Rereading Christmas Classics
Originally posted December 24, 2015
Although I’ve never been a wholehearted admirer of Charles Dickens, I reread A Christmas Carol every year. The novel unfolds almost like a screenplay. The characters have clear desires and motivations. The setting is cinematic. The theme is tightly woven into the fabric of the story. And the dialogue! What’s not to love about the dialogue?
Scrooge tells his nephew, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”1 And when Scrooge rebuffs the gentlemen seeking contributions for those who would rather die than live in a poor house, he says, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”2
Then there’s Mrs. Cratchit, an unusually outspoken yet sympathetic woman in the Dickens canon. Usually a Dickens heroine (like Belle in A Christmas Carol) is soft, her sentiments noble, her dialogue refined. Mrs. Cratchit, on the other hand, doesn’t mince words. When her husband Bob proposes a toast to the Founder of their Feast (i.e., Scrooge), Mrs. Cratchit observes, “The Founder of the Feast, indeed! I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”3
When Bob urges her to be more forgiving at Christmastime, she says, “It should be Christmas Day, I am sure, on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge. You know he is, Robert!”4Readers know Mrs. Cratchit is right and admire her for her candor.
A Christmas Carol is the only novel I reread in its entirety at this time of year, but I also reread scenes and chapters from several other favorites. For me, these books serve as my personal ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. They provide literary continuity Christmas after Christmas, and never fail to inspire holiday spirit. Here they are:
“Dulce Domum” in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. When Mole rediscovers his old home, trudging through the woods with Ratty on Christmas Eve, I feel a tug on my heartstrings. I remember Christmases Past with my parents and grandparents in Missouri and Arkansas, the call of the familiar. In Wind in the Willows, Mole realizes his old home is a “shabby, dingy little place,” yet its memory comes back to him “with a rush” of emotion.5Ratty understands, and together they reopen Mole’s musty little house and improvise a sweet and memorable Christmas Evefor themselves and “eight or ten little field mice.”6
Chapter 15 in The Once & Future King, by T.H. White. The chapter opens simply with “It was Christmas night,” and the paragraphs that follow describe a magical snow that falls in a magical place. I’ve always been drawn to images of Christmas magic, and T.H. White’s version is as visually rich and satisfying as anything in Charles Dickens; it’s just that White’s English Christmas is more intense and concentrated. My favorite moment in this chapter? When an old, old man quavers a favorite carol to everyone in the hall. White writes that the old man’s voice was weak with age, “too far away in Time to be able to reach across the room—but everybody knew what the cracked voice was singing and everybody loved it.”7
“ Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus” in Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This episode is my favorite of all the Christmases Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in her Little House books, perhaps because it is a technically complicated yet seemingly effortless scene—at least from a writer’s point of view. Wilder layers the scene with multiple voices, and as the action unfolds, it speaks to multiple audiences. Adult as well as young readers come to the chapter’s end feeling satisfied. The scene also includes my favorite quotation about Santa Claus himself: “Then he shook hands with Mr. Edwards, and he swung up on his fine bay horse. Santa Claus rode well, for a man of his weight and build. And he tucked his long, white whiskers under his bandana. ‘So long, Edwards,’ he said, and he rode away on the Fort Dodge trail, leading his pack-mule and whistling.”8
I’m sure you have your own favorite Christmas books, chapters, or scenes—and I’d love to hear about them. But in the meantime, to quote yet another Christmas classic, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night.”
1. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Arthur Rackham (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1976), p. 8.
2. Ibid., p. 14.
3. Ibid., p. 90.
4. Ibid., p. 91.
5. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Michael Hague (New York: Ariel Books/Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980), pp. 70-71.
6. Ibid., p. 75.
7. T.H. White, The Once and Future King (New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1966), p. 139.
8. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 248.