On January 2, 1840, Dickens wrote to his printers, Bradbury and Evans, to thank them for their annual Christmas gift of a turkey. He chose his words with care:
My Dear Sirs,
I determined not to thank you for the Turkey until it was quite gone, in order that you might have a becoming idea of its astonishing capabilities.
The last remnant of that blessed bird made its appearance at breakfast yesterday—I repeat it, yesterday—the other portions having furnished forth seven grills, one boil, and a cold lunch or two.
It is a generous letter, fully in keeping with the generosity of the people he is addressing. Still, like many people who write to express their thanks for unexpected or unwanted Christmas gifts, it seems that Dickens could not resist poking gentle fun at the purchasers’ taste, not least by hinting that sending him a turkey the size of a small child was perhaps being generous to a fault. Is there a note of reproach in “My Dear Sirs”? There is certainly more than one sense in which a turkey that hangs around for a week might be thought of as “that blessed bird,” as is clear from Dickens’s decision to pump up “turkey” into “Turkey,” the double insistence on its final reappearance “yesterday—I repeat it, yesterday,” and the drawn-out sentence that describes the many attempts made by the Dickens household to finish it off (“seven grills, one boil, and a cold lunch or two”), like a chorus of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in which partridges in pear trees and swans a-swimming have been usurped by this one “blessed bird.” Even the reference to the turkey’s “astonishing capabilities” seems suspended between wonder and worry, as if a turkey that produced so many leftovers came close to being a real-life version of those enchanted objects and creatures—pots overflowing with porridge, or geese laying limitless supplies of golden eggs—that throng the pages of fairy tales.
Four years later, Dickens had written something that possessed still more “astonishing capabilities.” A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was first published just before Christmas in 1843, and since then it has never been out of print. Originally written as a tract for the times, this cautionary tale about the ongoing tussle between greed and goodness has been thought of as timely whenever it has been read. Enjoyed by its first readers as a modern expression of the spirit of Christmas—as modern as Christmas cards, which were sent for the first time in the same year as the Carol’s publication—it has since become popular for quite different reasons: the sense of tradition it is thought to embody, a reminder of the simple pleasures that seem to have been lost sight of in the seasonal scrum of shoppers, an annual invitation to the pleasures of nostalgia. Reproduced so often, and in so many different forms, it has become as much a part of Christmas as mince pies or turkey, with the key difference that, as Martin Heidegger argued was true of all classic works, it has never been “used up.” There have been dozens of films, starring everyone from Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson to Mr. Magoo and Mickey Mouse, operas and ballets, an all-black musical (Comin’ Uptown, which opened on Broadway in 1979), Benjamin Britten’s 1947 Men of Goodwill: Variations on ‘A Christmas Carol,’ even a BBC mime version in 1973 starring Marcel Marceau. So regular are the annual returns of the Carol to our stages and screens, in fact, that it has become something like a secular ritual, an alternative Christmas story to its more obviously religious rival, in which the three wise men are replaced by three instructive spirits, and the pilgrimage to a child in a manger is replaced by a visit to the house of Tiny Tim. Even people who have never read the Carol know the story of Scrooge, the miserable old skinflint who repents after being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. So widely and deeply has this story entered the popular imagination that phrases such as Bah! Humbug! have floated free of their original context and acquired the force of common proverbs, while Scrooge himself has entered the language as a piece of cultural shorthand “used allusively to designate a miserly, tight-fisted person or killjoy” (OED, “Scrooge”). Read More