Christmas Traditions - Christmas With Charles Dickens
By Mamie Dickens, The Daughter of Charles Dickens
Christmas was always a time which in our home was looked forward to with eagerness and delight, and to my father it was a time dearer than any other part of the year. He loved Christmas for its deep significance as well as its joys, and this he demonstrates in every allusion in his writings to the great festival, a day which he considered should be fragrant with the love that we should bear one to another and with the love and reverence of his Savior and Master. Even in his most merry conceits of Christmas, there are always subtle touches which will bring tears to the eyes, and make even the thoughtless have some special veneration for this most blessed anniversary.
In our childish days my father used to take us, every twenty-fourth day of December, to a toy shop in Holborn, where we were allowed to select our Christmas presents, and also any that we wished to give to our little companions. Although I believe we were often an hour or more in the shop before our several tastes were satisfied, he never showed the least impatience, was always interested, and as desirous as we, that we should choose exactly what we liked best. As we grew older, present giving was confined to our several birthdays, and this annual visit to the Holborn toy shop ceased. My father, although the most generous of mortals, did not observe, except in rare instances, the custom of sending Christmas gifts to people outside his home; there was so large a claim upon him there that the pleasure would have been a tax had he gone beyond its walls.
IN THE DANCE
When we were only babies my father determined that we should be taught to dance, so as early as the Genoa days we were given our first lessons. “Our oldest boy and his sisters are to be waited upon next week by a professor of the noble art of dancing,” he wrote to a friend at this time. And again, in writing to my mother, he says: “I hope the dancing lessons will be a success. Don't fail to let me know.”
Our progress in the graceful art delighted him, and his admiration, of our success was evident when we exhibited to him, as we were perfected in them, all the steps, exercises and dances which formed our lessons. He always encouraged us in our dancing, and praised our grace and aptness, although criticized quite severely in some places for allowing his children to expend so much time and energy upon the training of their feet. Indeed, a common neighborhood remark on the subject was to the effect that “the little Dickens girls seemed to carry their brains in their heels.”
When “the boys” came home for the holidays there were constant sieges of practice for the Christmas and New Year's parties; and more especially for the dance on Twelfth Night, the anniversary of my brother Charlie's birthday. Just before one of these celebrations my father insisted that my sister Katie and I should teach the polka step to him and Mr. Leech. My father was as much in earnest about learning to take that wonderful step correctly, as though there were nothing of greater importance in the world. Often he would practice gravely in a corner, without either partner or music, and I remember one cold winter's night his awakening with the fear that he had forgotten the step so strong upon him that, jumping out of bed, by the scant illumination of the old-fashioned rushlight, and to his own whistling, he diligently rehearsed its “one, two, one, two” until he was once more secure in his knowledge.
No one can imagine our excitement and nervousness when the evening came on which we were to dance with our pupils. Katie was to have Mr. Leech, who was over six feet tall, for her partner, while my father was to be mine. My heart beat so fast that I could scarcely breathe, I was so fearful for the success of our exhibition. But my fears were groundless, and we were greeted at the finish of our dance with hearty applause, which was more than compensation for the work which had been expended upon its learning.
My father was certainly not what in the ordinary acceptation of the term would be called “a good dancer.” I doubt whether he had ever received any instruction in “the noble art” other than that which my sister and I gave him. In later years I remember trying to teach him the Schottische, a dance which he particularly admired and desired to learn. But although he was so fond of dancing, except at family gatherings in his own or his most intimate friends' homes, I never remember seeing him participate, and I doubt if, even as a young man, he ever went to balls. Graceful in motion, his dancing, such as it was, was natural to him. Dance music was delightful to his cheery, genial spirit; the time and steps of a dance suited his tidy nature, if I may so speak. The action and the exercise seemed to be a part of his abundant vitality.
