Christmas with ... Irving, Thackeray, and Dickens

by Charlotte Harwood


Here we feature a glimpse of nineteenth century holiday traditions and celebrations seen through the writings of three of the period's most famous authors — Washington Irving, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charles Dickens. Irving (1783-1859) was a nineteenth century American author best known for his two short stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle," from his book, The Sketch of Geoffrey Crayon. Thackeray (1811-1863) was a popular nineteenth century British author famous for his novel Vanity Fair. Dickens (1812-1870) was considered by many to be the greatest author of the Victorian era.  Some of his works include David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and the well-loved—A Christmas Carol.



Washington Irving’s Christmas

A man might then behold

At Christmas, in each hall,

Good fires to curb the cold,

And meat for great and small,

The neighbors were friendly bidden,

And all had welcome true,

The poor from the gates were not chidden

When this old cap was new.


Thus runs the old song — and it was just such a Christmas that 19th century author, Washington Irving, kept at Bracebridge Hall, where he arrived on Christmas Eve to find the house all dressed with holly and mistletoe, and on the supper table, besides the accustomed lights, “two great wax tapers, called Christmas candles, wreathed with greens, were placed on a highly polished beaufet among the family plate.” Dances and songs finished the evening. Next morning . . .


". . . while I lay musing on my pillow, I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted forth an old Christmas carol, the burden of which was: “Rejoice, our Savior He was born, On Christmas day in the morning.” I . . . opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs. They were going the rounds of the house, singing at every chamber door." [The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon]


The Squire kept up all the old customs, and the rolling-pin struck on the dresser by the cook was the signal for serving the dinner. The guests were ushered in to the sound of minstrelsy, “the old harper being seated on a stool beside the fireplace, and twanging his instrument with a vast deal more power than melody.” When grace was said,


". . . there was now a pause, as if something was expected, when suddenly the butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle; he was attended by a servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish on which was an enormous pig's head, decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table. The moment this pageant made its appearance the harper struck up a flourish; at the conclusion of which the young Oxonian, on receiving a hint from the Squire, gave with an air of the most comic gravity an old carol. [The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon]


The table was loaded with good cheer, the “ancient sirloin,” and the peacock pie forming part of the feast, and when the cloth was removed the wassail bowl, whose contents were prepared by the Squire himself, was brought in and placed before him.


"The old gentleman’s whole countenance beamed, with a serene look of indwelling delight as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips, with a hearty wish of a Merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming round the board, for every one to follow his example, according to the primitive style; pronouncing it “the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts met together!” [The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon]


Great romps took place in the hall after dinner, and then the elders settled themselves round the fire to listen to old tales of ghosts and hobgoblins, fairies and such superstitions.


"Whilst we were all attention to the parson’s stories, our ears were suddenly assailed by a burst of heterogeneous sounds from the hall, in which were mingled something like the clang of rude minstrelsy, with the uproar of many small voices and girlish laughter." The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon]


A motley troupe burst into the room bedizened into a burlesque imitation of an antique masque. Master Simon led the van as “Ancient Christmas,” accompanied by “Dame Mince Pie;” there were “Robin Hood” and “Maid Marian,” “Roast Beef” and “Plum Pudding” and the Oxonian to direct all in the character of “Misrule.” With uproar and merriment this Christmas came to an end, and “as the old Manorhouse almost reeled with mirth and wassail, it seemed echoing back the joviality of long-departed years.”


William Makepeace Thackeray’s Christmas


In Thackeray's day, Christmas Books were as much a feature of the holiday season as Christmas presents. In one of her charming introductions, Anne Isabella Ritchie, the eldest daughter of Thackeray, wrote, “My father’s gold pen lasted for some six years, and produced the later Christmas books. The earlier books were drawn with pencil and etching needle, and with fine point and brush while written under the thin disguise of Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh. They reach over eight years from 1847 to 1855.” Mrs. Perkins's Ball was the first, and was well received. There was, however, nothing about Christmas in any of these books, nor even any allusion to the merry season, excepting the Epilogue to Dr. Birch and His Young Friends, Thackeray's Christmas book of 1849.


My song save this is little worth,

I lay the weary pen aside,

And wish you health and love and mirth,

As fits the solemn Christmas-tide.

As fits the holy Christmas birth,

Be this, good friends, our carol still—

Be peace on earth, be peace on earth,

To men of gentle will.

