Akrita Reyar Among the authors, who have been most prolific on the holiday season, undoubtedly Charles Dickens needs a prime mention. Not only has he written five novellas on Christmas, he has also penned absolutely dozens of short tales brimming with the Yuletide spirit. A common feature to most of his stories has been the rendezvous with the supernatural world; whether it is ghouls or goblins, ghosts or spirits. Through some very interesting encounters that he sets up with these bizarre characters, Dickens drives home the point about the importance of qualities like gratitude, sincerity, human kindness and forgiveness. So, there is a central message behind each of his imaginative jottings.
Another characteristic that marks the majority of Dickens’ writings is the setting. Mostly, a fireside is central to his plot. The entire gallimaufry of partying, frolicking, dining, loving, hurting, pardoning and paranormal trysts happens around a crackling blaze. It is for this reason that he has been romanticized as an author, particularly in the West, who is best narrated around a hearth, sunk deep on soft cushions with children listening wide-eyed. Indisputably, the most famous among his holiday ghost stories is ‘A Christmas Carol’, with the typical misanthrope, Ebenezer Scrooge, whom even street dogs avoid, as the main protagonist. The story begins on Christmas eve with stingy Scrooge dismissing all celebrations as mere “humbug”, until his dead friend Marley decides to pay him a visit, followed by other ghosts, who show him apparitions of his past, present and the future. The jolted miser turns a new leaf, even if it is at this very late stage in life, and becomes a generous and benevolent old man known for his large heart. (Read: Charles Dickens handwritten copy of ‘A Christmas Carol’, put online for the first time) While his most famous Christmas creation was written just in six weeks in 1843 to stave off a cash crunch, the inspiration for his second novel came from Italy. Staying in Genoa, the ringing bells of a church nearby set his mind ticking and he named his novel ‘The Chimes’, which he divided into four parts to indicate the passing of each quarter of an hour, till the clock needles come full circle and the story heads towards a successful conclusion.
The account revolves around a “ticket-porter”(messenger) called Trotty, who is dejected by the world around him. Harangues by an alderman and a politician only reinforce his disinclination to believe in goodness among humans and also discourage his daughter and her fiancé to walk the aisle. Meanwhile, Trotty comes across another poor countryman and his unfairly thought to be loose daughter Fern, whom he gives shelter. At night when bells peal and the discontented courier goes to church, he ends up meeting spirits and goblin attendants, who chastise him about losing his faith. Through a series of visions that they fathom up about possible outcomes in his life, if he continues in this morose way, Trotty regains his belief in humanity and weds his daughter and her fiancée, so that they can live happily ever after. His third novella of the series ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ appeared in 1845 and is among his most peculiar. John Peerybingle lives with his much younger and attractive wife Dot, their baby and an unexplained old man. There is another family of equal consequence in the story, that of a poor toymaker Caleb Plummer employed by the villain Tackleton. His daughter is blind, while his son Edward, is thought to have died in South America. Because of this reason the reprobate starts wooing Edward’s sweetheart May and also poisons Peerybingle’s mind about his wife’s commitment to him. Not only does the strange old man in his house warn John against harbouring any suspicion, he also reveals himself as Edward in the nick of time to marry his love May. While these first three books were roaring successes, Charles Dickens’ next two novels of the 5-book set got only a lukewarm response. ‘The Battle of Life: A Love Story’, his only Xmas novel with no supernatural creatures, is set in Dr Jeddar’s home, in which live, besides him, his two daughters Grace and Marion and his ward Alfred. Written in three parts, the plot thickens when Alfred moves out and the shrewd Andrew Warden, who has lost a lot of money, begins to scheme a life with Marion, already betrothed to Alfred. On the eve of Alfred’s return, Marion clandestinely leaves home and is suspected to have eloped with Warden. Time flies to 6 years later. Grace has married Alfred and has a daughter, while Warden resurfaces only to dispense the misconception that Marion was with him. He reveals that though he had made Marion an offer, she had turned it down. Life had taught him much in the meantime and he was a reformed man now. Then Marion, who was staying with Dr Jeddar’s estranged sister Martha, dramatically reappears and explains that she had left home so that her sister Grace, who secretly loved Alfred, could marry him, sacrificing herself Bollywood style. The curtains come down with her accepting Warden’s hand.
