Christmas Books

Books about Christmas that are of interest to collectors.

There have been many books written and published about and for Christmas. Here are a few of my personal favourites, with a brief commentary on them and some background on Charles Dickens and Christmas.

Charles Dickens is often credited with the invention of  “The Traditional Christmas”, but most who have looked at this issue would agree that Dickens is mainly responsible for the general popularity of the notion of the “Traditional English Christmas”. The combination of the family-centered celebration of Christmas, together with fun, feasting, drinking and above all a sense of Goodwill Towards All Men has come to epitomise the Dickensian Christmas. But where did all this come from, and how did Dickens know about it?
One interesting fact is that a book was published in London in 1836 called The Book of Christmas by Thomas K Hervey. The book, which was a collection of English Christmas customs, was illustrated by Robert Seymour. 

The Book of Christmas 1836

We know that Charles Dickens knew Robert Seymour, as in 1836, that same year, Dickens had been hired by the publishers Chapman and Hall to provide the text for a series of sporting illustrations to be drawn by Seymour. This project eventually became The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which propelled Dickens from obscurity to instant fame. Sadly, Seymour only provided the first few illustrations for the book, as he committed suicide soon after the start of Pickwick. Some, rather unkindly, have suggested that it might have been working with Dickens that drove him to his sad fate! 

Charles Dickens was by no means the first author to look back nostalgically at the traditional English Christmas. The American author Washington Irving wrote several short pieces describing various scenes from Christmas in England. These were based on his personal experience of spending Christmas in a fine old country house close to Birmingham in Warwickshire. These writings first appeared in Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which was first published in installments during 1819 and 1820. The most pleasing edition of these sketches about Christmas in England is Old Christmas, which was published by Macmillan in 1876, and is gloriously illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. This book was intended to be a Christmas present, and it still makes a fine seasonal gift. In 1877, Bracebridge Hall, a companion volume of Irving’s sketches in the same setting was published by Macmillan, also featuring wonderful illustrations by Randolph Caldecott. These two books are shown below in their original bindings.

Old Christmas, Macmillan 1876Bracebridge Hall, Macmillan 1877

Although there are two memorable Christmas “episodes” in Pickwick, the great Dickens Christmas book was certainly A Christmas Carol, published by Chapman and Hall in December 1843. The genesis of the book was the rather poor sales of the serial parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, in the middle of 1843, which was causing some distress to Dickens and his publisher. After threats to reduce Dickens’ income in light of the poor sales, he was encouraged to produce a successful book for the Christmas market of 1843. After much walking and worrying, it was probably a visit in early October to Dickens’ older sister Fanny in Manchester, where she lived in fairly straitened circumstances with her husband and crippled son Fred, that gave Dickens the inspiration for A Christmas Carol. He started writing the book in mid October and presented the finished manuscript to his publisher on December 2nd. The first edition of  6000 copies was published on 19th December and was sold out in four days at 5 shillings each. The manuscript of A Christmas Carol has survived and is in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York. The library published a fine facsimile of the manuscript in 1993, which allows you to read the text in Dickens’ handwriting, with all of his erasures, amendments and edits, side by side with the printed text.
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A Christmas Carol 1843Facsimile of the first page of the
manuscript of A Christmas Carol 1943

A first edition of A Christmas Carol costs $10,000 – $25,000 today. Ironically, Dickens was disappointed in the financial return that he got from A Christmas Carol. His publishers had forced him to take the financial risk with the publication, but because Dickens had insisted on high-quality end-papers, a high-quality binding, and above all, four hand coloured lithographs as illustrations, and a coloured title page, the production costs of the book consumed most of the earnings so that Dickens only made a few hundred pounds from the project, rather than the thousands that he had expected. This was in spite of the fact that A Christmas Carol sold out twelve editions before Christmas 1844. Never again in his lifetime did Dickens publish a book which contained coloured illustrations. 
Fortunately for the book collector with a modest budget, a nice facsimile edition of the first edition of A Christmas Carol was published by Chapman and Hall in 1926. This can still be found for purchase for a reasonably low sum, often below $100.