[The Christmas Books of Mr. M.A. Titmarsh]


But pantomimes, which were a regular feature of an English child’s Christmas, were also loved by Thackeray, and the delightful antics of “Flore et Zephyr” are redolent of Christmas mirth and gaiety. Another pantomime, “The Rose and the Ring,” was written in Rome to amuse a party of English children who would otherwise have been deprived of their cherished Christmas entertainment. “And,” said Thackeray in his Prelude, “you elder folk—a little joking and dancing and fooling will do even you no harm.”


In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the character Becky Sharpe, having been acknowledged by the Crawley family, goes down with her husband and son, “to pass the holidays at the seat of their ancestors at Queen's Crawley.” A great family gathering takes place, and Becky makes herself very agreeable to all, but makes one or two mistakes, as when she kisses little Rawdon before all the family, and he, trembling and turning pale, says in a clear voice, “you never kiss me at home, Mama.” But little Rawdon had a real Christmas; he “was taken out pheasant shooting, and introduced to the noble sport of rat-hunting in a barn.” There was a meet of the hounds on the lawn at Queen's Crawley, and all the Christmas joys of an English country house. Meanwhile, poor Amelia was having a sad Christmas, too poor to buy Georgie new clothes, and obliged to sell her India shawl to obtain the money for the purchase of the books, the Parents' Assistant, and Sandford and Merton, that he so greatly coveted. Poor Amelia! Virtue was but a poor reward to her, and Becky got all the fun that year.


In The Newcomes, a novel by Thackeray, Pendennis and his wife go to spend Christmas at Rosebury.

Christmas was come and Rosebury Hall was decorated with holly; Florac did his best to welcome his friends, and strove to make the meeting gay . . . The children were very happy at being allowed to sit up so late to dinner, and at all the kindly amusements of the day, and at the holly and mistletoe clustering round the lamps—the mistletoe under which the gallant Florac, skilled in all British usages, vowed he would have his privilege. . . . In the greatest excitement and good-humor, our host at the dessert made us “des speech” . . . and he bade the butler pour wine into every one's glass—yet a toast—and he carried it to the health of our dear friends, of Clive and his father, the good, the brave Colonel! “We who are happy,” says he, “shall we not think of those who are good? We who love each other, shall we not remember those whom we all love?” [The Newcomes]

The good Colonel’s Christmas was but a sad one, although he could still, as one of the Poor Brethren at Grey Friars, “say his prayers with a thankful heart.”


Charles Dickens’ Christmas

> The “Christmas Books” and “Christmas Stories” of Dickens are entirely distinct. The “Stories” were his contributions to the Christmas numbers of “Household Words,” and “All the Year Round,” of which he devised and supplied the framework, while stories were contributed by many of his best known contemporaries. The “Christmas Books” were entirely his own work, and were eagerly looked for by readers. They appeared in the form of small pamphlets of which Dickens said, ". . . the narrow space within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas stories when they were originally published, rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery. . . . My chief purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good-humor of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land." [Preface to Dickens' Christmas Stories]


And surely he did awaken these feelings, for A Christmas Carol, which appeared in 1843, was a great success and was warmly applauded. Dickens' masterpiece was full to the brim with Christmas sentiment. The old miser, Scrooge, is visited at midnight by the Spirit of Christmas Past, who leads him to his childhood's home, where he sees a merry company shouting and singing as they come.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

"Scrooge knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them? Why did his cold eye glisten and his heart leap up as they went past! Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas as they parted at crossroads and byways for their several homes! What was Merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon Merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?" [A Christmas Carol]

But when he has seen his old love celebrating Christmas with her husband and children, Scrooge's hard heart softens and he cries out to the Ghost to leave him for he can bear no more. But next comes the Ghost of Christmas Present, who takes him to the home where his ill-used clerk is keeping a poor but Merry Christmas surrounded by his children. He hears his name called.


“Mr. Scrooge!” said Bob. “I'll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast.”

“The Founder of the Feast, indeed!” cried Mrs. Cratchitt, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it,”

“My dear,” was Bob’s mild answer, “Christmas Day.”

“I'll drink his health for your sake and the Day’s,” said Mrs. Cratchitt, “not for his. Long life to him! A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! He’ll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt.”

