Every year as Christmas approaches, I think of two favorite my two people names Charles – the great novelist Charles Dickens and the wondrous cowboy artist Charles Russell. And while there’s no historical link between the two men, their words link them together in my mind.
As to Mr. Dickens, there are those who say that without his A Christmas Carol the whole concept of Christmas as we now know it might not have happened. But after his Christmas Carol appeared in print, it launched the Victorian age craze in gift giving, decorating trees and eating hearty Christmas-day meals.
Years before A Christmas Carol, Dickens gave a hint of his fondness for winter and the holiday in The Pickwick Papers. David James Duncan who wrote The River Why once told me he loved Dickens because, “It’s so upbeat, as if Dickens was on a huge high when he wrote it.”
For those not familiar with the book, it depicts the travels about England by middle-aged bachelor Mr. Pickwick and some of his younger friends. The story was first serialized in British newspapers with people lining up to get the latest installment.
Situations like stories of the return of ghosts at Christmas to talk about the past first appear in The Pickwick Papers. The ghost stories come up during Pickwick’s celebration of the holiday at the country manor of Mr. Weller and his family in Muggleton.
It’s a festive celebration with people from all walks of life participating. Dickens sets the tone for the celebration thusly:
“The dinner was a hearty affair. Then came the dessert and some more toasts. Then came the tea and coffee; and then, the ball.
The best sitting room at Manor Farm was a good, long, dark paneled room with a high chimney –piece, and a capacious chimney upon which could have driven one of the new patent cabs wheels and all. At the upper end of the room, seated in a shady bower of holly and evergreens, were two of the best fiddlers, and the only harp in all Muggleton. In all sorts of recesses, and on all kinds of brackets, stood massive old silver candlesticks with four branches each. The carpet was up, the candles burnt bright, the fire blazed and crackled on the hearth, and merry voices and light-hearted laughter rang through the room. If any old English yeoman had turned into fairies when they died, it was just the place in which they would have held their revels.”
Scene set, the ball takes place and at one point, Mr. Pickwick is urged to sing. A he does, offering his “Christmas Carol”, the latter portion of which follows.
“But my song I troll out, for Christmas stout,
The hearty, the true and the bold;
A bumper I drain, and with might and main
Give three cheers for this Christmas old!
We’ll usher him in with a merry din
That shall gladden his joyous heart,
And we’ll keep him up, while there’s bite or sup
And in good fellowship we’ll part.”
As to the other Charles, Russell’s vivid paintings of cowboy life are without peer. Some of his art, so legend has it, was given away for drinks at his favorite watering hole. I like that.
Russell’s cowboy doggerel remains a personal favorite including this from one of his now famous annual Christmas cards.
“Best wishes this Christmas is all you get from me
‘cause I ain’t no Santa Claus
Don’t own no Christmas tree
But if wishes was health and money,
I’d fill your buckskin poke
Your doctor would go hungry
And you’d never be broke.”