4 Dickens Christmas Stories You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Internet Archive // Public Domain
Internet Archive // Public Domain

Think of Charles Dickens and Christmastime and your mind will probably go instantly to A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s classic tale of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his magical yuletide conversion proved an immediate success on its release about a week before Christmas 1843: The initial print run reportedly sold out in just five days, and the book continued to sell well even after Christmas and well into the following year.

Despite that success, A Christmas Carol wasn’t quite the money-spinner its author might have hoped. Dickens had offered to cover the book’s printing costs himself to make up for the lukewarm reception his serialized novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was receiving from readers and reviewers, but his expensive and exacting tastes meant that he initially only cleared a disappointing profit of £230 from 6000 copies sold. Nevertheless, A Christmas Carol proved popular enough with readers and reviewers alike for Dickens to attempt to repeat its success several more times in the mid-1840s, publishing a new Christmas story almost every year until 1848. But such was the success of A Christmas Carol that the four festive stories he published in this time—some overlooked classics, others critical flops and missteps—have since largely become eclipsed by their better-known predecessor, and today remain among the least well-known of Dickens’s back catalogue.

1. THE CHIMES: A GOBLIN STORY OF SOME BELLS THAT RANG AN OLD YEAR OUT AND A NEW YEAR IN (1844)

In June 1844, six months after the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens signed a new publishing deal, part of the contract of which was a Christmas-themed tale set for publication that Christmas. The story he wrote was The Chimes.

Dickens spent much of 1844 staying in a villa in Genoa, Italy, but away from the clamor of London’s streets he struggled to find inspiration, and suffered a prolonged bout of writer’s block. “Never did I stagger so upon a threshold before,” he wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster. “I seem as if I had plucked myself out of my proper soil when I left Devonshire-terrace [his home, near Regent’s Park] and could take root no more until I return to it.” That was until one morning, while sitting on the terrace of his villa, Dickens lost himself in what Forster called the "tuneless, grating, discordant, jerking, hideous vibration" of the church bells below. A few days later, he again wrote to Forster enigmatically saying, “We have heard THE CHIMES at midnight.”

The Chimes tells the story of an elderly messenger (a “ticket-porter”) named Toby “Trotty” Veck. After a series of chance meetings with several other characters—from a poor orphaned girl to a money-grubbing politician—Trotty finds himself questioning the growing inequality he sees around him every day and, disillusioned, wanders off into the night after hearing the church bells call to him. Finding the local church open, Trotty climbs the bell tower and discovers that the spirits of the church bells have come to life, surrounded by their goblin attendants. There, they present him with a series of visions showing the future of his family and the characters he has encountered that night—culminating with a terrifying vision of his 21-year-old daughter, Meg, contemplating suicide by throwing herself from a bridge. Just as he reaches out to try to save her, Trotty wakes to hear the bells of New Year’s morning ringing; Dickens leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Trotty’s awakening was really a dream or not.

After the success of A Christmas Carol, there was much anticipation for Dickens’s follow-up story, and The Chimes ultimately proved a lucrative success: Some 20,000 copies were sold in the first three months alone. But the story’s harsh social commentary divided critics and in the shadow of its predecessor, A Christmas Carol, the popularity of The Chimes has failed to stand the test of time.

Want to check it out for yourself? Read it here.

2. THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH (1845)

Probably the best known of Dickens’s Christmas stories that isn’t A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth tells the story of John Peerybingle and his young wife Dot. Informed by a miserly local toymaker, Tackleton, that his wife is having an affair, John consults the family’s guardian angel—in the form of a cricket chirruping away on the household hearth—for advice. It eventually transpires that there has been a grave misunderstanding, and in typically festive Dickensian fashion the hard-hearted Tackleton sees the error of his ways in a Scrooge-like revelation in the conclusion of the story.

Like its predecessor, The Cricket on the Hearth was a huge commercial success for Dickens—although its schmaltzy and sentimental storyline did not sit well with everyone. While Dickens’s frenemy and fellow author William Thackeray called it “a good Christmas book, illuminated with extra gas, crammed with extra bonbons, French plums and sweetnesses,” The Times went so far as to demand that “we owe it to literature to protest against this last production of Mr Dickens.” You can decide for yourself by reading it here.

3. THE BATTLE OF LIFE: A LOVE STORY (1846)

Written while on holiday in Switzerland in 1846, Dickens’s fourth consecutive Christmas story was The Battle of Life. It told the story of two sisters, Grace and Marion Jeddler, Marion’s fiancé Alfred, and her apparent lover, a gentleman named Michael Warden. Through a series of machinations and misunderstandings, Marion vanishes from the village having supposedly abandoned Alfred and eloped with Michael, and in her absence Alfred grows closer to and eventually marries her sister, Grace. The years pass by and Marion eventually returns—whereupon the real reason behind her disappearance is revealed, and the sisters are reconciled.

