December 19: A Christmas Carol

jacob-marleys-ghost-john-leech-1843On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol was published. Interestingly, when Dickens began writing A Christmas Carol he didn’t set out to write a Christmas story.

In the mid-19th century, England had become aware of the effect that the Industrial Revolution was having on its citizens. The plight of the working poor was receiving more attention, and Parliament had published a series of reports on the working conditions of child laborers. In May 1843, Charles Dickens announced plans to contribute to the cause of the poor by writing a political pamphlet focused on their plight entitled “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”

Now, Dickens actually knew what he was talking about, as he had actually experienced the ill effects of the Industrial Revolution when he was a child. When he was 12, his father was thrown in jail and young Charles Dickens was forced to drop out of school and work in a blacking factory. He would carry the often disturbing memories of the blacking factory’s poor conditions for the rest of his life and this would shape a lot of his literary work. Dickens was all set to write his pamphlet, but while speaking in Manchester in October 1843 it occurred to him that perhaps the best way to inform a broad audience about the need for social justice was not through a dry pamphlet, but perhaps in a heartfelt and thrilling Christmas tale.

Why did Dickens know the masses would go for a Christmas story? Well, at the time Christmas was experiencing a bit of a renaissance. In the early 1840s, the English had developed a growing interest in pre-Cromwell Christmas traditions which included the tradition of wassailing. This period also saw the beginning of the sending of Christmas cards and the first popularization of the Christmas tree thanks to Prince Albert. So, what better way for Dickens to spread his message of looking out for the poor than with a tale of a rich miser who is shown the error of his ways at Christmastime?

Unsurprisingly, A Christmas Carol was an instant hit. Although it had only been published on December 19, the novella’s first run of 6,000 copies had sold out by Christmas Eve. There was great demand for the tale even after the Christmas season had passed, and by May of 1844, seven print runs had already sold out. A Christmas Carol remains a Christmas favorite to this day with hundreds of films, tv shows, stories, plays and songs either adapting, spoofing or drawing inspiration from Dickens’ classic story.

Late in the novella, after undergoing his Christmas conversion, Ebeneezer Scrooge reveals his newfound humanity and Christmas spirit by giving his put upon employee Bob Cratchit a raise, saying “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” So, what’s Smoking Bishop? Why, it’s a warm spiced wine that was popular in mid-19th century England. In fact, there was a wide range of “smoking” clerical cocktails: According to a 2002 NPR interview with Cedric Dickens, Charles Dickens’ great grandson, “Pope is burgundy, Cardinal is champagne or rye, Archbishop is claret, Bishop is port, and so on.” So, enjoy Cedric Dickens’ recipe for a nice warm glass of Smoking Bishop.

Smoking Bishop

  • 1 bottle Port
  • 1 bottle Red Wine
  • 6 Seville oranges
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1/4 pound sugar

Take six Seville oranges and bake them in a moderate oven until pale brown. If you cannot procure any bitter Seville oranges, use four regular oranges and one large grapefruit. Prick each of the oranges with five whole cloves, put them into a warmed ceramic or glass vessel with one-quarter pound of sugar and a bottle of red wine, cover the vessel, and leave it in a warm place for 24 hours.  Take the oranges out of the mixture, cut in half and squeeze the juice, then pour the juice back into the wine. Pour the mixture into a saucepan through a sieve, add a bottle of port, heat (without boiling), and serve in warmed glasses. Drink the mixture, and keep Christmas well!

Tomorrow: George Lassos the Moon.

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