Dickens published four more Christmas books, but none of them are thought to be comparable to A Christmas Carol in quality, and they certainly have not been as popular with the general reader. Here they are in the original bindings.

The Chimes
1844
The Cricket on the
Hearth 1845
The Battle of Life
1846
The Haunted Man
1848

The five Christmas Books of Charles Dickens have been published together many times as a collection in a single volume, starting with the first collected edition published in 1852 by Chapman and Hall in a rather undistinguished pale green blind-stamped cloth binding. A much more attractive edition is the one published by Chapman and Hall in 1869 shown below, which was the last edition of the collected Christmas Books that was published in Dickens’ lifetime. As in most of the combined editions of the Christmas Books, the illustrations are all printed without colour, presumably to contain the high costs of production which beset the early editions of A Christmas Carol.

Christmas Books Charles Dickens
Chapman and Hall 1869

 Many other fine editions of A Christmas Carol have been published with new illustrations by many of the greatest book illustrators. Among my favourites are those illustrated by Arthur Rackham, arguably the doyen of English book illustrators; the edition illustrated by Harold Copping for the Religious Tract Society, the quirky edition illustrated by Ronald Searle in 1961 and the fine edition illustrated by Michael Forman for the Folio Society in 2003.

Arthur Rackham
1915
Michael Foreman
2003
Harold Copping
1920
Ronald Searle
1961

More recently, Cedric Dickens, Charles Dickens grandson, published Christmas with Dickens in 1993 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of A Christmas Carol. Cedric tells the reader exactly how to organise a Dickensian Christmas celebration. He tells the reader how to serve a traditional Christmas dinner, with traditional Christmas drinks, interspersed with five selected readings from A Christmas Carol. My copy formerly belonged to the wife of an Australian High Commissioner to London, and is signed by Cedric who praises the successful Dickensian Christmas Dinner that she held, based on the book!

 

Christmas with Dickens, 1993

Christmas is, of course, a major religious festival, and unsurprisingly, many books have appeared telling the story of the birth of Christ. My favourite of these is The Christmas Story, which was published by the BBC in 1968. The text of the book has been taken directly from the New Testament in a form simplified for children. However, the real appeal of the book is in the great illustrations by Charles Keeping. Keeping’s illustrations were commissioned by the BBC to accompany the text for a filmed version of the book that was shown on the popular children’s program, Blue Peter.

A Christmas Story, 1968

For those of us who live in Australia, the greatest conundrum about Christmas is how to celebrate it in what is often the sweltering heat of the southern hemisphere summer. Not very much snow to be seen at all! The best book that I know which tackles this is Bush Christmas, a book that was published in 1983 to accompany the remaking of a film, Bush Christmas, that had first been released in 1947. The original film had starred the immortal Australian character actor Chips Rafferty, and concerned the theft of a champion horse from a family, and told how the horse was recovered and the thieves captured by the courage and ingenuity of a group of children. The 1983 remake tells the same story and features a child actor in her first film, the fourteen-year-old Nicole Kidman! 

Bush Christmas, 1983

The title of the film is drawn from the poem, A Bush Christmas, by C J Dennis, first published in the Melbourne Herald newspaper in December 1931. The book prints the text of Dennis’ poem and also has collected together many early accounts of Christmas in the heat and hardship of 19th century Australia, as well as presenting bush ballads about Christmas, as sung by The Bushwackers, a popular band of the 1970s and 1980s in Australia.


Travel writing is often published in the form of a compendium of traveller’s tales. My favourite Christmas version of this genre is A Traveller’s Christmas, a fine collection of short pieces about Christmas and travel selected by Sue Bradbury and published in 2006 by The Folio Society in a typically high-quality production that features illustrations by Paul Slater. There are many examples from writers of many languages and different cultures, largely around the theme of Christmas spent far from home. My favourite accounts are those of Kipling in India and Robert Falcon Scott in Antarctica, along with accounts from mariners rounding Cape Horn and several from battlefields and war-ravaged lands. 

