December 24, 2014

On Christmas Eve: Looking for Shakespeare and Finding Dickens and Two Cats Under the Tree

book rev

Oh, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me. All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans.

—Charles Dickens, from A Christmas Tree

Through four decades of marriage, we’ve always had a Christmas tree. The year we lived in Bristol, U.K., we bought a small one and covered it with ornaments made out of tinfoil. Our first Christmas in Princeton the tree lights malfunctioned, necessitating a last-minute visit to the lone store open in the shopping center on Christmas Eve where all we could find was a set of tiny Japanese lanterns that looked nice once you got used to it. But then almost anything looks nice on a Christmas tree.

By Sunday it seemed this might be our first treeless Christmas. After a series of domestic crises, no one had energy to go through the process of picking a tree, getting it into the stand, and trimming it. The motivating force may have been the sight of Nick and Nora, our two Tuxedo cats, sniffing and mewing around the empty place in the living room where the trees of Christmas past have stood. This housebound brother and sister, who like nothing better than hanging out under the tree and drinking their fill from the water in the stand, seem to consider it their due for being denied access to the great outdoors.

Now there it is, the smallest tree on the lot with half as many lights as last year (one strand gave up the ghost), but no less amply decorated and the cats have their make-believe habitat of woodland and stream.

By the Window

First thing every morning Nora comes into my study looking for some company on the book-littered chaise by the window. So we settle down, she curls up between the books and me, and I open, more or less at random, a novel about Shakespeare called Gentleman of Stratford. Published in 1939, its cover labels it A Harper Find and bears a blurb by novelist Hugh Walpole (“The best novel written about Shakespeare”). The novel’s presence in the pile of volumes by the window concerns my wish to bring Shakespeare into a Christmas Eve column as his 450th birthday year, which began with Shakespeare-worthy fireworks lighting up the skies over London, draws to a close.

The problem is there seems at first to be no clear Christmas connection, in contrast to Dickens, the obvious choice to build a Christmas Eve column around. Dickens and Christmas are, needless to say, synonymous. There’s even a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas. “Invented” is a stretch, but there’s no doubt that Dickens staked his claim with A Christmas Carol in December of 1843, and the spell cast by that story is as potent as ever 171 years later. Search online with the tag “Shakespeare and Christmas” and you find that there are only three explicit mentions of Christmas in the Works, two of them in Love’s Labor’s Lost, which was performed before Elizabeth’s court on Christmas Day 1597.

Shakespearean Serendipity 

Close your eyes and open Gentleman of Stratford and what do you know, the magic word leaps up at you from page 203: “Christmas was a season of hard frost, of winds that nipped inside the sleeves and set the flesh shivering.” After a nicely rendered account of London weather in late December 1598, Brophy sets about describing the process of deconstructing The Theatre in Shoreditch and using the remains toward the constructing of The Globe in Southwark. Thus it’s fair to say that the Christmas season in the penultimate year of the 16th century coincided with the building of the theatre most intimately associated with Will Shakespeare, whose presence, above and beyond all holidays and festivals, is far more prevalent in the culture than that of Dickens.

Christmas in Elsinore

However, most of us, whether we’re 7 or 70, have been with Scrooge when he follows Marley’s ghost to the window and looks out at the night “filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste.” And we’re with him when he looks out on the brightness of Christmas morning in an ecstasy of light and warmth and hope and good cheer after the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future have transported and transformed him.

But with Shakespeare at the top of my list I’m reminded of the most memorable and well-spoken ghost in all literature and it occurs to me that the fearful apparition in the first act of Hamlet might have been lurking somewhere in Dickens’s subconscious when he conceived of the ghosts of Marley and Christmas past, present, and future. It’s a notable coincidence, surely, that Scrooge and Hamlet both undertake adventures at the urging of nocturnal spirits, with the ghost of Hamlet’s father’s line “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night” echoed by the ghost of Marley’s “doomed to wander through the world.” No less notable are the lines of the sentry named Marcellus musing on the ramparts of Elsinore: “Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes/Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,/The bird of dawning singeth all night long,” for then “no spirit dares stir abroad,/The nights are wholesome …/So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”

What inspires Marcellus to put the soul of Christmas into seven lines in the first scene of the play after twice witnessing “the dreaded sight” of Hamlet’s father’s ghost? Looking for sanity and sanctity in this uncelebrated, unwholesome, unhallowed, and ungracious situation, Marcellus turns his thoughts to the season of “our Saviour’s birth.”

Exuberant Fireworks”

You won’t find solemn references to Christmas in the blizzard of banter and virtuoso word-play called Love’s Labor’s Lost. The word-drunk Biron’s “At Christmas I no more desire a rose/Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth in the first act and his citing of “a Christmas comedy” in the last scene of the last act are tame compared to the verbal excitements and madcap energies driving Shakespeare’s most playful play, which has in it forces comparable to those of the season, the sense of abundance, the same flow of fancy that gave us A Christmas Carol and St. Nick’s airborne sleigh in “The Night Before Christmas.” Writing about the play in The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom suggests that Shakespeare “may have enjoyed a particular and unique zest” in the composition. Bloom also admits taking “more unmixed pleasure” from Love’s Labor’s Lost “than from any other Shakespeare play,” hailing it “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display.”

Shakespeare’s bounty is everywhere. Close your eyes and pick a passage. Here’s the page named Moth expanding on the ways to win love: “to jig off a tune at the tongue’s end, canary to it with your feet, humour it with turning up your eyelids, sigh a note and sing a note, sometime through the throat, as if you swallowed love with singing love, sometime through the nose, as if you snuffed up love by smelling love; with your hat penthouse-like o’er the shop of your eyes; with your arms crossed on your thin-belly doublet like a rabbit on a spit; or your hands in your pocket like a man after the old painting; and keep not too long in one tune, but a snip and away.”

Back to the Tree

Show Dickens a Christmas tree and he’ll give you the world. Less energetic writers might be content to retire to their corners after the opening round of “A Christmas Tree” (1850) with its “multitude of little tapers” illuminating the towering tree that “everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects,” such as “rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves,” real watches “dangling from innumerable twigs,” “French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks and various other articles of domestic furniture … perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping.”

But Dickens has only just begun. After the “jolly, broad-faced little men … full of sugar-plums,” there were “fiddles and drums … tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes,” and “trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises.” Dickens sums it up as “a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood” that sets him thinking of “all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth.”

Including, give or take 166 years, those two black and white creatures nestled under our Christmas tree.