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How Mr. Chokepear Keeps A Merry Christmas.

Ignorance and Want, John Leech, 1843, a three-quarter page wood engraving in the first edition of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Stave Three, ‘The Second of the Three Spirits,’ p. 119.


From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

Ed. Note: This piece (sans the embedded videos, if it’s necessary to point this out) was originally published in Punch, or The London Charivari, the beloved British weekly magazine of humor and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and engraver Ebenezer Landells. Historically, it was most influential in the 1840s and 1850s, when it helped to coin the term “cartoon” in its modern sense as a humorous illustration. It became a British institution, but after the 1940s, when its circulation peaked, it went into a long decline, closing in 1992. It was revived in 1996, but closed again in 2002. “How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas” was published on December 25, 1841. Its message, much as that of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” which would be published two years later, on December 19, 1843, is, unfortunately, ever timely, perhaps even more so in this era of growing income inequality, attacks on the rights of workers, women and minorities, and the diminishment of the middle class. Deep Roots offers it in hopes its words will speak to the better angels of our nature.

Mr. CHOKEPEAR is, to the finger-nails, a respectable man. The tax-gatherer was never known to call at his door a second time for the same rate; he takes the sacrament two or three times a year, and has in his cellar the oldest port in the parish. He has more than once subscribed to the fund for the conversion of the Jews; and, as a proof of his devotion to the interests of the established church, it was he who started the subscription to present the excellent Doctor MANNAMOUTH with a superb silver tea-pot, cream-jug, and spoons. He did this, as he has often proudly declared, to show to the infidel world that there were some men in the parish who were true Christians. He has acquired a profound respect for Sir PETER LAURIE, since the alderman’s judgments upon “the starving villains who would fly in the face of their Maker;” and, having a very comfortable balance at his banker’s, considers all despair very weak, very foolish, and very sinful. He, however, blesses himself that for such miscreants there is Newgate; and more—there is Sir PETER LAURIE.

Mr. CHOKEPEAR loves Christmas! Yes, he is an Englishman, and he will tell you that he loves to keep Christmas-day in the true old English fashion. How does he keep it?

It is eight o’clock, and Mr. CHOKEPEAR rises from his goose-down. He dresses himself, says his short morning thanksgiving, and being an economist of time, unconsciously polishes his gold watch-chain the while. He descends to the breakfast parlour, and receives from lips of ice, the wishes of a happy Christmas, pronounced by sons and daughters, to whom, as he himself declares, he is “the best of fathers”—the most indulgent of men.

The church-bell tolls, and the CHOKEPEARS, prepare for worship. What meekness, what self-abasement sits on the Christian face of TOBIAS CHOKEPEAR as he walks up the aisle to his cosey pew; where the woman, with turned key and hopes of Christmas half-crown lighting her withered face, sinks a curtsey as she lets “the miserable sinner” in; having carefully pre-arranged the soft cushions and hassocks for the said sinner, his wife, his sons, and daughters. The female CHOKEPEARS with half the produce of a Canadian winter’s hunting in their tippets, muffs, and dresses, and with their noses, like pens stained with red ink,—prepare themselves to receive the religious blessings of the day. They then venture to look around the church, and recognising CHOKEPEARS of kindred nature, though not of name, in pews—(none of course among the most “miserable sinners” on the bare benches)—they smile a bland salutation, and—but hush! the service is about to begin.

Frank Sinatra, ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,’ recorded in 1964 and featured on Frank Sinatra: The Christmas Collection (1999)

And now will TOBIAS CHOKEPEAR perform the religious duties of a Christian! Look at him, how he feeds upon every syllable of the minister. He turns the Prayer-book familiarly, as if it were his bank account, and, in a moment, lights upon the prayers set apart for the day. With what a composed, assured face he listens to the decalogue—how firm his voice in the responses—and though the effrontery of scandal avows that he shifts somewhat from Mrs. CHOKEPEAR’S eye at the mention of “the maid-servant”—we do not believe it.

It is thus CHOKEPEAR begins his Christmas-day. He comes to celebrate the event of the Incarnation of all goodness; to return “his most humble and hearty thanks” for the glory that Providence has vouchsafed to him in making him a Christian. He—Tobias CHOKEPEAR—might have been born a Gentoo! Gracious powers! he might have been doomed to trim the lamps in the Temple of Juggernaut—he might have come into this world to sweep the marble of the Mosque at Mecca—he might have been a faquir, with iron and wooden pins “stuck in his mortified bare flesh”—he might, we shudder to think upon the probability, have brandished his club as a New Zealander; and his stomach, in a state of heathen darkness to the humanising beauties of goose and apple-sauce, might, with unblessed appetite, have fed upon the flesh of his enemies. He might, as a Laplander, have driven a sledge, and fed upon walrus-blubber; and now is he an Englishman—a Christian—a carriage holder, and an eater of venison!

