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. Charles 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.

12 Things You Might Not Know About Passover

iStock
iStock

For practicing Jews, Passover is a time to remember their deliverance from captivity in ancient Egypt. It's one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, and in the days before the first night's seder, families make preparations such as cleaning the home of chametz and planning for a week of meaningful dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn't have learned from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments.

1. Firstborn sons need to fast for Passover.

matzo
iStock

The festival of Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt. The passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were "passed over" as Egypt's first-born children were killed (although confusingly, in the Torah, the date the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover while the week-long celebration is the Festival of Matzot. They've since been combined into one celebration called Passover).

In celebration of the firstborns being saved, it is traditional for them to fast on 14 Nisan. If there are no children, the oldest member of the household fasts. If the firstborn is a daughter? That depends on the tradition of the community.

2. Passover lasts either seven or eight days.

reading the Haggadah at Passover
iStock

The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea), but many Jews outside of Israel celebrate for eight. Traditionally each month of the Jewish calendar was determined by an astronomical observation and could be either 29 or 30 days long. After a new month was determined, messengers spread the word. For Jews who lived too far away for messengers to bring timely news of a new month, it was safest to celebrate for an extra day, so no matter how long the previous month was, the holiday was celebrated.

Eventually the calendar was standardized and the eight-day custom was no longer needed. Today, some Jewish denominations outside of Israel (like Reform Judaism) celebrate the mandated seven days, while many others prefer eight days. Inside Israel it's generally seven.

3. Leavened grains are a no-go at Passover.

Person sweeping the floor
iStock

One of the most important parts of Passover preparations is cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food. Even the tiniest bit has to go. Because the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, it's said they didn't have time to leaven their bread. To commemorate that, five grains (traditionally wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) are banished from the house. Jews can spend weeks ensuring that the house is perfectly clean—and there are even professional chametz cleaning services that say they'll boil toys, break down and reassemble kitchen chairs … and possibly still leave the house dirty. There's a saying in Jewish households: "Dust is not chametz." The goal is to get rid of chametz above all else.

4. Matzo, which is made from wheat, is one of the most important parts of a Passover meal.

baking matzo
iStock

While there are restrictions against leavened products, one of the most important parts of a Passover meal is matzo, which is made from wheat. The difference between matzo and regular bread is that the wheat in matzo cannot come into contact with any water until it's ready to be cooked. And once water and wheat are mixed it has to be baked within 18 minutes (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, fermentation begins and it is chametz.

But why 18 minutes? Supposedly it's because that's how long it takes to walk between the cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias in Israel. Over the years, scholars have argued about how long it would actually take to walk between the cities, with some proposing that copying errors reduced the distance from circa 4 miles to 1 and thus reduced the time from 72 minutes to 18. Nowadays, it's felt that even if there was a transcribing error, there's enough tradition to use 18 minutes.

5. Grains get complicated during Passover.

matzo ball soup
iStock

As Jews spread around the world, they often found themselves faced with foods that weren't explicitly mentioned for Passover. Sephardic Jews (generally) feel that only the five expressly mentioned grains are forbidden, while Ashkenazi Jews worry that the dishes made from certain other plants that look similar and are grown in similar conditions as the forbidden grains will risk contamination between the two. So if these ingredients (called kitniyot, or "legumes") were avoided, actual chametz could more easily be avoided (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).

But recently, some authorities have argued that improved technology and storing methods have rendered the old methods obsolete. It's a current debate in some communities.

6. Some of the best matzo flour is made in Arizona.

field of wheat
iStock

One of the most difficult parts of making matzo is keeping the flour dry before it's ready to be converted into matzo; any water risks converting flour into chametz. So, according to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has found the perfect farming conditions to produce their wheat—the arid fields of southwestern Arizona. The group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, work with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that no unwanted moisture affects the crop, and the resulting kosher wheat is shipped back east to make up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.

7. Pets also get special food during Passover.

cute dog with head tilted
iStock

For Passover, houses must be free of chametz and there can be no benefit derived from it. This includes pet food. In keeping with this, there are Passover-friendly pet foods out there, and some Rabbinical authorities propose switching out your pet's diet for a few days—such as giving dogs straight meat or herbivores a variety of approved vegetables. If a pet must have a specific type of food—or you can't get Passover-friendly pet food—some observant Jews follow the rabbinical authorities who give the option to sell the pet to a gentile for a few days and then get it back after Passover has ended.

8. There are six symbolic Passover foods.

seder plate for Passover
iStock

The focal point of the start of Passover is the Seder plate, and on it are six ceremonial items:

Beitzah—A cooked egg, representing sacrifice (it's also been suggested that while most foods soften when you cook them, eggs get harder, representing the resolve of the Jewish people)

Haroset—a sweet mix of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that symbolizes the mortar used by Jews during their slavery

Karpas—a green vegetable signifying new life

Maror and hazeret—bitter herbs (often horseradish for maror and something like romaine for hazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery

Zeroa—a shank bone (or a chicken neck) to remember the Paschal sacrifice.