The Battle of Life was not a critical success: Reviewers lambasted its unrealistic and underdeveloped plot and characters, and it has remained among the least admired and least remembered of Dickens’s works. Nevertheless, riding on the back of A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth, the book sold a staggering 23,000 copies on its day of release in 1846—Dickens’s fans, if not the critics, were suitably won over. You can make up your own mind here.

4. THE HAUNTED MAN AND THE GHOST’S BARGAIN (1848)

After a year off from the Christmas market, Dickens returned in 1848 with The Haunted Man, a tale that brought him back to the supernatural theme that had proved so successful in A Christmas Carol. In the story, a Mr. Redlaw, a reclusive and cynical scientist tormented by the death of his sister, is visited by his own döppelganger late on Christmas Eve night and given the gift of forgetting all the painful memories that have haunted him since his sister’s passing. The catch, however, is that anyone who comes into contact with Redlaw is also made to forget their memories—and as the story progresses, Redlaw’s influence goes on to ruin the lives of all those around him. You can find out what happens here.

The Haunted Man sold an impressive 18,000 copies on release in December 1848, but the critical reception to the story was mixed. Perhaps as a result—and perhaps in light of his longer novels becoming ever more serious and weighty in their political and social commentaries (Bleak House, Hard Times, and A Tale of Two Cities were all still works in progress at this point)—Dickens did not revisit the Christmas genre in book form again.

The 13 Scariest Haunted Houses in America

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iStock

Horror lovers will feel right at home in New York or Ohio. Attractions in those states claim four out of 13 spots on Halloween expert Larry Kirchner’s new list of America’s scariest haunted houses. Drawing upon his 25 years of experience designing and installing Halloween attractions, Kirchner releases the list on his website, Hauntworld.com, each year.

This year, Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York, tops the list. A historic 18th-century manor provides a spooky backdrop to the haunt, which includes a theatrical hayride, corn maze, eight haunted attractions, and escape rooms. “Dr. Dark’s Circus Side Show” (with everyone’s favorite: creepy clowns) will be one of the new themes offered this year, and another new section called “Two Raven’s Manor” will feature stunt actors and a magician.

The runner-up on Kirchner’s list is Field of Screams in Mountville, Pennsylvania. The attraction promises its hayride will be “the most disturbing ride of your life through thick rows of corn.” Expect to see demented doctors, evil nurses, chainsaw and ax murderers, and miscellaneous monsters.

Check out the full list of attractions below, and head to Haunt World’s website for additional details.

1. Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses: Ulster Park, New York
2. Field of Screams: Mountville, Pennsylvania
3. The Dent Schoolhouse: Cincinnati, Ohio
4. 13th Gate: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
5. Netherworld: Atlanta, Georgia
6. Nightmare on 13th: Salt Lake City, Utah
7. Haunted Schoolhouse & Laboratory: Akron, Ohio
8. Bennett’s Curse: Baltimore, Maryland
9. Haunted Overload: Lee, New Hampshire
10. Erebus: Pontiac, Michigan
11. Hell’s Gate: Lockport, Illinois
12. The Darkness: St. Louis, Missouri
13. Bayville Screampark: Bayville, New York

Autumn Equinox: The Science Behind the First Day of Fall

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iStock

On September 22, the Sun will shine directly over the equator—the midpoint of the Earth. (For 2018, this moment will happen at 9:54 p.m. ET.) The whole world will thus experience a day and night of equal length. In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the autumn equinox. It marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people are marking the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient (and some less so).

You might be wondering two things: 1. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal equinox being the other exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? 2. What do they call the day in the Southern Hemisphere?

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The answer to each of these questions resides in the Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the Sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg a little. Why? Because you want the Sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The Sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
PETRAS MALUKAS, AFP/Getty Images

The Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But the Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5 degrees. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the Sun. At various points in the orbit, the Sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the fall and spring equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead Sun (even during the long polar summer, when the Sun never sinks below the horizon).

WHEN DO THE SEASONS CHANGE?

A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
Jose CABEZAS, AFP/Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with the Earth's distance from the Sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The Sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the Sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the Sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England.
Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England. The Druid Order of London, which was founded in Oxford in 1245, has been conducting the Autumn Equinox ceremony on Primrose Hill since 1717.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

This story first ran in 2016.

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