The last Christmas novella ‘The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain’was published in 1848, but failed to create a ripple. It is about Professor Redlaw, who strikes a bargain with a spirit so that he can forget all those actions of others that have hurt him, thinking this will ease his life. On the contrary, he is only filled with more rage, which is directed at everyone, as he is clueless about its origin. At the end, he understands why remembering even unkind acts of others is important, for that gives him an opportunity to learn the lesson of forgiveness. Besides, this famous set of books, novelist Charles Dickens wrote a plethora of parables on the spirit of Christmas interweaving them with social conditions of the Victorian age. His best-known Xmas work other than the novellas is ‘A Christmas Tree’. If there were ever an exhaustive description of this celebratory timber, it has to be this story by Dickens. This page-turner extensively and painstakingly paints a picture of the colorful decorations used in the Victorian era. This makes it a unique and delightful insight into how boughs were ornamented by toys, tapers, watches, sweetmeat boxes and dolls. It also provides a charming account of childhood memories of an elderly man with ghost tales thrown in, including one from India. Another of the eerie fables is ‘The Christmas Goblins’. A story set in a small abbey town, where gravedigger Gabriel Grubb goes about his job in a cross, sullen manner. On Christmas eve, as he passes by a dark, gloomy road, he accosts a merry young lad and stops him from singing. He feels pleased at having put an abrupt end to someone else’s pleasure, till he is confronted by a goblin while sitting on a tombstone and taking a sip from his wicker-bottle. He is pushed into a cavern, where he is presented at a goblin court and where a series of clouds show him pictures of a poor but happy family, who are content despite their meager means. On awakening he finds himself lying flat on the gravestone with an empty bottle next to him. Gabriel Grubbs returns home an altered man. Then there in ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’, a curious story about a quaint inn, where the hero meets six other voyagers and spends a friendly Christmas eve with them, treating them to dinner and drinks, and narrating a story around the fire. It is about how the festival spirit brought them together, even though the following morning, they all went their different ways …never to meet again. ‘Nobody’s Story’, which was written in 1853, is about the common man. Dickens felt that while the rich and famous are constantly in the limelight, we should also pause a moment to pay tribute to the rank and file on earth. And acknowledge their share of burdens, struggles and joys. He writes, “O! Let us think of them this year at the Christmas fire, and not forget them when it is burnt out.”
‘The Holly Tree’ comes close to being described as a love story. The yarn revolves around this “bashful man”, who lets out a secret for the first time in his life. About how he had attempted to flee from his proposed wedding, owing to a misunderstanding, and was providentially prevented from doing so, as he was stranded at an inn due to a snowstorm. At the end, predictably, the mistake clears up and he lives to have eight children with his darling. There is also a very familiar tale about a harlequin character in ‘The Funny Young Gentleman’ called Mr Griggins, described as a “wit of the first water”, who gate crashes a Christmas party and makes a perfect nuisance of himself. The story is meant to refer to the oddballs of each society, with the message that we must have patience to put up with such specimens. A really reflective piece is‘What Christmas is as we Grow Older’. Written in 1851, it is about the changing meaning of Christmas as years pass by. And though the general notion is that a person becomes more cynical with age, Dickens has argued just the opposite case, saying, “our circle of associations and the lessons that they bring, expands”. There can be no better conclusion to a column on Dickens’ Christmas than with ‘A Christmas Dinner’, an endearing story about an ordinary family and how they all gather together forgetting their differences, forgiving transgressions and accepting those who had broken ranks. Interestingly enough, it was Charles Dickens first Yuletide story. Besides the titles mentioned above, Dickens also wrote several more holiday season stories like The Poor Relation`s Story (1852), The Child`s Story (1852), The Schoolboy`s Story (1853), Going into Society (1858), Somebody’s Luggage (1862), Mrs Lirriper`s Lodgings (1863), Mrs Lirriper`s Legacy (1864) and Doctor Marigold`s Prescriptions (1865). Clearly, his writings exhibit Charles Dickens’ fascination, or in fact near obsession, with what he considered the perfect day of the year. Christmas as his idée fixe should be viewed in the context of not only it bringing us closer to a sense of Elysian life, but also the meaning it holds. The extraordinary wealth of characters, human or otherwise, bring with them a surreal value to the plots, holding our attention, enthralling us and teaching us the merit in charity, forbearance and mercy. For all those moments in our life that Charles Dickens has entertained us and for all the morals that can be derived from his stories, which help us become better human beings; we raise a toast to him during this great season of Christmas.