9. Sometimes an orange is added to the Seder plate.

slice of orange
iStock

In the 1980s, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel spoke on a panel at Oberlin College. While there, she met some students who told a story of a rabbi who said "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate." In response, they started placing a crust on their plates.

Heschel was inspired, but felt that using bread sent the wrong message, writing "it renders everything chametz … [suggesting] that being a lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism." So she proposed putting an orange (originally a tangerine) on the Seder plate to symbolize Jewish gays and lesbians. At some point a story emerged that it was actually to symbolize women in general, but Heschel explained: "A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Other more modern additions include pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to recognize interfaith families), or tomatoes or Fair Trade chocolate (to remember that there's still slavery around the world).

10. Some major companies produce special kosher-for-Passover food and beverages.

ad for kosher Coca-Cola
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Many companies produce special kosher-for-Passover products, from chocolate syrup to cake mixes. But one of the most important is Coca-Cola. In the early 20th century Rabbi Tobias Geffen was serving as an Orthodox Rabbi in Atlanta. Due to his location (Coca-Cola was invented and is headquartered in Atlanta), he was frequently asked if Coca-Cola was kosher. After analyzing the product, he found two problem ingredients—alcohol and glycerin.

The alcohol was a problem because it was grain-derived and thus unacceptable for Passover, a problem that was solved by switching to fermented molasses. The other problem, however, was glycerin. The glycerin was derived from animals, and there was simply no economic way to ensure the animals were kosher. As Roger Horowitz explains in Kosher USA, there's an exemption in the rules for a tiny amount of an unacceptable ingredient—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-Cola's glycerin content was dramatically below that level. Rabbi Geffen, however, believed that since the glycerin was deliberately added, it didn't qualify for this rule. Soon though, a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil emerged, and Coca-Cola was approved for Passover.

When Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup, however, that created a problem for Ashkenazi Jews. As such, today there's a special yellow-capped Coca-Cola that doesn't use HFCS and is certified kosher.

11. Maxwell House coffee holds a special place at Passover.

Maxwell House Haggadahs
Tom Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

But the most influential company is likely Maxwell House. In the 1920s they decided to expand their presence to Jewish families—but there was a problem. Colloquially known as coffee "beans," there was a view that they were legumes, and as such forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Soon Maxwell House convinced reluctant coffee drinkers that their product was acceptable and in 1932 the company began publishing the Maxwell House Haggadah (the Haggadah is the telling of the Exodus and how to perform a seder meal). In the years since, Maxwell House estimates that it has published 50 million Haggadahs, which were even the preferred text for the Obama White House Seder.

12. The world's largest Seder happens in a surprising location.

Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/Getty Images

Going on for almost 30 years and hosting over 1000 people, the Kathmandu Seder was started in 1989 by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, who quickly realized that the demand was much higher than he was ready for. The ambassador contacted a rabbi friend who dispatched two rabbinical students to aid the preparations. The seder was a massive success—expecting 90 guests and hoping for 150, they ultimately had 500 guests.

Nowadays, preparations for the seder start months in advance, with 1000 bottles of wine and over 1000 pounds of matzo getting shipped in from the United States and Israel.

Can You Spot the Easter Egg Hiding in the Flowers in This Springtime Brain Teaser?

Don't worry—the puzzle below won't trigger your seasonal allergies.
Don't worry—the puzzle below won't trigger your seasonal allergies.
FlairImages/iStock via Getty Images

Scores of residents likely won’t be dashing through vibrant flower gardens at your neighborhood’s traditional Easter egg hunt this year, but you can still put your eagle eye to good use in this brain teaser, courtesy of online blinds retailer 247 Blinds.

In the following image, a single egg is hidden somewhere among the bright pattern of yellow flowers and green leaves. Once you’ve spotted it (or decided to throw in the towel), scroll down to reveal the answer.

spot the egg in the flowers brain teaser
Can you spot the Easter egg?
247 Blinds

The design in the image is the very same one as the online retailer's “Hard to Crack” roller blinds—cleverly concealed egg included—which you can customize to fit most standard windows. Not only will it give your room a sunny, springtime ambience, it’ll also give your house guests something to do while they sip their morning coffee.

Ready to wrap up your virtual Easter egg hunt? The egg is circled in red below.

spot the egg in the flowers brain teaser answer
You've earned a chocolate bunny or two.
247 Blinds

And while you’re waiting for the Easter Bunny to deliver a basket brimming with candy-filled eggs this weekend, find out where the Easter Bunny came from here.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER