I mentioned yesterday that my Christmases have been shaped by Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol (1843), of course, is the key Christmas work in the Dickens canon, but Pickwick Papers (1836) helped fix the holiday firmly in the minds of Victorian England. The way we celebrate Christmas today can be traced back to Dickens’s first novel.
Pickwick took England by storm. The Pickwick Club, consisting of Mr. Pickwick and his drinking buddies, was an image of good cheer that the English (and Americans as well) found irresistible. Especially beloved were the Christmas scenes, Christmas being (not surprisingly) one of the Pickwickians’ favorite holidays. Here’s Dickens:
As brisk as bees, if not altogether as light as fairies, did the four Pickwickians assemble on the morning of the twenty-second day of December, in the year of grace in which these, their faithfully-recorded adventures, were undertaken and accomplished. Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.
And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How manyfamilies, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!
We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday! Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!
A few pages later we get a description of a Christmas Eve party, starting with cavorting under mistletoe (see picture above), followed by a game of blind-man’s buff, and then this:
When they all tired of blind-man’s buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.
‘This,’ said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, ‘this is, indeed, comfort.’
‘Our invariable custom,’ replied Mr. Wardle. ‘Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories.Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.’
Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the farthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face.
‘Come,’ said Wardle, ‘a song–a Christmas song! I’ll give you one, in default of a better.’
‘Bravo!’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Fill up,’ cried Wardle. ‘It will be two hours, good, before you see the bottom of the bowl through the deep rich colour of the wassail; fill up all round, and now for the song.’
Thus saying, the merry old gentleman, in a good, round, sturdy voice, commenced without more ado—
The song they sing concludes with the following stanza:
But my song I troll out, for CHRISTMAS Stout,
The hearty, the true, and the bold;
A bumper I drain, and with might and main
Give three cheers for this Christmas old!
We’ll usher him in with a merry din
That shall gladden his joyous heart,
And we’ll keep him up, while there’s bite or sup,
And in fellowship good, we’ll part.
‘In his fine honest pride, he scorns to hide
One jot of his hard-weather scars;
They’re no disgrace, for there’s much the same trace
On the cheeks of our bravest tars.
Then again I sing till the roof doth ring
And it echoes from wall to wall–
To the stout old wight, fair welcome to-night,
As the King of the Seasons all!
In my own family’s Christmas Eve celebrations, we drink less than we used to and go to bed well before midnight. But the family cheer and fellowship remain as strong as they ever have. And for all the nostalgia of the opening passage, I can’t help but see these Dickens Christmases extending on and on. In February we are expecting one new grandchild, in June another, and if all goes well, four generations of Bateses will gather in Sewanee next Christmas to renew, once again, the ancient and timeless rituals. With “ancient and timeless” beginning in 1836.