While I am writing of my father's fondness for dancing, a characteristic anecdote of him occurs to me. While he was courting my mother, he went one summer evening to call upon her. The Hogarths were living a little way out of London, in a residence which had a drawing-room opening with French windows on to a lawn. In this room my mother and her family were seated quietly after dinner on this particular evening, when suddenly a young sailor jumped through one of the open windows into the apartment, whistled and danced a hornpipe, and before they could recover from their amazement jumped out again. A few minutes later my father walked in at the door as sedately as though quite innocent of the prank and shook hands with everyone; but the sight of their amazed faces proving too much for his attempted sobriety, his hearty laugh was the signal for the rest of the party to join his merriment. But, judging from his slight ability in later years, I fancy that he must have taken many lessons to secure his perfection in that hornpipe.
MERRIEST OF THEM ALL
His dancing was at its best, I think, in the “Sir Roger de Coverly”— known in America, I am told, as the “Virginia Reel”— and in what are known as country dances. In the former, while the end couples are dancing, and the side couples are supposed to be still, my father would insist upon the sides keeping up a kind of jig step, and clapping his hands to add to the fun, and dancing at the backs of those whose enthusiasm he thought needed rousing, was himself never still for a moment until the dance was over. He was very fond of a country dance which he learned at the house of some dear friends at Rockingham Castle, which began with quite a stately minuet to the tune of “God Save the Queen,” and then dashed suddenly into “Down the Middle and up Again.” His enthusiasm in this dance, I remember, was so great that, one evening after some of our Tavistock House theatricals, when I was thoroughly worn out with fatigue, being selected by him as his partner, I caught the infection of his merriment, and my weariness vanished.
As he himself says, in describing dear old “Fezziwig's” Christmas party, we were “people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.” His enjoyment of all our frolics was equally keen, and he writes to an American friend, apropos of one of our Christmas merry makings: “Forster is out again; and if he don't go in again after the manner in which we have been keeping Christmas, he must be very strong indeed. Such dinings, such conjurings, such blindman's buffings, such theatre goings, such kissings out of old years and kissings in of new ones never took place in these parts before. To keep the Chuzzlewit going, and to do this little book, the carol, in the odd times between two parts of it, was, as you may suppose, pretty tight work. But when it was done I broke out like a madman, and if you could have seen me at a children's party at Macready's the other night going down a country dance with Mrs. M. you would have thought I was a country gentleman of independent property residing on a tip-top farm, with the wind blowing straight in my face every day.”
AS A CONJURER
At our holiday frolics he used sometimes to conjure for us, the equally “noble art” of the prestidigitator being among his accomplishments. He writes of this, which he included in the list of our Twelfth Night amusements, to another American friend: “The actuary of the national debt couldn't calculate the number of children who are coming here on Twelfth Night, in honor of Charlie's birthday, for which occasion I have provided a magic lantern and divers other tremendous engines of that nature. But the best of it is that Forster and I have purchased between us the entire stock-in-trade of a conjurer, the practice and display whereof is entrusted to me. And if you could see me conjuring the company's watches into impossible tea-caddies and causing pieces of money to fly, and burning pocket handkerchiefs without burning ‘em and practicing in my own room without anybody to admire, you would never forget it as long as you live.” One of these conjuring tricks comprised the disappearance and reappearance of a tiny doll, which would announce most unexpected pieces of news and messages to the different children in the audience; this doll was a particular favorite, and its arrival eagerly awaited and welcomed.
That he loved to emphasize Christmas in every possible way, the following extract from a note which he sent me in December, 1868, will evidence. After speaking of a reading which he was to give on Christmas Day, he says: “It occurs to me that my table at St. James's Hall might be appropriately ornamented with a little holly next Tuesday. If the two front legs were entwined with it, for instance, and a border of it ran round the top of the fringe in front, with a little sprig by way of bouquet at each corner, it would present a seasonable appearance. If you think of this and will have the materials ready in a little basket, I will call for you at the office and take you up to the hall where the table will be ready for you.”