A Traveller’s Christmas, 2006

The English book illustrator, Raymond Briggs has produced many fine books over the last fifty years. Four of them have a particular relevance to Christmas. These are The Christmas Book by James Reeves (1968), Father Christmas (1973), Father Christmas Goes on Holiday (1975) and The Snowman (1978). These latter three titles are all authored and illustrated by Briggs, although it should be noted that The Snowman is wordless. Briggs’ Father Christmas is a rather grumpy old man but as the story unfolds, his grumpiness becomes increasingly appealing. The original story of The Snowman in the book does not feature Father Christmas, but the filmed version of 1982 does include an encounter with Father Christmas. Both Father Christmas and The Snowman have won multiple awards.

Father Christmas
First edition 1973
The Snowman
Puffin edition 2013

I thought I would finish with two satires on Christmas. The first is Hogfather by the late and very lamented Sir Terry Pratchett. This is his 20th novel in the Discworld series, published in 1996, and tells a tale of the disappearance of The Hogfather (Father Christmas) at Hogswatch (Christmas), due to the plotting of an assassin, and how the Hogfather’s duties are taken up by Death, before the situation is resolved by Death’s granddaughter. I know that this is a great oversimplification of the plot… so go and read the book. If you prefer films, the BBC version of 2006 features the late Ian Richardson as the VOICE OF DEATH (Pratchett fans will understand the capitalisation.)

Hogfather, 1996

My final choice is a children’s book, but is it? How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss, the pseudonym of Theodor Geisel, was published in New York by Random House in 1957 and like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, has never been out of print. The story is presented as a simple picture book, in which the tale is told of a bad character, the Grinch, who tries to stop Christmas by stealing things related to Christmas. On another level, the book is really Geisel’s protest about the over-exploitation of Christmas by commercial interests. Geisel liked the Grinch so much that his car number plate was GRINCH.

Many editions of this book have been published during the last sixty years. Here are three editions, with the original of 1957 on the left, a Jim Carrey film tie-in version from 2000 in the centre, and a more recent edition on the right.

195720002008

Ironically, many people today will know the story due to the various commercial film, TV and recorded sound versions that have been made. 

A nice trivia question for you all could be “What do Boris Karloff, Jim Carrey, Zero Mostel, Walter Matthau and Benedict Cumberbatch have in common?” 

Answer… they have all performed the voice of the Grinch.
Happy Christmas reading!  ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Here is a list of the books mentioned in this blog post.
The Book of Christmas by Thomas K Hervey, William Spooner, London, 1836

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens  First edition, Chapman and Hall 1843 Facsimile, Chapman and Hall 1926

Manuscript Facsimile, Pierpoint Morgan Library 1993

 

Editions of A Christmas Carol with illustrations by:

Arthur Rackham, Heinemann, 1915,

Harold Copping, Religious Tract Society, 1920

Ronald Searle, Perpetua, 1961

Michael Forman, Folio Society, 2003


Christmas with Dickens by Cedric Dickens, The Belvedere Press, 1993

The Chimes by Charles Dickens, Chapman and Hall, 1844

The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens, Bradbury and Evans, 1845

The Battle of Life by Charles Dickens, Bradbury and Evans, 1846

The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain by Charles Dickens, Bradbury and Evans, 1848

Christmas Books by Charles Dickens, Chapman and Hall, 1869

Old Christmas by Washington Irving, Macmillan 1876

Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving, Macmillan 1877

The Christmas Story illustrated by Charles Keeping, BBC, 1968

Bush Christmas edited by Dobe Newton, Tombola publishing, 1983

 A Traveller’s Christmas, compiled by Sue Bradbury, Folio Society, 2006

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 1973

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, Puffin 35th anniversary edition, 2013
Hogfather by (Sir) Terry Pratchett, Gollancz, 1996

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss (Theodor Geisel), Random House 1957              ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++