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Updated: December 20, 2013 20:17 IST

A Christmas carol

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Holly and mistletoe
Holly and mistletoe

This festive season, capture the Yuletide spirit with some quaint old customs from the Dickensian world

When it comes to Christmas, nobody does it better than Charles Dickens. The famous Victorian novelist is, in fact, credited with reviving the dying tradition of celebrating Christmas. This festive season, capture the Yuletide spirit with some quaint old customs from the Dickensian world.

The festivities of Christmas Eve are showcased in the author’s descriptions of festive cheer, with music, games and feasts of stuffed turkeys, mince pies, fruit, oysters, hot roasted chestnuts, sausages, cakes and Christmas puddings.

In the novels of Charles Dickens, the Nativity is incomplete without holly. The Battle of Life speaks of a dancing room ‘garlanded and hung’ with holly with its leaves of ‘sturdy English green’ and its red berries ‘peeping from among the leaves’ and ‘gleaming an English welcome’ for Albert Heathfield, who is returning home just in time for a grand Christmas Eve celebration. The Haunted Man describes how Mrs Williams decorates her home with sprigs of holly leaves and berries, an effect that can easily be replicated with artificial sprigs of holly made of paper or fabric.

Blind-man’s buff, a popular children’s game, takes on a new spin in his Xmas opus The Christmas Carol, where young courting couples play the game as a courtship ritual of sorts, in which men and women indulged in light-hearted dalliance which was ordinarily forbidden in a strict Victorian society. In The Pickwick Papers, too, blind-man’s buff is the game of choice for Christmas Eve. Here, however, it is merely a game in which everyone lets their hair down and indulges in a spot of rough-housing.

Fruits appear on the Christmas board, both in their original form and roasted to make hot Christmas punch, punch being another cornerstone of a Dickensian Christmas. Oranges and apples are particularly popular with the celebrated writer, who dwells lovingly on ‘cherry-cheeked’ apples and juicy oranges. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol mentions a smoking bishop, which was hugely popular at the time. In this unusual concoction, oranges stuck with cloves are roasted and then added to red wine or port - a great recipe to mix things up in the punch-bowl. The Pickwick Papers talks of guests and family sitting down by a huge fire of blazing logs to a rich Christmas Eve dinner, with a giant, simmering bowl of wassail, ‘in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look’. A wassail is traditional Christmas drink dating back to medieval times, made of brandy, ale, sugar, whole apples, eggs, spices and an orange, which makes for a delightful variation on the usual festive eggnog. The fire in the hearth is yet another hallmark of Christmas in Dickens – during the coldest winters that England had ever seen, a blazing fire casting a rosy glow on everything and everyone was both desirable and practical. The home-fire also served to roast chestnuts, filberts (a variety of hazelnuts) and raisins, another Yule tradition that finds mentions in the author’s descriptions of Christmas. In Great Expectations, everyone adjourns to the parlour for apples, oranges and nuts after Christmas dinner. A steamed Christmas pudding in is another Dickensian must – A Christmas Carol shows how even the financially-straitened Mrs Cratchit manages a cannonball-sized Christmas pudding for her family.

In all the merriment and feasting of Christmas, though, Dickens never forgets the poor. Christmas, for him, is a time to extend the season’s bounty to the less fortunate. A Christmas Carol has a reformed Scrooge ordering a huge turkey to be sent to the home of the poor Cratchits, while people of all stations coming together to dance at the Fezzywigs’ party at Christmas; the servants join the household at the table for Christmas dinner at the Wardles in The Pickwick jolly, open-hearted charity pervades the works of Charles Dickens. It is this cheerful benevolence that has won readers’ hearts for over a century and a half. Catch a little of the Yuletide spirit from the man who reinvented Christmas –as Tiny Tim would say, “A merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one!”

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