‘A bit of Bah Humbug’: Christmas in Great Expectations

Dickens is the perfect post-Christmas antidote to anyone exhausted by the festive season

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An illustration in which Orlick threatens Pip with a candlestick.

As the author of one of the world’s best loved festive tales, Charles Dickens is an undeniably “Christmas-y” author. With nearly every year bringing a new inspired take on the classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ to our screens, from the old-school Muppets take to Hallmark movies, he is often given the trite title of ‘the man who invented Christmas’. Whilst A Christmas Carol is a typical family favourite (as it should be), most of Dickens’ novels can capture much of our feelings around the Christmas season. Great Expectations is a prime example. Whilst this novel is certainly not the cozy, festive read many people enjoy in the wintertime; it is can be that necessary cynical antidote to Tiny Tim’s sugary exultations.

Pip’s childhood Christmas dinner is almost something out of a millennial comedy sketch. Turns out spending Christmas day surrounded by relatives or family friends who will take any opportunity to bash the youth of today is an antiquated festive tradition. If you’re emotionally exhausted from the inevitable family debate about Brexit, Pip‘s awkward Christmas dinner is a familiar scene to be relished around this festive period. Surrounded by his dreaded sister’s middle-class acquaintances, Pip experiences the barrage of questions and assumptions everyone must deal with at some point over Christmas. If the minimal but joyful dinner of the Cratchit family in A Christmas Carol represents the generosity and thankfulness we aspire to at Christmas, then Great Expectations embodies the reality. One of the tableaus from the original serial form of the novel shows Pip trying to escape this scene, alongside the hilariously identifiable understatement of a caption: “Pip does not enjoy his Christmas dinner”.

Despite the setting of Christmas Eve taking place through the perspective of a child, there is little excitement of what this will actually bring. In fact, the anticipation of the novel lies in Pip’s discovery on this day not of presents or food, but a mysterious and threatening stranger in a graveyard. For our protagonist, the occurrence of this gothic plot means Christmas is a bit of an inconvenience, which can be refreshing to read about amongst the constant festive mania.

Whilst not warm and festive, Great Expectations is in some ways the perfect post–festive read as it becomes a comforting antidote to all the things we love to hate about Christmas. It’s gothic plot and gloomy settings enable the perfect form of escapism from the traditional Christmas scene Dickens characterised in A Christmas Carol. It can be fun to believe that Dickens created this bleak scene from his own disillusionment around typical scenes of festive joy. Writing to a friend, he once stated that “I feel as if I had murdered Christmas”. If Great Expectations is his response to that, it works perfectly in contrast with the festive scenes and moral solutions established in A Christmas Carol.

There is no simple moral lesson to be learned in Great Expectations. The novel depicts the growth of Pip as his perceptions of the world are twisted and moulded by the class structures and wealth he encounters. Pip doesn’t immediately learn any lesson from his encounter with the criminal in the graveyard at Christmas, which would be too in keeping with the festive season. Nor do we. Christmas comes and goes, and we continue to read about Pip’s mysterious experiences.

The novel is complex, dramatic, engaging and a little bit depressing. It is a fantastic read, but what makes it so wonderful to read around this festive season is that it doesn’t take the Christmas day setting too seriously. Whilst it makes for a comedic festive scene, the core of the book and its pull lies elsewhere. Dickens rejects any pressure to conform to the conventions of the holiday. Instead, like all days, Christmas passes in the novel without much notice from the author or the protagonist. After the overwhelming mania of Christmas, its intense commercialisation, and the arrival of your relatives on Christmas Day, it has become a comforting thing to read about

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