It is plain that all these thoughts—called up by the eloquence of Doctor MANNAMOUTH, who preaches on the occasion—are busy in the bosom of CHOKEPEAR; and he sits on his soft cushion, with his eyelids declined, swelling and melting with gratitude for his blissful condition. Yes; he feels the glorious prerogative of his birth—the exquisite beauty of his religion. He ought to feel himself a happy man; and, glancing round his handsomely-appointed pew—he does.

“A sweet discourse—a very sweet discourse,” says CHOKEPEAR to several respectable acquaintance, as the organ plays the congregation out; and CHOKEPEAR looks round about him airily, contentedly; as though his conscience was as unseared as the green holly that decorates the pews; as though his heart was fresh, and red, and spotless as its berries.

Well, the religious ceremonies of the day being duly observed, CHOKEPEAR resolves to enjoy Christmas in the true old English fashion. Oh! ye gods, that bless the larders of the respectable,—what a dinner! The board is enough to give Plenty a plethora, and the whole house is odoriferous as the airs of Araby. And then, what delightful evidences of old observing friendship on the table! There is a turkey—“only a little lower” than an ostrich—despatched all the way from an acquaintance in Norfolk, to smoke a Christmas salutation to good Mr. CHOKEPEAR. Another county sends a goose—another pheasants—another brawn; and CHOKEPEAR, with his eye half slumbering in delight upon the gifts, inwardly avows that the friendship of friends really well to do is a fine, a noble thing.

The dinner passes off most admirably. Not one single culinary accident has marred a single dish. The pudding is delicious; the custards are something better than manna—the mince pies a conglomeration of ambrosial sweets. And then the Port! Mr. CHOKEPEAR smacks his lips like a whip, and gazes on the bee’s wing, as HERSCHELL would gaze upon a new-found star, “swimming in the blue profound.” Mr. CHOKEPEAR wishes all a merry Christmas, and tosses off the wine, its flavour by no means injured by the declared conviction of the drinker, that “there isn’t such another glass in the parish!”

The evening comes on. Cards, snap-dragons, quadrilles, country-dances, with a hundred devices to make people eat and drink, send night into morning; and it may be at six or seven on the twenty-sixth of December, our friend CHOKEPEAR, a little mellow, but not at all too mellow for the season, returns to his sheets, and when he rises declares that he has passed a very merry Christmas. If the human animal were all stomach—all one large paunch—we should agree with CHOKEPEAR that he had passed a merry Christmas: but was it the Christmas of a good man or a Christian? Let us see.

We have said all CHOKEPEAR’S daughters dined with him. We forgot: one was absent. Some seven years ago she married a poorer husband, and poverty was his only, but certainly his sufficient fault; and her father vowed that she should never again cross his threshold. The Christian keeps his word. He has been to church to celebrate the event which preached to all men mutual love and mutual forgiveness, and he comes home, and with rancour in his heart—keeps a merry Christmas!

Anonymous 4, ‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ with Andrew Lawrence-King on baroque harp. From the A4 album Wolcum Yule (2003)

We have briefly touched upon the banquet spread before CHOKEPEAR. There is a poor debtor of his in Horsemonger-lane prison—a debtor to the amount of at least a hundred shillings. Does he dine on Christmas-day? Oh! yes; Mr. CHOKEPEAR will read in The Times of Monday how the under-marshal served to each prisoner a pound of beef, a slice of pudding, and a pint of porter! The man might have spent the day in freedom with his wife and children; but Mr. CHOKEPEAR in his pew thought not of his debtor, and the creditor at least—kept a merry Christmas!

How many shivering wretches pass CHOKEPEAR’S door! How many, with the wintry air biting their naked limbs, and freezing within them the very springs of human hope! In CHOKEPEAR’S house there are, it may be, a dozen coats, nay, a hundred articles of cast-off dress, flung aside for the moth—piles of stuff and flannel, that would at this season wrap the limbs of the wretched in comparative Elysium. Does Mr. CHOKEPEAR, the respectable, the Christian CHOKEPEAR, order these (to him unnecessary) things to be given to the naked? He thinks not of them; for he wears fleecy hosiery next his skin, and being in all things dressed in defiance of the season—keeps a merry Christmas.

Gentle reader, we wish you a merry Christmas; but to be truly, wisely merry, it must not be the Christmas of the CHOKEPEARS. That is the Christmas of the belly: keep you the Christmas of the heart. Give—give.


‘God Bless Us Every One,’ the Nick & Tony Bicát-penned theme song for the 1984 TV adaption of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, directed by Clive Donner.

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