All images are from the British Library’s first edition of A Christmas Carol.

The great Christmas comeback

A Christmas Carol (full title A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas) was published on December 19th, 1843 by Chapman & Hall in London. It was fabulously illustrated by renowned caricaturist of humor rag, Punch, John Leech and sold out by Christmas Eve. By the end of 1844, A Christmas Carol had gone through an astonishing thirteen editions. It has never been out of print since.

One reason for its overwhelming popularity was the Victorian revival of old English Christmas traditions. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had popularized the Christmas tree and even caroling was back in vogue.

For Dickens, his own Christmas revival also drew upon literary references, notably Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. Irving’s collection of short stories often drew from history to give us amazing fiction (notably a personal favorite that we covered around Halloween, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Both authors seemed to agree that festive holiday traditions had the power, at least temporarily, to bring a bit of joy back to the modern world.

As became customary for Dickensian novels, A Christmas Carol also has a deeply-rooted social message of charity, tolerance and compassion for the poor. As I mentioned in my post on Oliver Twist, Dickens was an outspoken critic of The New Poor Laws and was particularly touched by societal treatment of impoverished children. Some of this was born from his own experience, and people have theorized that the character of Ebenezer Scrooge was inspired by both Dickens’ father and the childhood misfortunes he inflicted upon the writer.

In so many ways, A Christmas Carol hit upon the zeitgeist of Victorian Britain: it successfully married Christmas history with the tragic social problems rife throughout the country. But it did so in an uplifting sense of tradition, family and goodwill. Scrooge’s nephew Fred sums it up perfectly,

‘… I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as 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 people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Festive feasting

Dickens is famous for his novel’s descriptions of food and drink, and A Christmas Carol is a perfect example. Food is used to highlight Scrooge’s transformation throughout the five staves (chapters) of the story.

Before Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, he begins with the premise, ‘I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.’ He takes ‘his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern…’ That night, he goes home and gruel makes another appearance in a Dickens novel, this time eaten by a man of rather different circumstances than Oliver Twist. In Scrooge’s lumber-room, there is,

… a small fire in the grate; spoon and basin ready; and the little saucepan of gruel (Scrooge had a cold in his head) upon the hob… Thus secured against surprise, he took off his cravat; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel.

Fast forward to Ghost of Christmas Past, and Scrooge is already starting to view the world a bit differently. He speaks fondly of his former employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who had ‘the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.’ Scrooge is visibly excited to revisit Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas ball, where food played a significant role,

… 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.

Negus was a festive drink developed in the early 18th century by Colonel Francis Negus. Similar to mulled wine, it contains port, water, sugar, lemon and nutmeg. During the Regency period, negus was considered a posh tipple and a must-have at winter balls alongside white soup. But by the Victorian period, it had been demoted to a children’s drink. It appears in the canonical cookbook, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management from 1861:

By the time the Ghost of Christmas Present appears to Scrooge, food becomes a centerpiece. In fact, Dickens’ introduction to the spirit is accompanied by a feast,

‘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. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.’

This is contrasted when the spirit visits the home of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, where they must make due with much less. The Cratchits are, nevertheless, joyful with what they have,

‘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’

When it’s time for the Cratchit Christmas pudding, the cake is lit with brandy and a spring of holly placed on top. It’s the highlight of celebration, though as an expensive cake, it is small. But even so, ‘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.

Scrooge is humbled by this experience, and over the course of the next stave, reflects upon his ungrateful and ungenerous behavior. After the terrifying visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day with a second chance. Determined to right his wrongs, his first thought towards redemption is one of food, and he sends the poulterer’s prize turkey to the Cratchits for their Christmas dinner. Turkey was a very expensive bird at the time, so this was a generous gift.

Finally, when Bob Cratchit comes to work the following day, Scrooge is a changed man,

‘A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Smoking bishop is a great way to end such a lovely Christmas tale, as it was an immensely popular Victorian version of mulled wine. Eliza Acton published a recipe in her popular Modern Cookery in 1845:

We’ll be giving both negus and smoking bishop at the end of Yuletide, the Twelfth Night, so watch this space for recipes and festive photos!

Merry Christmas everyone!