What better book can you read for the holiday season than Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”? The novella, which appeared on December 19, 1843, is credited with popularizing the very phrase “Merry Christmas!” according to a piece in The Economist, “Which Miser Makes the Most?”
The initial run of 6,000 copies—financed by the author himself—[sold] out by Christmas Eve.
It relates the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a curmudgeonly, stony-hearted, “tight-fisted” moneylender. A notorious miser—who prefers the darkness as it saves him candles—and a consummate misanthrope—who loathes all human company—his attitude towards Christmas is summed up in the refrain, “Bah, humbug!”
But he has a change of heart—literally, overnight—when he’s visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, each of whom takes him on a tour of his past, present, and future.
A spectator to the trajectory his own life and those around him, he awakens to the realization that as a man sows, so will he reap. Can he tweak his destiny, he wonders, by changing his conduct?
The parable is full with sketches of Victorian life.
“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” the Ghost of Christmas Past tells him. In one such tableau, he sees his underpaid, overworked, ill-treated clerk, Bob Cratchit and his family, sitting around a Christmas feast.
At the time the book was published, cooking was done in what were called “kitchen ranges,” bulky, cast-iron things that couldn’t be turned on at the flip on a switch. They weighed prodigiously; got fiercely hot; and were the most difficult to operate and clean. They came in various sizes, and with different features, but none were, at all, compact or convenient.
In the less developed models, a meal had to be prepared over an open fire, by suspending it in pots and pans from heavy hooks.
Lumps of the charcoal had to be shoveled into the firebox early in the day, and then lit, with no small effort. Later, mounds of ashes had to be dumped out.
The Cratchit household likely had a low-end product, one without an oven.
Just before sitting down to eat, Mrs. Cratchit “made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot.” Peter, the eldest son, “mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour.” The younger daughter, Belinda “sweetened up the applesauce.” And Martha, the elder girl, “dusted the hot plates.” With the culinary chores over, she must have had to clear the grains of fine soot from the cooktop.
At the time, not everyone owned an oven. The working class certainly didn’t. And so they took their dinners to the neighborhood baker to have them roasted or baked.
And at the same time, there emerged from scores of bye-streets, lanes, and nameless turnings, innumerable people, carrying their dinners to the bakers’ shops.
So did the Cratchits.
And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker’s, they had smelt the goose, and known it for their own.
[Peter] and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession.
The dessert was prepared in the unlikeliest of places.
The two young Cratchit children carried [Tiny Tim] off to the “wash house” so that “he might hear the pudding singing in the copper.”
The “wash house” was an outhouse or a room, where laundry was done. In the case of the Cratchits, it was in their backyard.
The “copper” was a large, lidded, cast-iron cauldron that could be heated from underneath. It might have served as a primitive pressure cooker.
So, when Mrs. Cratchit took it out, the cloud of steam that gushed forth was a mélange of aromas.
A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding.
Dickens offers a description of “city streets on Christmas morning.”
The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.
There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.
There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, [hazelnuts] mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins [apples], squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.
The 1923 edition of “Dennison’s Christmas Book,” writes that it had a bean and a pea baked into it. The one who found the bean in his or her slice became king for the night; the one who found the pea; queen.
“Smoking Bishop” is a kind of mulled wine that was popular in Victorian England at Christmas time. It likely gets its name from the bowl in which it was traditionally served, shaped like a bishop’s miter.