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4 Dickens Christmas Stories You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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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.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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What's the Story Behind Cinco de Mayo?
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Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is recognized around the country as a time to celebrate Mexico’s cultural heritage. Like a lot of days earmarked to commemorate a specific idea or event, its origins can be a little murky. Who started it, and why?

The holiday was originally set aside to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The two had gotten into a dispute after newly-elected Mexico president Benito Juárez tried to help ease the country’s financial woes by defaulting on European loans. Unmoved by their plight, France attempted to seize control of their land. The Napoleon III-led country sent 6000 troops to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town en route to Mexico City, and anticipated an easy victory.

After an entire day of battle that saw 2000 Mexican soldiers take 500 enemy lives against only 100 casualties, France retreated. That May 5, Mexico had proven itself to be a formidable and durable opponent. (The victory would be short-lived, as the French would eventually conquer Mexico City. In 1866, Mexican and U.S. forces were able to drive them out.)

To celebrate, Juárez declared May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, to be a national holiday. Puebla began acknowledging the date, with recognition spreading throughout Mexico and in the Latino population of California, which celebrated victory over the same kind of oppressive regime facing minorities in Civil War-era America. In fact, University of California at Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista cites his research into newspapers of the era as evidence that Cinco de Mayo really took off in the U.S. due to the parallels between the Confederacy and the monarchy Napoleon III had planned to install.

Cinco de Mayo gained greater visibility in the U.S. in the middle part of the 20th century thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, a political movement promoted by Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933, which encouraged friendly relations between countries.  

There’s a difference between a day of remembrance and a corporate clothesline, however. Cinco de Mayo was co-opted for the latter beginning in the 1970s, when beer and liquor companies decided to promote consumption of their products while enjoying the party atmosphere of the date—hence the flowing margaritas. And while it may surprise some Americans, Cinco de Mayo isn’t quite as big a deal in Mexico as it can be in the States. While Mexican citizens recognize it, it’s not a federal holiday: Celebrants can still get to post offices and banks. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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