K and I headed north for Thanksgiving, back to the same place that has come to feel like home. Now that I’m on the West Coast again, I’m able to visit more often, and it’s been lovely to see the seasonal changes in redwood country.
Though the holiday weekend had its ups and downs (for example, our engine overheated and we ended up taking a long bus/train ride), so many details of the experience felt so valuable: gorgeous views from the train; the way that droplets of fresh rain brightened fall-colored leaves; and time spent before the fire, listening to rain fall outside, playing Scrabble, watching movies, and talking. Sartorially, I stuck to a traveling outfit that included a vintage L.L. Bean jacket which I never quite worked into my Maine wardrobe, but which has been perfect for California winter.
Interspersed amidst time socializing and, of course, eating, were snippets spent reading a collection of Charles Dickens’ seasonal stories while sipping a mug of peppermint tea with spiced rum. I admit that these solitary moments were among those I most looked forward to. There’s nothing like Dickens for cultivating a cozy and contemplative feeling.The edition I read united A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and The Cricket on the Hearth. The ordering of stories takes readers through Christmas time and the New Year, with a final tale of home and community.
Often sentimental, these stories helped to define a particular aspect of Dickens’ fame. His association with Christmas is no secret, nor is his commitment to social awareness. These stories may not be Dickens’ masterworks, but they are no less emblematic of his legacy than works that garner greater literary validation. As always, Dickens writes of tender scenes and appealing characters, evoking nooks and crannies of warmth within a cold and unfeeling social structure.
A Christmas Carol is the most iconic story in the collection for a reason — of the three, it is the most compelling.
It’s likely you already know the plot: With the help of several Christmas spirits, Scrooge is given the opportunity to see and, to some extent, make up for lost and overlooked opportunities for kindness. Though we’re all familiar with A Christmas Carol in one way or another, it is worth experiencing in its original form in order to soak up all those details of foggy Victorian London and its inhabitants.
A favorite moment of mine is the description of Scrooge’s house as “a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.”
The Chimes delves into the daily life of a street porter called Trotty, his daughter, Meg, and those, both rich and poor, with whom they interact. Like A Christmas Carol, it includes a supernatural element; it’s subtitled A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. But my favorite quote from the story has to do with one of my favorite things — tea. Here, Dickens describes Trotty preparing a brew for a pair of guests even less fortunate than he:
… when he poured the boiling water in the tea-pot, [he] looked lovingly down into the depths of that snug caldron, and suffered the fragrant steam to curl about his nose, and wreathe his head and face in a thick cloud.
There is something so soothing about the steam from a pot or mug of tea — and it enhances the sense of a dear and cozy home that is so significant in the collection’s next story.
The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home is an unabashed celebration of family and domestic comforts. Its plot hovers between the dramatic and farcical, with twists and turns revealing welcome truths. As central character Caleb Plummer worries that his wife, Dot, may have engaged in adultery, a cricket in fairy form comes to the rescue, reminding Caleb that Dot’s domestic ministrations make the hearth into an “Altar of Home … so that the smoke from this poor chimney has gone upward with a better fragrance than the richest incense that is burnt before the richest shrines in all the gaudy temples of the world!” As you can see, the story contains an almost religious fervor for the happy-but-humble home.
Sentimental though these stories may be, they inspired a more sympathetic outlook on my part, as I see people living in destitution daily in San Francisco. Dickens’ message is clear — holiday cheer includes not just merrymaking but generosity, and, as he says in his preface, such feelings are “never out of season.”
I won’t pretend that the holidays are an easy time — they seem to place familial harmonies and dissonances in sharp relief, while creating a flurry of activity that sometimes stresses rather than cheers. Nonetheless, it’s a time I look forward to, and at its best, a time to focus on simple things that might otherwise be overlooked.
What puts you in the holiday spirit?