CHRISTMAS AT GAD'S
But I think that our Christmas and New Year's tides at Gad's Hill were the happiest of all. Our house was always filled with guests, while a cottage in the village was reserved for the use of the bachelor members of our holiday party. My father, himself, always deserted work for the week, and that was almost our greatest treat. He was the fun and life of those gatherings, the true Christmas spirit of sweetness and hospitality filling his large and generous heart. Long walks with him were daily treats to be remembered. Games passed our evenings in jollity. “Proverbs,” a game of memory, was very popular, and it was one in which either my aunt or myself was apt to prove winner. Father's annoyance at our failure sometimes to lead was very amusing, but quite genuine. “Dumb Crambo” was another favorite, and one in which my father's great imitative ability showed finely. I remember one evening his dumb showing of the word “frog” was so extremely laughable that the memory of it convulsed Marcus Stone, our clever artist, when he tried some time later to portray it in his choice pantomime.
One very severe Christmas, when the snow was so deep as to make out-door amusement or entertainment for our guests impossible, my father suggested that he and the inhabitants of the “bachelors' cottage” should pass the time in unpacking the French chalet, which had been sent to him by Mr. Fechter, and which reached Higham Station in a large number of packing cases. Unpacking these and fitting the pieces together gave them interesting employment, and us some topics of conversation for our snow-bound luncheon table.
OUR CHRISTMAS DINNERS
Our Christmas day dinners at Gad's Hill were particularly bright and cheery, some of our nearest neighbors joining our home party. Dinner on all occasions, plain day and holiday, was served, by my father's special desire, a la Russe. But on Christmas day this rule was infringed sufficiently to permit the appearance at the table of our holiday pudding. The Christmas plum pudding had its own special dish of colored “repoussé” china, ornamented with holly. The pudding was placed on this with a sprig of real holly in the center, lighted, and in this state placed in front of my father, its arrival being always the signal for applause. A prettily decorated table was his special pleasure, and from my earliest girlhood the care of this devolved upon me. When I had everything in readiness, he would come with me to inspect the result of my labors, before dressing for dinner, and no word except of praise ever came to my ears.
He was a wonderfully neat and rapid carver, and I am happy to say taught me some of his skill in this. I used to help him in our parties at Gad's Hill by carving at a side table, returning to my seat opposite him as soon as my duty was ended. In a large party he sat at the center of one of the sides of the table, I, directly opposite, facing him. On Christmas Day we all had our glasses filled, and then my father, raising his, would say: “Here's to us all. God bless us!” a toast which was rapidly and willingly drunk. His conversation, as may be imagined, was often extremely humorous, and I have seen the servants, who were waiting at table, convulsed often with laughter at his droll remarks and stories. Now as I recall these gatherings, my sight grows blurred with the tears that rise to my eyes. But I love to remember them, and to see, if only in memory, my father at his own table, surrounded by his family and friends—a beautiful Christmas spirit. "It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when, its Mighty Founder was a child himself,” was his own advice, and advice which he followed both in letter and spirit.
A NEW YEAR'S EVE FROLIC
One morning—it was the last day of the year, I remember—while we were at breakfast at Gad's Hill, my father suggested that we should celebrate the evening by a charade to be acted in pantomime. The suggestion was received with acclamation, and amid shouts and laughing we were then and there, guests and members of the family, allotted our respective parts. My father went about collecting, “stage properties,” rehearsals were “called” at least four times during the morning, and in all our excitement no thought was given to that necessary part of a charade, the audience, whose business it is to guess the pantomime. At luncheon some one asked suddenly: “But what about an audience?” “Why, bless my soul,” said my father, “I'd forgotten all about that.” Invitations were quickly dispatched to our neighbors, and additional preparations made for supper. In due time the audience came, and the charade was acted so successfully that the evening stands out in my memory as one of the merriest and happiest of the many merry and happy evenings in our dear old home. My father was so extremely funny in his part that the rest of us found it almost impossible to maintain sufficient control over ourselves to enable the pantomime to proceed as it was planned to do. It wound up with a country dance, which had been invented that morning and practiced quite a dozen times through the day, and which was concluded at just a few moments before midnight. Then leading us all, characters and audience, out into the wide hall, and throwing wide open the door, my father, watch in hand, stood waiting to hear the bells ring in the New Year. All was hush and silence after the laughter and merriment! Suddenly the peal of bells sounded, and turning he said: “A happy New Year to us all! God bless us.” Kisses, good wishes and shaking of hands brought us again back to the fun and gaiety of a few moments earlier. Supper was served; the hot mulled wine drunk in toasts, and the maddest and wildest of “Sir Roger de Coverlys” ended our evening and began our New Year.