"The children drank the toast after her. Scrooge was the ogre of the family. The mention of the name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes." [A Christmas Carol]

A Christmas Carol


But the Christmas spirit is laying a strong hold on Scrooge, and when he is led to his nephew’s house and joins (as a spirit) in the fun and jollity, he is loath to leave the scene. The Ghost of Christmas yet to be next shows him the misery that will ensue if he persists in his hardness, and when he has seen himself dead, neglected, and unwept, and has stood beside his own unhonored tomb, he falls on his knees and promises an altered life.

Christmas Traditions

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." [A Christmas Carol]

Henceforth all is changed. Christmas joy, good cheer, and wassail prevail, and “Peace on earth, Goodwill to men,” becomes part of Scrooge's creed.


Christmas Traditions The same idea prevails in Dickens’ The Chimes, written in 1844. In contrast to Thackeray's Christmas stories (which were pure nonsense and fun), The Chimes was written with a purpose, a sort of manifesto against the oppression of the poor then prevalent. Poor Toby Veck, waiting for a job in his cold corner, hears the chimes say, “Toby Veck, Toby Veck, keep a good heart Toby,” only to be changed to “Put ‘em down, Put ‘em down,” when Alderman Cute has shown him how he, and all as poor as he, have small right to live, and must be “put down.” “’The tune's changed,’ cried the old man as he listened. ‘There’s not a word of all that fancy in it. Why should there be? I have no business with the New Year, nor with the old neither. Let me die!’” But Toby does not die, but lives to hear the chimes ring in his daughter’s wedding with the New Year, and all ends in gaiety and happiness. The Cricket on the Hearth was the Christmas Book of 1845, and Dickens called it, “a fairy tale of home.” To Americans it is, perhaps, the best known and best-loved of his Christmas Books. The Haunted Man was the last of the books, and the Christmas ghosts, of whom Dickens was so fond of, played a large part in this story.


For a rollicking, joyous old-fashioned English Christmas, we must go down, with Mr. Pickwick and his friends from The Pickwick Papers, to spend Christmas at Dingley Dell with Mr. Wardle. The family assembled in the kitchen,

Christmas Traditions

". . . according to annual custom, on Christmas eve, observed by old Wardle's forefathers from time immemorial. From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen old Wardle had just suspended, with his own hands, a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honor to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum." [The Pickwick Papers]

This was followed by a general scrambling and kissing under the mistletoe.


It was a pleasant thing to see Mr. Pickwick in the center of the group, now pulled this way, and then that, and first kissed on the chin, and then on the nose, and then on the spectacles . . . but it was a still more pleasant thing to see Mr. Pickwick, blinded shortly afterwards with a silk handkerchief, falling up against the wall, and scrambling into corners, and going through all the mysteries of blind-man's buff. . . . When they were all tired of blind-man's buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible. [The Pickwick Papers]


“This,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”

“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr. Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.”

Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow that penetrated into the furthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face.

“Come,” said Wardle, “a song — a Christmas song! I’ll give you one in default of a better.”

“Bravo!” said Mr. Pickwick.

“Fill up,” cried Wardle. “It will be two hours good before you see the bottom of the bowl through the deep, rich color of the wassail; fill up all round and now for the song.”

Thus saying, the merry old gentleman, in a good, round, sturdy voice, commenced without more ado:



“I care not for Spring; on his fickle wing

Let the blossoms and buds be borne;

He woos them amain with his treacherous rain,

And scatters them ere the morn.

An inconstant elf, he knows not himself,

Nor his own changing mind an hour.

He’ll smile in your face, and, with wry grimace,

He’ll wither your youngest flower.


“But my song I troll out, for Christmas stout,

The hearty, the true, and the bold;

A bumper I drain, and with might and main,

Give three cheers for this Christmas old.

We’ll usher him in with a merry din

That shall gladden his joyous heart,

And we’ll keep him up, while there's bite or sup,

And in fellowship good we’ll part.


In his fine honest pride, he scorns to hide,

One jot of his hard-weather scars;

They’re no disgrace, for there’s much the same trace

On the cheeks of our bravest tars.


Then again I’ll sing, till the roof I ring,

And it echoes from wall to wall—

To the stout old wight, fair welcome tonight,

As the King of the Seasons all!”

[The Pickwick Papers]

Christmas with any of these three authors — Irving, Thackeray, or Dickens — is indeed something more than the weary buying of presents, and complaining about the weather. They all breathe the spirit of good cheer, mirth, and gaiety, the tingling of the brisk winter wind in one’s blood, and in one’s heart!


Peace on earth, goodwill to men.