Happy Birthday to “A Christmas Carol”

I obviously read lots and lots (and lots) of children’s books as well as books about children’s books.

This morning was no different as I grabbed a new book that just arrived, The Children’s Book Almanac, and discovered that today is the birthday of The Christmas Carol.

This discovery brought to mind a treasured 18-year-old memory – an unexpected gift I received on my first trip to London – one that I had forgotten.

Finding ourselves with only a few days in this wonderful city, my husband and I each made our list of “must dos” in case we never returned.  My list included visiting all the author homes/museums we could get to in one day and the only surviving home of Charles Dickens ended up on that list.

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Now I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever been a huge fan of Dickens’ work, but for some reason I simply love exploring the homes of famous people. Dickens’ home was no exception.  As I walked through the front door of 48 Doughty Street, my imagination went into overdrive and I was transported to the 1800’s and the home life of this literary legend.  His home-museum was rather small, with one of the rooms turned into a book store. (My joy – Steve’s nightmare)

As Steve patiently waited for me to touch every single book  available on the shelves, contemplating which one to take home to our children, a gentleman came up behind me to ask if he could help.  His name?  Sir Cedric David Charles Dickens, the last surviving great-grandson of Charles Dickens and steward of his literary legacy.   Once my brain registered that I needed  to close my mouth, breath, and say something – anything – I had a treasured conversation (can you even imagine?) with this gracious and humble man – the keeper of the his great grandfather’s books.   Luckily Steve joined me and helped me to make sense.

We just happened to catch him at the Dickens’ house.  It was truly a gift – a treasured memory-moment in my life, mainly because of this man’s generosity of time and love of storytelling.   We had a front row seat – just the two of us – to Dickens’ family story time.  Magical indeed…

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Cedric Dickens

One of the first items I unpack every December and place on the fireplace mantle is a book (no surprise there…)
The title?   Christmas with Dickens by Cedric Dickens (the friend I made in 1996).   The inscription?

photo (71)Deni……with love
Do try a Carol party.
Pure magic
Cedric Charles Dickens
We met at Dickens house in London

17 January 1996

It needs a lot of practice
So start in on parties as
soon as you get home! 

By the way, if you are interested…  this little book was written by Cedric and his parents as a framework within which families, friends, and church groups can create their own “wonderfully magical Christmas Carol evening”.  Complete with Dickens’ letters to friends as he wrote A Christmas Carol, recipes, and 28 minutes of lines from A Christmas Carol to read aloud.

So Happy Birthday Christmas Carol…   This year I will introduce you to my children’s children who will, like their mommy and daddy, cover their faces when the ghost of Christmas past appears and cheer when Uncle Ebenezer delivers the Christmas feast.   And we will all be reminded that Christmas is a time for family and forgiveness and joy and love.

Deni Corbett

From the Children’s Book Almanac

When Charles Dickens set out to write A Christmas Carol in 1843, both his fortune and his reputation had hit an all-time low. “Boz [Dickens’s pen name] is going down,” the gossips declared, and Dickens financial problems were known all over London. During this time the celebration of Christmas traditions in England were, as the poet Thomas Hood stated, “in danger of decay.” But Dickens short novella, written at fever pitch over a six-week period, would revive Dickens’s reputation as the most popular novelist in England. Also with this small novel he revitalized the Christmas holiday—just with the power of his pen.

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Dickens drew on his own childhood and the life around him to fashion his story. Even the death of the child Tiny Tim was all too familiar to Dickens—he had lost a brother and a sister when a mere child himself. The boy Scrooge, left alone in the school during the holidays, finds children’s books to be his only friend, just as Charles Dickens did. And Dickens had been campaigning in 1843 on behalf of the children of the poor, an appeal that had found him an audience of believers. So drawing on experience and invention, Dickens locked himself in his house, excused himself from appointments, refused to see friends who dropped by, and worked all hours of the day and late into night. “No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he,” Dickens’s eldest son Charley stated about his father.

As is often the case with groundbreaking books, Dickens met some opposition to his creation. Although Dickens told a touching tale of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge who was taught the meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors, his publisher didn’t think the offering had much value. Ever the inventor, Dickens suggested the terms of his own arrangement. He would pay for the production of the book and be entitled to all profits; his publisher would get a small commission on each sale. (This is, by the way, a complete reversion of usual publishing arrangements.) Since Dickens controlled the book’s production, he made some important decisions about this “Ghost Story of Christmas.” The price would be kept low, only five shillings; he made the small book as handsome as possible, with a russet cloth binding and a stamp of gold on the front and spine. Published on December 19, 1843, A Christmas Carol became an immediate sensation, going through several printings right away. Even the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, known to be dour, “on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dine.” Thousands of editions have been issued over the years. Australian illustrator Robert Ingpen, winner of the Hans Christian Anderson Award, created an expressive and spirited rendition of the book in 2008. Today, of course, A Christmas Carol can be enjoyed in plays and movies, even now in a graphic novel.

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Happy birthday to A Christmas Carol. This book reminds us that, as Scrooge’s nephew Fred says, Christmas can be “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts.”

From Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book Almanac