ice between the miscreant couple and Margaret's mother is soon broken, but the mention of poverty amid the general jollity is a stark reminder of how much Dickens hated and feared poverty. Lurking behind "A Christmas Dinner" is the awkward fact that the fun and games, the pudding and turkey, the wine and grandmamma's slate-coloured silk gown are wonderful provided you have the money to acquire them. Aunt Margaret represents a cold wind of reality that would bring the world, eight years later, the Cratchit family.

***



Many critics point out that Dickens always associates Christmas with a family group, gathered at home in an idealised atmosphere of bonhomie, security, respect for one's elders, games and charades and songs for the children. But the atmosphere of warmth and domestic harmony often sounds precarious and forced, as if the good times were willed into being. It doesn't take a genius to relate this to Dickens's childhood in Chatham. It was, by all accounts, a very happy time, with a growing family living in a house slightly too small for them, and plenty of memorable sense-data for the future novelist: sailing ships in the harbour, the splash and plop of the tide, the smell of dark vaults in the hillside, sheaved corn in the golden fields, the dame-school over a dyer's shop, tough soldiers, sailors and prostitutes in squalid backstreets. But the warmth and security of home was abruptly shattered when he was 12 and the family had moved to London.

His father, John, had been drifting into debt for years, taking out loans whose interest he was unable to pay. As things got worse, the young Charles was taken out of school and sent to work at Warren's bottle-blacking factory off the Strand. It was a tumbledown, rat-infested, Thames-side warehouse that stank of decay. Dickens was set to work by an older boy called (piquantly) Bob Fagin: his work was to paste labels on to earthenware pots of paste-blacking, 10 hours a day, with a meal-break at noon and an afternoon tea break.

He would work, according to his biographer Peter Ackroyd, "looking out at the dreary river just beneath him, bearing away his hopes. It is not too much to say that his childhood came suddenly to an end, together with that world of reading and imagination in which his childhood had been passed. But it was not gone: it had ended so quickly that it did not actually fade and disappear as most childhoods do. Instead it was suspended entire in the amber of Dickens's rich memory." His father, meanwhile, entered the Marshalsea prison as an insolvent debtor.

Thereafter Christmas, with its ancient traditions of communal celebration, became, in Dickens's imagination, a dream of human perfection in which family and home are not broken apart but made whole. The disintegration of his family became a wound on his psyche that he had to heal, again and again. Hence his constant emphasis on warmth, the domestic hearth, inclusiveness and collective joy – and his constant awareness that outside this happy scene lie poverty, hunger, wretchedness and despair. He had experienced them all; they haunt his writing, as they came to haunt Scrooge.

In The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Dickens extends his image of the perfect Yuletide family-party to the larger convivium of the Christmas community. In "A Good-humoured Christmas Chapter", he ladles on the party spirit. The Pickwick Club, consisting of Pickwick and his friends Mr Tupman, Mr Snodgrass and Mr Winkle, along with his manservant Sam Weller, arrive by coach at the Manor Farm, Dingley Dell, the home of their friend, Mr Wardle. It's 22 December, and the following days will see the wedding of Bella Wardle and a celebratory ball, as well as Christmas itself. It's a veritable blizzard of bonhomie. The imminent wedding has drawn "eight or ten young ladies" – a job-lot of Dickensian females, shrieky and flirtatious, differentiated only by their footwear – for the gentlemen to fall in love with while helping them over stiles. Evenings are spent at a round table, playing rubbers of bridge and drinking "hot elder wine, well qualified with brandy".

At the ball, Mr Pickwick dances with Wardle's ancient mother (a dead ringer for Old Mrs Peggotty in David Copperfield). And Dickens charts, for our benefit, the traditions that were observed at Christmas in 1837, "according to annual custom... observed by old Wardle's forefathers from time immemorial".

They begin on Christmas Eve by hanging up mistletoe, which is the occasion for a mild Bacchanal of kissing and pursuit. Next come games of Blind-man's-buff and Snapdragon, after which the company has a huge supper by a blazing fire, accompanied by "a mighty bowl of wassail", which (since you've always wondered) is a liquid specially provided to drink people's health. It was usually ale, boiled in wash-house copper with roasted apples, sugar, nutmeg and, amazingly, toast. You made a toast to a friend by drinking, among other things, toast. Then, Dickens tells us, everyone (servants included) sat together to tell stories and sing Christmas songs and drink until midnight. On Christmas Day, they attend church, have a huge lunch with strong beer and cherry brandy, and go skating on the ice, with bowls of hot punch to follow, after Mr Pickwick falls in.

