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Merry Christmas!

I love the Christmas season and I love the works of Charles Dickens. Have they not gone hand in hand for the past 180 years? I also have a particular fondness for and appreciation of the illustrators of that “Golden Age” of British book illustration (1890 – 1920), Arthur Rackham most notably. So when the three go together, I cannot resist a purchase.

A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843; Arthur Rackham provided his take on the famous characters of Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future in 1915. I purchased this edition in the late 1970’s.

New York: Weathervane Books, 1977

Much has been said in praise of Rackham, whose first major success came through providing the illustrations to Rip Van Winkle in 1905 and whose last major commission was for The Wind in the Willows in 1940. I’ll let one expert speak for all the rest: “Mr. Rackham stands apart from all the other illustrators of the day; his genius is so thoroughly original. Scores of others have depicted fairyland and wonderland, but who else has given us so absolutely individual and persuasively suggestive a vision of their marvels and allurements? Whose elves are so elfish, whose witches and gnomes are so convincingly of their kind, as Mr. Rackham’s?” (art critic M.C. Salaman in his 1894 study of British illustrators, quoted in Wikipedia).

Jacob Marley, carrying the chain he forged in life, travelling the world in the afterlife, condemned to wander and witness what he cannot share, but “might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness”. (p.26)
Delightful visions presented by the Spirit of Christmas Past

A Christmas Carol was not the only Christmas Book that Dickens produced; four others exist: The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, The Haunted Man and The Battle of Life. Neither space nor the season of joy lend themselves to detailed discourses on Dickens, Rackham or the history of Christmas traditions. Rather, let me just quote another well-known author on the books themselves:

“I wonder if you have ever read Dickens’s Christmas Books?…they are too much perhaps. I have only read two yet, but I have cried my eyes out, and had a terrible fight not to sob. But oh, dear God, they are good – and I feel so good after them – I shall do good and lose no time – I want to go out and comfort someone – I shall give money. Oh, what a jolly thing it is for a man to have written books like these and just filled people’s hearts with pity.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

I imagine Dickens’s wonderful Christmas story is well known to every reader of popular fiction, and many film and television excellent versions are available (to my mind, nothing beats the 1951 adaptation starring Alastair Sim). And since my focus is on Rackham’s illustrations, I won’t spend any more time exploring its ins and outs. Rather, I’ll turn to another seasonal favorite, also illustrated by Rackham, The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.

The Night Before Christmas was first published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel in 1823. It was originally called “A Visit From St. Nick” and written for his children. Only much later did Moore, a professor of Greek and Oriental Literature, admit to writing the well-loved piece. To the best of my knowledge, Rackham illustrated the poem in 1931. Of course, along with A Christmas Carol, it has become a staple of the season, doubtless happily memorized and quoted by more children than any other in the English language.

My copy, also from Weathervane Books, 1976

Finally, let me wish you the best of the season and send you off with the following greeting (from the very end of the poem):

See you in the new year. Since I’ll be taking a break until February, let me take the opportunity to wish you a prosperous and joyful 2023.

Cover Photo by Norman Tsui on Unsplash