If you live in Wheaton, Illinois, you will recognize the above as the central slogan for the city's annual holiday celebrations. And with good reason. Charles Dickens wrote no less than five novels centered around the Christmas season!
He started off in 1843 with the first and most enduring of his Christmas tales, A Christmas Carol, which is now known as the annual Christmas chestnut or cash cow, particularly among theatre groups and their patrons. But did you know that this beloved story, which sends a message that cuts through the materialistic trappings of the season and gets to the heart and soul of the holidays, was actually written as the result of the author's desperate need of money. In the fall of 1843 Dickens and his wife were expecting their fifth child. Requests for money from his extended family, a large mortgage on his Devonshire Terrace home, and lagging sales from the monthly installments of his latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had left Dickens seriously short of cash.
The idea for the story came during a trip Dickens took to Manchester, England to give a speech in support the Athenaeum, a school which provided adult education for factory workers. This experience of championing education as a remedy for crime and poverty, along with a recent visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, a night school for those in abject poverty, made Dickens resolve to "strike a sledge hammer blow" for the poor.
At odds with his publishers, Dickens paid for the production cost of the book himself (yes, he self-published!) and insisted on a lavish design that included a gold-stamped cover and four hand-colored etchings. He also set the price at 5 shillings so that the book would be affordable to nearly everyone.
The book was published the week before Christmas and became an instant hit. And the rest is history... and annual revivals at the Goodman Theatre.
Dickens published four other Christmas books, none of which achieved the same popularity as A Christmas Carol, but each has its own singular charms.
The Chimes, published in 1844, tells the tale of Trotty Veck, a poor ticket porter, whose viewpoint is changed from despair to hope by the spirits of the chimes on New Year's Eve. The Chimes is a bit more topical than A Christmas Carol, referencing social problems more specific to the 1840s. As such, it has lost some of its relevance to today's audience.
The Cricket on the Hearth, published in 1845, centers on John and Dot Peerybingle, whose marriage is compromised by its May-December nature. Confronted with Dot's possible infidelity, John consults the spirit of the Cricket on the Hearth, whose chirping supposedly brings good luck. The cricket reassures John that all will be well. The misunderstanding is resolved and the couple's happiness restored.
In 1846, Dickens brought forth The Battle of Life, which was the least successful of his Christmas stories. In 1848, he wrote his final Christmas tale, The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, the story of Mr. Redlaw, a chemistry professor who is tormented by painful memories. He is visited on Christmas Eve by a phantom, his doppelganger, who bestows the gift of forgetting these memories. The catch
is that others who come into contact with the professor also lose remembrance of past hurts and sorrows. Redlaw passes on this gift to members of the Swidger family. For some this might seem a good thing, but for others, whose present happiness is based on remembrance of the past, it is a bitter pill. In the end, the gift is reversed by benevolent nature of Milly Swidger, whose raw memories of her lost child are the source of her kindness.
For Dickens, Christmas was far more ghostly than any Halloween...
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