Tucked away in these jolly adventures is the tale of Gabriel Grub, told by Mr Wardle, a folk-tale that spookily prefigures A Christmas Carol. The eponymous Grub is a sexton and gravedigger in a county churchyard, "an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow – a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his long deep waistcoat pocket – and who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as if was difficult to meet, without feeling something the worse for."

Remind you of anybody? He hates to see Yule-log fires through lit-up windows, to hear laughter and cheerful shouts, to smell Christmas cooking in the air. When he sees children playing in the street, he thinks happily of mumps and whooping-cough. When he hears a youth singing outside the graveyard, he thumps him with his lantern.

You know Grub is heading for trouble. It soon comes. A large grinning goblin appears, wearing a picture hat with a feather in it, and demands: "Who makes graves at a time when all other men are merry, and takes a pleasure in it?" In an underground cavern populated by goblins, he is shown a vision of a poor family's house ("scantily furnished, but neat and clean") where a quantity of children await the arrival of their father to share their frugal meal. The scene shifts to a tragic vision of the youngest child's death, followed by that of its parents. Gabriel is unimpressed and receives a good kicking. The visions continue and he learns basic lessons about life: that happiness comes from working hard and contemplating "the sweet face of nature". That people rose above sorrow, adversity and distress because "they bore, in their own hearts, an inexhaustible wellspring of affection and devotion". Whereas "men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the surface of the earth".

Like Scrooge, Grub awakes next day, changed by his encounter with the folkloric world and the salutary visions; but instead of buying a turkey and radiating bonhomie, he shambles off to seek oblivion in another town.

Six years after this apprentice-piece, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. His motivation was mostly money. Martin Chuzzlewit, then being published in monthly instalments, hadn't sold well. His wife Kate was expecting their fifth child. He owned his publishers, Chapman & Hall, money. The mortgage on his Devonshire Terrace home was enormous. It was October 1843; Christmas was coming. He desperately needed some cash.

***



Coincidentally, he had recently travelled to London to look at one of the new breed of "ragged schools," set up by the Evangelical movement to teach the children of the very poor. Dickens was shocked by what he saw: children neglected in soul and body, who mostly got by on thieving and prostitution. It was, he said, "a sickening atmosphere, in the midst of taint and dirt and pestilence; with all the deadly sins let loose, howling and shrieking at the door." He was so appalled by the children's condition that he tried to approach the government to warn of the abyss of ignorance future millions of children might fall into. "Side by side with Crime, Disease and Misery in England," he wrote in the Examiner, "Ignorance is always brooding, and is always certain to be found."

He thought of the plot of A Christmas Carol on a visit to Manchester to see his sister Fanny (an Evangelical) and make a speech to the Manchester Athenaeum, a charity for educating labouring men and women. Dickens's social conscience, his disgust at the ragged school, his memories of his own childhood and the nearness of Christmas all wrestled together in his imagination.

He wrote the story quickly, in six weeks flat, ending in early December. Despite a terrible cold, he became strangely elated while writing it: according to John Forster, he would weep over the manuscript, then laugh, then weep again, and take 10-mile walks through London at night, as though revisiting his life at the time of the blacking factory, remembering what he had been and imagining what he might have become. The Cratchit family's little terrace house is similar to the Dickens family's home when they arrived in London. But when Scrooge sees the lonely, solitary figure of a boy reading near a feeble fire in a dilapidated school, and weeps for his past, that's Dickens weeping (again) for his incarceration in the crumbling blacking factory.

***



In the climactic scene of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children inside its robe: "They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing." The children are, of course, Want and Ignorance. This is Dickens's social conscience firing on all cylinders.

But what gives A Christmas Carol the power to move successive generations over the past 160 years is, finally, its insistence on Home. Not just in the celebratory dinner chez Cratchit, but in the moment when Scrooge sees his little sister Fanny come to rescue him from the awful school – "to bring you home, home, home!... Home for good and all. Home, for ever and ever" – and to tell him: "And you're to be a man! and are never to come back here; but first we're to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in the world!"

At this moment, there is, so to speak, not a dry eye in the house. The little scene draws together a dozen strands of intense feeling from different parts of the writer's life: his Chatham childhood, his snug family, the father's debts, the disintegration of their home, the isolation of the blacking factory, his terror of poverty, his fear of what his children might become, and – standing at one remove from these dark matters – the image of merriment, the great convivium that will mend everything, and make families all right again, if only everyone would join in.

When Dickens died in 1870, the young daughter of a London costermonger asked: "Mr Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?" You can see her point. But his Christmas Carol endures, not because Dickens was ever Father Christmas, or even Pickwick, the master of the revels. It's because he knew how close he'd once come to turning into Scrooge.

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