It’s nearly Christmas – where’s my Dickens?

The older I get, the less the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come seems to matter. Or, indeed, the Ghost of Christmas Present: the shops have been done up in tawdry decorations since even before the autumn leaves had started to fall, and it is frankly all rather tiresome. But the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Past remains stronger than ever.  I do not know what there can be about what is, after all, a fairly arbitrary time of the year – borrowed, as our modern atheists never tire of reminding us, from some pagan festival or other – that allows me to relive with such vividness those days which, at the time, I had no idea would end up becoming so precious.

And of course, as sure as the Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols in the shopping centres, as sure as re-runs on television of the old Morecambe and Wise Shows, one inevitably reaches at this time of year for the Dickens. Possibly, this too is a tribute to the Ghost of Christmas Past than to anything else: reading Dickens has become by now a time-honoured Christmas tradition.

Over the last three Christmases, I have, more by accident than by design, been writing about one or other of the five Christmas Books (see here, here, and here); I suppose I can continue this series by reading this Christmas The Cricket on the Hearth. But after that, the series must stop:  not even the compulsive completest in me could force me to revisit the remaining Christmas Book – The Battle of Life, surely the Christmas turkey of the set.

This year, for a change, I reached for the two-volume edition of Christmas Stories, a collection of the various bits and pieces Dickens had written over the years specially for Christmas.  (Tom, of Amateur Reader fame, had, it seems, a similar idea: see here, and the posts that follow.) The Christmas stories I read were variable: some, such as “The Poor Relation’s Story”, were very good indeed; others were middling. These are scraps dropped from the great man’s table, and, while some of these scraps are obviously very fine, not all are of the same standard; and it may well be the case that there is the odd piece there that is as tiresome as The Battle of Life. Well, we’ll see. But this is hardly an anthology to be read from cover to cover: it’s one for dipping into. And, having read some quarter of it so far, I think I’ve dipped into it as much as I care to for now.

The piece I enjoyed most was “A Christmas Tree”, a nostalgic retrospect of Christmas Past, written in that characteristically rich and opulent plum-pudding prose that readers, depending on their taste, find either tiresome or irresistible. As regular readers of this blog will know, I belong firmly to the latter camp. Just finding my way through those endlessly long, labyrinthine sentences, which, thanks to Dickens’ unequalled ear for the rhythms of prose, never run out of breath nor lose their way; or sounding in my inner ear the sheer luxuriousness of the sounds  made by the words; is, for me at any rate, an unmitigated delight. Those who favour nouvelle cuisine should look elsewhere; this is a full Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by the sweetest and heaviest of Christmas puddings.

How strange, though, that Dickens should look back so nostalgically on his childhood! As we all know, his childhood was not, after all, of the happiest. But perhaps it is in the very nature of nostalgia to look back not on reality, but on reality shaped by the imagination into an ideal form. Occasionally – as in The Battle of Life – that imagination of Dickens’ is tired, and goes merely through the motions; but at other times, as here in “A Christmas Tree”, the sheer exuberance of that imagination is intoxicating, and seems to me to have no peer.

It is difficult, especially given my own nostalgic temperament, not similarly to look back on my own Christmases Past. And no, I never did believe in Santa Claus. My parents, having emigrated from India in the mid-60s just a few months before Christmas, and generally unused to these funny Western ways, found the whole idea of Santa Claus pretty damn silly. If you buy presents for your children, God damn it, your children should at least know who’s buying them! Looking back, I sympathise. But when I told the other children in school that there was no Santa, they all laughed at me. And my teachers seriously assured me that Santa was, indeed, very real. I was confused. Was I to believe my parents, whom I trusted, or my teachers, whom my trusted parents had instructed me to trust?

