Charles Dickens, Child Life


I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree.

Being now at home again, and alone, the only person in the house awake, my thoughts are drawn back, by a fascination which I do not care to resist, to my own childhood. Straight in the middle of the room, cramped in the freedom of its growth by no encircling walls or soon-reached ceiling, a shadowy tree arises; and, looking up into the dreamy brightness of its top,—for I observe in this tree the singular property that it appears to grow downward towards the earth,—I look into my youngest Christmas recollections.

All toys at first, I find. But upon the branches of the tree, lower down, how thick the books begin to hang! Thin books, in themselves, at first, but many of them, with deliciously smooth covers of bright red or green. What fat black letters to begin with!

"A was an archer, and shot at a frog." Of course he was. He was an apple-pie also, and there he is! He was a good many things in his time, was A, and so were most of his friends, except X, who had so little versatility that I never knew him to get beyond Xerxes or Xantippe: like Y, who was always confined to a yacht or a yew-tree; and Z, condemned forever to be a zebra or a zany.

But now the very tree itself changes, and becomes a bean-stalk,—the marvellous bean-stalk by which Jack climbed up to the giant's house. Jack,—how noble, with his sword of sharpness and his shoes of swiftness!

Good for Christmas-time is the ruddy color of the cloak in which, the tree making a forest of itself for her to trip through with her basket, Little Red-Riding-Hood comes to me one Christmas eve, to give me information of the cruelty and treachery of that dissembling wolf who ate her grandmother, without making any impression on his appetite, and then ate her, after making that ferocious joke about his teeth. She was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red-Riding-Hood, I should have known perfect bliss. But it was not to be, and there was nothing for it but to look out the wolf in the Noah's Ark there, and put him late in the procession on the table, as a monster who was to be degraded.

O the wonderful Noah's Ark! It was not found seaworthy when put in a washing-tub, and the animals were crammed in at the roof, and needed to have their legs well shaken down before they could be got in even there; and then ten to one but they began to tumble out at the door, which was but imperfectly fastened with a wire latch; but what was that against it?

Consider the noble fly, a size or two smaller than the elephant; the lady-bird, the butterfly,—all triumphs of art! Consider the goose, whose feet were so small, and whose balance was so indifferent that he usually tumbled forward and knocked down all the animal creation! consider Noah and his family, like idiotic tobacco-stoppers; and how the leopard stuck to warm little fingers; and how the tails of the larger animals used gradually to resolve themselves into frayed bits of string.

Hush! Again a forest, and somebody up in a tree,—not Robin Hood, not Valentine, not the Yellow Dwarf,—I have passed him and all Mother Bunch's wonders without mention,—but an Eastern king with a glittering scymitar and turban. It is the setting-in of the bright Arabian Nights.

O, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me! All lamps are wonderful! all rings are talismans! Common flower-pots are full of treasure, with a little earth scattered on the top; trees are for Ali Baba to hide in; beefsteaks are to throw down into the Valley of Diamonds, that the precious stones may stick to them, and be carried by the eagles to their nests, whence the traders, with loud cries, will scare them. All the dates imported come from the same tree as that unlucky one, with whose shell the merchant knocked out the eye of the genii's invisible son. All olives are of the same stock of that fresh fruit concerning which the Commander of the Faithful overheard the boy conduct the fictitious trial of the fraudulent olive-merchant. Yes, on every object that I recognize among those upper branches of my Christmas tree I see this fairy light!

But hark! the Waits are playing, and they break my childish sleep! What images do I associate with the Christmas music as I see them set forth on the Christmas tree! Known before all the others, keeping far apart from all the others, they gather round my little bed. An angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travellers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure with a mild and beautiful face, raising a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the waters in a ship; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children around; again, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, health to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again, dying upon a cross, watched by armed soldiers, a darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice heard, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do!"

Encircled by the social thoughts of Christmas time, still let the benignant figure of my childhood stand unchanged! In every cheerful image and suggestion that the season brings, may the bright star that rested above the poor roof be the star of all the Christian world!

A moment's pause, O vanishing tree, of which the lower boughs are dark to me yet, and let me look once more. I know there are blank spaces on thy branches, where eyes that I have loved have shone and smiled, from which they are departed. But, far above, I see the Raiser of the dead girl and the widow's son,—and God is good!