I was dead, to begin with.
Dead tired after the train ride from Paris to London. The ride through the Chunnel was longer than usual due to tunnel repairs after an accident in September. My cab ride through the busy streets to my hotel was slow as well. But, after checking in, I was back out on the street again, walking the mews and side roads, camera in hand, searching for a true Dickensian Christmas.
This was London, after all. Charles Dickens lived here, worked here, he wrote about it. His A Christmas Carol evokes the classic spirit of the season. Surely, I thought, there must be something that remains somewhere in town.
My first stop was Covent Garden, former produce and flower market, the site where Henry Higgins met Eliza Doolittle selling her violets. Now a cacophonous jumble of boutiques and chain stores, wine and espresso bars and upscale restaurants, I wondered if Dickens would recognize it. The miserable children of Ignorance and Want peering out from the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present would be out of place here.
I wound my way back to Piccadilly, the grand avenue filled with posh shops and hotels. The twenty foot-or-so tall Christmas tree at the Ritz was from Finland and tastefully decorated. I was getting a little dizzy, whether it was from looking up so high at the tree or the heady air of tradition and money (I needed a tie to get in). A couple blocks down from the Ritz was Fortnum & Mason, that amazing grocery and carry out store. I wondered if Dickens had ever shopped here. Always curious about the history of such a place, I asked one of the doormen when the store had opened.
“Nine o’clock this morning,” he said.
(I’ve since learned that the doors opened in 1707. I still prefer the doorman’s answer).
I felt I was getting closer to my answer. I walked a few blocks further west to Hyde Park Corner and entered The Winter Wonderland. I imagined traditional carolers roaming the walkways, dressed in long skirts, scarves and high hats, aromas of minced-meat pies with brandy, warm cider and cinnamon and perhaps Father Christmas himself walking the pathway wishing good cheer to all.
What I saw was the traditional Christmas Haunted House Ride (well, Marley WAS a ghost), the old-fashioned Yuletide high speed rollercoaster and Ferris wheel, the mechanical Christmas Gift Claw boutique and stands of German beers and bratwursts surrounded by the thumping beats of electronic polka music and something I swear sounded like ABBA. And let’s not forget the traditional garlic head-shaped ciabatta kiosk.
Disappointed, I wandered back across the street and through Green Park to Buckingham Palace. Surely the Royal Family knew how to keep a traditional Christmas. It was only in 1837 that Buckingham Palace became an official royal residence so it was fairly new by the time Dickens was writing. Would Queen Victoria have “…compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round and put it on the hob to simmer…” just as Bob Cratchit had done?
As expected I didn’t see any plywood angels on the lawn or blinking lights around the windows or even a glowing Santa and reindeer on the roof. There was, however, a large fir tree in the entrance, decorated, but looking as if it was there by mistake. Could it be that the Monarchs were just like us, buying a tree that was too big for the living room?
THE QUEEN: Oh Philip, You did it again! We can’t get the tree through the door!
PHILIP: Gee, it looked a lot smaller in the woods….
THE QUEEN: Can you get Charles cut off the top a bit…?
PHILIP: He’s gluing sparkles onto his Christmas crown, just to see how he looks when….
THE QUEEN: Oh, DO be quiet…
My time was ended; I had to catch a train back home. As I sat over a pint of good ale and fish and chips at the Hoop and Toy, South Kensington, I thought, perhaps, there had never been a Dickensian Christmas after all, at least not the way we think of it. Dickens was a writer. He made up stories and writers create their own view of the world. Maybe, I thought, it’s up to us to create what Christmas is, whether it’s a haunted house, a candy box from a posh shop, a beer and bratwurst next to a polka band or sharing mulled wine with friends. Dickens wrote of Scrooge, “…he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man processed the knowledge.”
So keep Christmas in your own way, however it works best for you and yours. But be sure it’s honest and true.
I lift my mulled wine and my garlic ciabatta to you all.
Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist and author who now lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. Since 1978, he has illustrated and/or written more than 100 books for children and collected a number of honors, including a Reuben Award for Book Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society, New York Times Children’s Books Best Sellers, and the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books of 2000. He enjoys hiking, kayaking and cooking (and eating!). Learn more at his website, doug-cushman.com