I used to have a tradition of reading a Dickens book every December, as part of my holiday celebration. I love the humor, empathy, and the depictions of Victorian England that Dickens wove into his stories. Though he wrote about harsh realities and the struggles of life, the overall tone is hopeful and uplifting, where love, loyalty, kindness and generosity emerge as the highest values.
Threads of Dickens runs throughout the Christmastime series. In the first book I wrote of the series, Christmastime 1940, the connection was unintentional and I didn’t see the similarities until later. The book first began as a short story (“Old Man Drooms”) that takes place in the snowy winter. However, once the tale developed into a longer story, and I moved the action to the Christmas season, the connections became quite obvious. I realized that all those years of reading and rereading Dickens had worked its way into my narrative.
For the prequel, Christmastime 1939, I made the reading of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol a part of the story. It was actually my way into the story, though it is the character of Lillian who dreads the Christmas season and can’t wait for it to be over.
In the first chapter, Lillian and her boys, Tommy and Gabriel, have returned from her sister’s house upstate where they usually celebrate Christmas. Lillian is completely unprepared for the holiday season and the boys are argumentative as they worry about how they will spend Christmas on their own.
“A tug-of-war began that Lillian feared would result in a broken kaleidoscope. She got up and took the kaleidoscope away and set it on the bookshelf.
“Why are you two so fussy tonight?”
She spotted the book that Annette had tucked into the lunch basket, just as they were leaving for the train. She had forgotten all about it, and lifted it with a sense of being rescued.
“Look here!” she said, showing them the cover. “Annette said this will put us in the Christmas spirit. Come,” she said, returning to the couch. “Let’s begin it. It will be the start of our holiday celebration. We’ll read a little bit each night. How about that?”
Gabriel was all for it and jumped onto the couch next to her. Tommy sat down on her other side and read the title. “About singing?”
“No. It’s a story about a grouchy old man who hates Christmas. I read it many years ago.” Lillian turned to the first page.
Tommy leaned over and read, “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost.” His eyes brightened and he sat up in anticipation.
Gabriel, never one for ghost stories, snuggled closer. Lillian began to read. “Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.”
I also used a touch of Dickens in Christmastime 1942. Mr. Mason indulges in the comforts of home and enjoys his holiday tradition of reading Dickens. Since one of the main themes of the book is the theater, the stage, and acting, I have Mr. Mason reading Nicholas Nickleby.
“Mason was indulging in his Christmas tradition of reading Charles Dickens. Every December he decided on a book by his favorite author. Last year he had chosen Bleak House – this year he was rereading Nicholas Nickleby. He was just settling into his book when his domestic bliss was abruptly interrupted by the whirlwind of his mother and his youngest sister, Alice, as they burst into the room.” (71)
And later in the novel,
“Mason arrived home and felt cheered by all the bustle and laughter that filled his house. This was the way he liked it, everyone busy with some Christmas activity. He would prepare himself a cup of coffee, sit in his armchair and pick up Nicholas Nickleby – read smack in the middle of it all. He chuckled inwardly, remembering where he had left off in the book, with the Infant Phenomenon.” (141)
This December, I can think of no better way to celebrate the holiday season than to curl up with a good book, and Dickens is just the thing to reaffirm our belief in the goodness of the human heart.
In the Christmastime series, Mrs. Kuntzman, the elderly babysitter for Tommy and Gabriel, plays a role from beginning to end. Her presence and her cooking infuse the books with a sense of holiday coziness and warmth.
They saw [Mrs. Kuntzman] standing at the door of her brownstone, waiting to welcome them. She was in her late sixties, gray-haired and a bit stooped, and utterly grandmotherly in her affection for Tommy and Gabriel. Even though Lillian had told her it wasn’t necessary, she often had pancakes or cobbler…freshly made for the boys. (Christmastime 1940)
“And,” said Mrs. Kuntzman, holding up a finger – she went to the kitchen and returned with a plate covered with a red and white checked napkin – “I have extra strudel for youse. Still warm. I always make too much.” (Christmastime 1940)
“We brought apples for you from my sister’s orchard. And some cherry preserves.”
“Ach, good! I make cherry krapfen for Tommy and Gabriel. Those boys love donuts best of all.” (Christmastime 1941)
“[Mrs. Kuntzman’s] been supplying me with strudel and cherry krapfen for the spotters all week.” She dropped her voice to add, “Though we’ve renamed them Yankee Cobbler and Allied Donuts. In the same way the restaurants have renamed spaghetti – Liberty Noodles, they call them.’”
“Yes, I’ve seen that,” laughed Lillian.
“And she’s promised one of her famous Christollens. Hmm. I’ll have to come up with another name for it.” (Christmastime 1941)
Lillian looked at [Mrs. Kuntzman’s] knobby hand against the flour-dusted red apron, the smiling eyes and nearly white hair, and felt a rush of affection for this woman who had become like a grandmother to Tommy and Gabriel – watching over them before and after school, baking treats for them, praising their schoolwork, offering words of comfort.
“And the soup will help,” Mrs. Kuntzman added. “Love in a jar. I don’t want our Tommy sad.”(Christmastime 1942)
Mrs. Kuntzman opened the door, wearing a red Christmas apron with a pattern of poinsettias. The smell of butter and cinnamon and cloves greeted them. (Christmastime 1943)
When Lillian knocked at the babysitter’s door, Mrs. Kuntzman greeted her with a tin of freshly baked cookies.
“These are ones we didn’t eat,” she said, laughing along with Tommy and Gabriel. (Christmastime 1943)
Mrs. Kuntzman opened her door to the young playwrights, and they were greeted by her smiling face, her flour-dusted green apron, and a warm waft of cinnamon and apples.
“Come in, come in! I have apple strudel for youse all, fresh from the oven!” (Christmastime 1944)