NEW YEAR ON THE GREEN
One New Year's Day my father organized some field sports in a meadow which was at the back of our house. “Foot races for the villagers come off in my field tomorrow,” he wrote to a friend, “And we have been hard at work all day, building a course, making countless, flags, and I don't know what else. Layard—now Sir Henry Layard— is chief commissioner of the domestic police. The country police predict an immense crowd.” There were between two and three thousand people present at these sports, and by a kind of magical influence, my father seemed to rule every creature present to do his or her best to maintain order. The likelihood of things going wrong was anticipated, and, despite the very general prejudice of the neighbors against the undertaking, my father's belief and trust in his guests was not disappointed. But you shall have his own account of his success. “We had made a very pretty course,” he wrote, “and taken great pains. Encouraged by the cricket matches' experience, I allowed the landlord of the Falstaff to have a drinking booth on the ground. Not to seem to dictate or distrust, I gave all the prizes in money. The great mass of the crowd were laboring men of all kinds, soldiers, sailors and navies. They did not, between half-past ten, when we began, and sunset, displace a rope or a stake; and they left every barrier and flag as neat as they found it. There was not a dispute, and there was no drunkenness whatever. I made them a little speech from the lawn at the end of the games, saying that, please God, we would do it again next year. They cheered most lustily and dispersed. The road between this and Chatham was like a fair all day; and surely it is a fine thing to get such perfect behavior out of a reckless seaport town.” He little realized, I am sure, that it was the magnetic power in himself which gave him the love and honor of all classes, which gave the day's sport its great success.
My father was again in his element at the Twelfth Night parties to which I have before alluded. For many consecutive years, Miss Coutts, now the Baroness Burdett Coutts, was in the habit of sending my brother, on this his birthday anniversary, the most gorgeous of Twelfth-cakes, with an accompanying box of bonbons and Twelfth Night characters. The cake was cut, and the favors and bonbons distributed at the birthday supper, and it was then that my father's kindly, genial nature overflowed in merriment. He would have something droll to say to every one, and under his attentions the shyest child would brighten and become merry. No one was overlooked or forgotten by him; like the young Cratchits, he was “ubiquitous.” Supper was followed by songs and recitations from the various members of the company, my father acting always as master of ceremonies, and calling upon first one child, then another for his or her contribution to the festivity. I can see now the anxious faces turned toward the beaming, laughing eyes of their host. How attentively he would listen, with his head thrown slightly back, and a little to one side, a happy smile on his lips. O, those merry, happy times, never to be forgotten by any of his own children, or by any of their guests. Those merry, happy times!
And in writing thus of these dear old holidays, when we were all so happy in our home, and when my father was with us, let me add this little postscript, and greet you on this Christmas of 1892 with my father's own words: “Reflect upon your present blessings—of which every man has many—not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some. Fill your glass again with a merry face and contented heart. Our life on it, but your Christmas shall be merry and your New Year a happy one. So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share in what our great Creator formed them to enjoy."
[This was the second article in Miss Dickens' series of reminiscent articles titled, "My Father as I Recall Him,"which appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in 1892.]
TRADITIONS & HISTORY
FOOD & PARTIES