The Ghost of Christmas Present, as originally illustrated by John Leech in 1843. Image credit: Project Gutenburg.
Christmas Food History Special, Part I: A Christmas Carol (Starring George C. Scott), 1984
A Christmas Carol is really the only place to start this "food in holiday cinema" series! With its tables groaning with roast geese and plum pudding and vats of punch, its voyages through the Christmas markets with the Ghost of Christmas Present, its prize turkeys as big as Tiny Tim...it wouldn't be Christmas without A Christmas Carol, would it?
The timeless novella, illustrated by John Leech, was first published by Charles Dickens on December 19, 1843. By Christmas Eve that year, A Christmas Carol had already sold out! Dickens himself started giving live readings of his book in 1849, and continued to give these unforgettable performances until he died in 1870. Dickens may have been inspired to write this short story after visiting a school for impoverished children in the London slums, Field Lane Ragged School.
Masterfully dramatized by Clive Donner in 1984 (despite the unfortunate '80s soundtrack and '80s special effects...well, it was the '80s), the novella has always lent itself very well to both the stage and the silver screen. And George C. Scott was born to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
I mean, who else could put the "humbug" in "Bah, humbug" so well??
Scrooge's idea of a Christmas Eve feast is a little, well...spartan. Dickens describes his solitary meal of gruel:
The Ghost of Christmas Past soon fixes that. Scrooge finds himself transported to the boisterous Christmas ball at Mr. Fezziwig's, with quite a feast to behold:
Negus? Is that a food? A drink? A small roasted animal? As it turns out, negus was a popular Victorian hot beverage, similar to mulled wine: you can click here for the recipe!
The Ghost of Christmas Present transports the gruel-eating Scrooge through yet more Christmas markets, and parties, and feasts. Even this merry ghost's presence is heralded by food:
One of the troubles of dramatizing the written word is that something always gets lost in translation. We watch in the 1984 rendition as the Ghost of Christmas Present escorts old Scrooge through the Christmas markets and shops, bustling wth activity, and yet it can't possibly do justice to Dickens' gorgeous food writing:
Ah, Victorian Christmas fare, with little daws (they're like crows, apparently) hopping around. Dickens paints such a lovely picture for us of the markets of London in his day. But there's more: at the humble home of Bob Cratchit we find a roast goose and a glorious Christmas pudding:
If you want to try tackling a Victorian Christmas pudding yourself this year, you might like this traditional recipe from a food writer in North Yorkshire...I imagine she knows a thing or two about it!
The Ghost of Christmas Future (naturally) doesn't need to eat anymore, and doesn't have much to say, either. Scary devil. Poor old Scrooge is beyond delighted to wake up and discover it is Christmas morning (and, spoiler alert, he hasn't died after all). He springs into action, ordering the largest turkey he can find for the impoverished Crachit Family:
Where has the parsimonious Scrooge gone? Dickens describes his delight in ordering (and paying for) the largest turkey in town: