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Vol. LXII, No. 52
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
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Book Review

A Gift for Fancy: Charles Dickens and the Haunting of Christmas Eve

Stuart Mitchner

Do we ever really outgrow Christmas? As long as kids and Christmas trees and songs old and new are around, it’s hard not to feel flashes of the old childhood fever, most of all on Christmas Eve. “The Night Before Christmas” is the first poem I knew by heart, but those weren’t “visions of sugarplums” dancing in my head. The Christmas Eve excitement was never that specific. What made the night special was something like the undefined mass of anticipation and wonderment Kate Bush has in mind when she sings “Don’t let the mystery go” in her Christmas song from 1980, “December Will Be Magic Again.” For me, it’s not a problem; the mystery may be more subtle now than it was when I was nine, but it’s still there, whether I’m listening to Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ or to imperfectly sung versions of “Silent Night” or reading A Christmas Carol or watching either the 1938 or the 1951 movie version.

Sky Gazing

If I still find myself gazing expectantly out the window when everyone else is asleep on Christmas Eve, it’s not from force of childhood habit. I’m not looking for anything dramatic, nothing like Dickens’s ghostly travesty of the three wise men haunting the sky over London with Scrooge in tow. Nor am I looking to feel any nostalgia for the infectious childhood fantasy of an insanely beneficent white-bearded white man soaring through the sky in a sleigh drawn by a team of reindeer. It’s one thing to believe in Santa Claus if you’re lucky enough to grow up in a house with a proper chimney. But consider the breathtaking optimism of a child whose most exciting, suspenseful, and mysterious Christmas Eves were spent in a building where the chimney was a stovepipe that even Plastic Man would have been challenged by. There’s a “suspension of disbelief” beyond anything Dickens asks of us in his Christmas fable.

The Demon Muse

In the 165 years since it was published on December 19, 1843, A Christmas Carol has been so thoroughly absorbed into the media of the season it celebrates that it may be at once the best known and least actually read story in the English language. Except for some stock phrases, the peculiar quality of the writing that delivered the tale to the world — the essence of Dickens, the true poet of Christmas Eve, the “man who invented Christmas” according to a new book with that title — has been mostly ignored by the multitudes who revel in the holiday he helped put on the map.

The thing to keep in mind about Dickens is that he was a writer possessed. He didn’t sit down simply to write a moral tale extolling the Christmas spirit. Among other things, he needed to make money to pay off a debt, and while he clearly intended to use the occasion to spread good will, attack social injustice, and expose such monstrosities as poor laws, workhouses, and treadmills, he was no less devoted to enjoying another tryst with his demon muse. He had neither time nor inclination for a performance on the grand scale; in order to have the book ready for the Christmas season, it had to be written in a matter of months. His muse wasn’t all demon, of course: it could take the form of a passionate advocate for the poor, especially the children of the poor; it was also an actor and a puppeteer, not to mention a literary libertine who could get drunk on a metaphor and had a perverse desire to, like the fat boy in Pickwick Papers, make “your flesh creep” and then to set you sobbing a paragraph later.

In the brief introduction to his “Ghostly little book,” Dickens seems to be evoking something not unlike the “mystery” Kate Bush tells us not to let go of; his expressed wish is to raise “the Ghost of an idea” that will “pleasantly” haunt the houses of his readers. But what an opening. It’s not exactly a bedtime story; instead of “Once upon a time,” you get death. “Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that …. Old Marley was dead as a doornail.”

It’s not long, however, before the Dickens who never outgrew Christmas invades the character of Bob Cratchit, as Scrooge’s clerk escapes from the office, goes “down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve,” and then runs “home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman’s-buff.” Dickens grew up in the same neighborhood, so you have to believe that he himself slid down the slide and ran the homeward run and couldn’t resist having this beaten but unbowed clerk do the same. In the next paragraph, where his mission is to describe Scrooge’s dreary domicile, Dickens can’t resist a little more fun, the child muse inspiring him to write of that “gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.” A paragraph later he sneaks in a reference to his art when he tells us that Scrooge, who is about to see his old business partner Marley’s face in a door-knocker, “had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London.”

Needless to say, Dickens, at 31, in full flight, had a plentiful gift for fancy.

Dark vs. Light

I have to admit having a definite preference for the dark, crazed aspect of the tale, the same way I prefer the hushed enigmatic aura of Christmas Eve to the daylit doings on Christmas morning. As Scrooge becomes happily Christmasized, things do inevitably get, as will happen with Dickens, a bit sticky. Tiny Tim’s cry of “God Bless Us, Every One!” doesn’t do nearly as much for me as Scrooge’s response when Marley’s ghost asks him, “Why do you doubt your senses?” and Scrooge looks right at him and says, “Because…a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’”

Gravy and the grave! — a true Dickensian recipe. Readers can be thankful not only for the saving of Scrooge’s soul, but for the word-drunk poet in Dickens, who in spite of his better nature loved his ghosts and never let go of the mystery.

Further Readings, Viewings

Les Standiford’s The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits is out this year from Crown. Also worth looking at is Michael Patrick Hearn’s The Annotated Christmas Carol: a Christmas Carol in Prose/by Charles Dickens (Norton 2004). As for Kate Bush, who is as English as Christmas, cheddar cheese, and Dickens, the genies of YouTube have provided at least six different versions of her own Christmas carol, “December Will be Magic Again,” in which she manages to get stars, lovers, mistletoe, snowfall, Saint Nicholas, Bing Crosby, and Oscar Wilde all into the same song.

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