Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas Books

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the novel after his first commercial failure, his previous novel (Martin Chuzzlewit) having flopped, and he was suddenly desperate for money. Martin Chuzzlewit was satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. He got the idea for the book, the story of the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge, who has so little Christmas spirit that he wants his assistant Bob Cratchit to work on Christmas Day, in late October of 1843.

Dickens struggled to finish the book in time for Christmas. Since he no longer had a publisher he published the book himself, ordering illustrations, gilt-edged pages, and a lavish red bound cover. He priced the book at a mere 5 shillings, in the hope of making it affordable to everyone. It was released within a week of Christmas and was a huge success, selling 6000 copies in the first few days, and the demand was so great that it quickly went into second and third editions. Dickens's novel reminded many people of the old Christmas traditions that had been dying out since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, of cooking a feast, of spending time with the family, and of spreading warmth and cheer. His novel helped people return to the old ways of Christmas. He went on to write a Christmas story every year, but none have endured as well as A Christmas Carol.

I've loved reading A Christmas Carol for many years - it was the first Dickens novel I ever read. But a book that I anticipate becoming as fond of is written by my favourite author, J R R Tolkien, although it wasn't written as a book originally. Every December, when Tolkien's children were small, an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive addressed to them. Inside would be a letter in strange spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or some sketches; the letters were from Father Christmas. They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how one year, the accident-prone Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas' house into the dining-room; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath his house. Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script. The letters continued to arrive and the older children, by mutual consent, kept the secret of the author of the letters from the younger ones.

After Tolkien's death the letters were collected together and published as The Father Christmas Letters. A few weeks ago I finally got around to reading the volume at the Oxfordshire Studies Centre, and was totally enchanted. Now there is a new edition available: the complete hardback collection of Tolkien's illustrated letters together with an unabridged multi-voiced double CD that also features music. One of the narrators on the CD is the wonderful Sir Derek Jacobi, known to millions from I, Claudius and the television adaptations of Ellis Peters' 'Cadfael' stories. This collection is now on my Amazon wishlist as the idea of having the CD as well as the book is very appealing to me.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for reminding your readers of this book!

Michele said...

It was no hardship ! I've been "saving" it to review ever since I read it about 5 weeks ago ! The great thing about the Father Christmas letters is the fact that they were created purely for the enjoyment of his children, and yet they appeal to everyone young or old... I also love the fact that Tolkien, in spite of his incredibly busy life, took the time to produce one every year for his children.

Kelly said...

Wow, cool story, Michele. I'd never heard of this volume before and will certainly seek it out.

Michele said...

Do !! It's a fantastic volume - gorgeous illustrations. A friend sent me a Christmas card this year, from the Bodleian Library's collection, and it has one of the illustrations from the Father Christmas Letters on it... It'll be up on the wall in the New Year for me to enjoy all year round !