This was written just before Christmas.
Happy holidays, everyone, from all of us at the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
I’m going to be alone this Christmas for the first time in 20 years — so do feel free to send presents — cognac, figs, books, music, frankincense and myrrh, whatever they are.
Don’t cry for me Argentina. I have plans. I drove up to the Charles Dickens Festival in Garrison, N.D., last weekend. It’s a town of 1,532 residents tucked into the north shore of giant Lake Sakawawea, the reservoir created by Garrison Dam in the 1950s.
This was the 25th annual Dickens festival.
As you may know, “The Iliad” and “Hamlet” are my favorite books in the world. “Walden” is my favorite American book, though Twain’s “Roughing It” and “Huckleberry Finn” are right up there, as is Melville’s “Moby Dick.” But that for another time. If I could choose only one novel in the world, it would probably be Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” or perhaps “Anna Karenina,” which has perhaps the hundred greatest first pages in all of fiction and perhaps the hundred greatest last pages, too. My poets are John Donne, John Keats and John Milton, if you have to choose.
But the English novelist I love most is Charles Dickens, which is what has taken me four times to the Garrison, N.D., Dickens festival. Almost every shop in town is called Ye ole this or Ye ole that, and though I have pointed out a few times that the phrase Ye Ole was long gone by the time Dickens was born in 1812, nobody likes a snothead. The Dickens festival is part Norman Rockwell, party National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation,” and I must say that you can spend an awful lot of time at the Dickens festival without having any significant encounter with the life and work of Charles Dickens, but let’s not get tripped up over technicalities.
On the way home, brooding about Christmas alone at the Great Bend of the Missouri River in North Dakota, I decided to have a little Dickens Festival of my own this year.
I ordered a Mr. Micawber plate from eBay, which ought to be here in plenty of time. I bought a Dickens Christmas ornament at the Dickens Festival last week. To the untrained eye, it might be mis-recognized as Karl Marx or Moses or Tom Selleck, but I will nevertheless hang it on a tiny tabletop synthetic tree that was my mother’s favorite. I have a little book I got somewhere years ago called “Christmas with Dickens,” compiled by Cedric Dickens, the great grandson of the author. I’ve marked the recipes I plan to use — leek and potato soup for a starter, then sherried prawns, a wee turkey with chestnut stuffing, brandy butter and Christmas pudding with a coin, a shilling, inserted in the batter, a British tradition. The person who finds the shilling gets to keep it, and use it as down payment for repairing the chipped tooth. And Dickens punch, plenty of punch with rum and sherry and citrus and sugar and spice — five ingredients.
And after supper, when I have settled into my favorite reading chair, with a roaring fire in my gas faux fireplace, with a quilt made by my Grandmother Rhoda over my legs, an unprecedented further glass of punch by my side, I will open one of three Dickens novels to read one of my all-time favorite passages: Mr. Micawber’s dinner party from “David Copperfield,” or the antics of Mr. Jingle from “Pickwick Papers,” or the infamous porridge scene from “Oliver Twist”: Please sir, I want some more …
Over the past year, I have purchased two new complete sets of Dickens, one the India paper edition published in 1923, the other the Philadelphia Bibliophile edition of 1910. With great joy and a dollop of melancholy I will be reading Dickens that evening, stopping from time to time to pour myself a bit more punch.
God bless us everyone.