Back then, everything about Christmas was new to me, and it all enchanted me. Those decorated trees, those carols we used to sing in class, the Nativity Play (in which, inevitably, I was cast as the frankincense-bearing Second King) – even the glitter and the tinsel, which only later in life did I find were metaphors for false and vulgar jollity. In the years to come, my parents made sufficient concessions to the spirit of the new land they had come to by giving me Christmas presents: they did not want me to feel left out and isolated from my school-friends. But admitting the reality of Santa Claus remained for them a step too far. So I never did really get to believe in him, even though I remember staring at the skies on Christmas Eve through my bedroom window, hoping against hope for but the briefest of glimpses of an airborne reindeer-driven sleigh that would prove my parents wrong.

Dickens isn’t the only literary Christmas tradition, of course. Some may consider the story of the Nativity, as told in two of the Gospels, also rather pertinent to this time of year. It is, of course, commonplace to praise the beauty of prose of the King James version, but sometimes, it is worth repeating the commonplace: the prose of the King James version is, indeed, extraordinarily beautiful. Of the two evangelists who tell the story, it is Luke who is the poet. Matthew tells of the wise men, and of the Massacre of the Innocents; but just about everything else we associate with the Christmas story – the annunciation, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”), no room at the inn, the child in the manger, the shepherds abiding in the fields – everything that makes this story so poetic, so irresistibly lyrical, even to those who do not profess faith, can be found here. And if Dickens’ prose is of the plum-pudding variety, the prose we get here in the King James version is pure spring water: it is prose of such apparent simplicity and such utter perfection that not a single word can be altered, omitted, or added.  There are those who tell me that they care about religion neither one way nor the other, but who belie that claim almost immediately by refusing to read the Bible: the loss is all theirs.

Less exalted, perhaps, is the tradition of ghost stories. Perhaps it is not surprising that dark winter nights should be seen as a suitable time for scaring the shit out of ourselves. M. R. James, famously, used to read out a new ghost story after dinner every Christmas Eve. Dickens, wedded as ever to all things traditional when it came to Christmas, tried his hand also at the ghost story, but, apart from “The Signalman”, he never quite succeeded: his literary persona was too genial, his temperament too exuberant, and his imagination too expansive, to conjure up with any conviction the air of still emptiness upon which supernatural terror thrives. No – it is to the likes of M. R. James (or his namesake Henry), Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, the two Ediths (Wharton and Nesbit), A. M. Burrage, and the like that one should turn. Recently, I have downloaded on to my iPad a complete reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and have been listening for about half an hour or so every night before bed. Those early chapters relating Jonathan Harker’s imprisonment in Castle Dracula retain the power to frighten, even for such hardened addicts of the genre as myself. It’s marvellous stuff, but it’s not perhaps recommended for those of a nervous disposition.

With so many Yuletide literary traditions to keep up with at this time of the year, it’s hard to find time to indulge in a bit of traditional boozing! Well, I suppose there’s nothing to prevent me doing both. So let me reach for the Dickens, settle back in my armchair, and raise my glass to the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can no longer look to the skies hoping to see Santa’s sleigh, but remembering a time when I could is recompense enough. As, indeed, is my taste for whisky, which I certainly lacked in those days: the Ghost of Christmas past, fine though it is, doesn’t have everything going for it!

Here’s to your very good health!

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11 responses to this post.

  1. You’ve riddled me with nostalgia for my Vermont home, the fireplace, a reading chair, and a clanking glass of whiskey! Nice post!

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome!

      You say “whiskey”, I say “whisky” … 🙂 I must admit I am an aficionado of Scotch whisky (without the “e”) rather than American Bourbon or Irish (with the “e”), but i had some lovely Bourbon when I was in Atlanta a couple of years ago, and I can be very easily converted! In any case, have a very good Christmas!

      Regards, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Thank you for your post, and “happy holidays” to you. I used to celebrate Christmas but do no longer (for complicated personal reasons), but certainly don’t begrudge the joy to others. Those of us who grew up in northern climes, seeing the light fade earlier day by day in December, continue to feel great relief when the season turns and the light begins to come back.

    I am told that Franklin Roosevelt insisted on reading A Christmas Carol every year to his children. I think we can rejoice that, in addition to the return of the light, we have an English language with the range of style and expression from Luke’s gospel to Scrooge’s three spirits.

    Reply

    • Indeed! I am all for any excuse to enjoy myself there’s too little enjoyment in the world. And being stuck in a good book is among the best ways I can think of to enjoy myself!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. I do not remember anything in the Christmas Stories as bad as The Battle of Life, perhaps the strangest aberration in all of Dickens. Some of it is certainly trivial. Not a book to just read through, no.

    Our stereotypical Christmas in the US is a mix of English and German traditions. I wonder why we lost the Christmas ghost story tradition. Or I mean why they permanently moved to Halloween.

    Reply

    • I enjoyed what I read of the Christmas Stories, and I’m sure I’ll pick it up again later.

      I am not sure how teh ghost stry came to be associated specifically with Christmas rather than with the winter in general. Back in teh early 70s, the BBC used to dramatise an Mr James story every Christmas, and they made splendid jobs of them. This year, Mark Gatiss, of Sherlock fame, will eb reviving thetradition by dramatising one of MR James’ best stories – “the Tractate Middoth”. He will also be presenting a documentary on MR James. Well – that’s my Christmas television viewing sorted!

      Reply

  4. Contrary to the norm I suppose that I appreciate the Christmas spirit more and more as I get older. I am actually Reading some of the Christmas stories for the first time this year.

    I would also just add, as a non believer, I also find that much that is in the Gospels, including the nativity magnificent and inspiring.

    Have a very Merry Christmas Himadri!

    Reply

    • Thank you Brian. Both our children – who aren’t children any more – have received offers from university to study for degrees (the boy has an offer to study for a B.Mus. in Trinity College of Music; the girl for a B.Sc. in biochemistry in King’s College London: oth will be involved in culture … of one kind or another …) so right now, we are ecstatically happy, and this promoises to be the happiest Christmas of all. Plenty of reading & boozing lined up over the holidays, as usual!

      My best wishes to you & yours for Chrostmas.
      Himadri

      Reply

  5. This is my absolute favorite time of the year. Actually this quarter of the year starting with Autumn and climaxing with the Christmas day (January is the beautiful afterglow of celebrating well done) is the best part of the year for me.

    Not only do I find Christmas traditions meaningful as a believer in Christ but I love every symbol, every liturgical tradition, and every single Christmas story I can get my hands on. The ones that aren’t saccharine, that is.

    I’ve read Dickens for many years, but I actually love reading children’s folk lore even more. Hans Christian Anderson as well as Celtic and Anglo Saxon myths that take place this time of year. I also enjoy reading Arthurian legend, like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Don’t ask me why. I just love reading about the Medieval ages during this time of year.

    On the topic of Ghost Stories, I’ve not really gotten into the spirit of them during this season. I read them during October. That’s how I celebrate Halloween.

    However, M.R. James is the best ghost story writer ever. I won’t read him this time of year, but on a lonely winter, January night….right after I read Tolkien. Again.

    Reply

    • I have to post another reply because I need to check the follow-up comments box.

      Reply

    • Hello Sharon, I too love this time of the year, and all that is associated with it. I love particularly the pale winter light we get in these atitudes, and which I do not have sufficient command over language to describe adequately. I think many underestimate the importance of traditions in our lives. I know religion is a dangerous topic to engage with online – although, as this is a literary blog, I don’t really see how I can avoid it, given that so much of the finest literature is religious in some way or other – but I would count myself as an agnostic, albeit one who finds himself drawn to many aspects of religious belief. But that’s probably material for a different post!

      I hope you are enjoying Christmas this year. This s the first day of my Christmas holidays, and, even as I type this, I have Handel’s Messiah paying in the background!

      My best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,
      Himadri

      Reply

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