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Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the Question of Turkey or Goose

In the third chapter or "stave" of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to the house of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, to witness the Cratchits' Christmas dinner. Their dinner is built around a goose, stuffed with sage and onions, roasted at the baker's shop around the corner, and served with applesauce and potatoes. It is, Dickens tells us, a goose that was a ceremonial event as much as a meal.

At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!

Dickens makes it very clear that the goose is much extended by the stuffing, potatoes and applesauce, and that even so, it was not an overly abundant meal for the Cratchits, who were seven at the table. But Dickens makes it quite clear that the Cratchits scorn to think of themselves as poor, and enjoy their Christmas dinner quite as much as if it had been procured at twice the cost. Even the Christmas pudding is brought to the table in festive ceremony. Later, in Stave 5 (or chapter 5) when Scrooge wakes after his final spirit has left him, he discovers that it is only just Christmas Day, and resolves to reform himself, and he begins by purchasing and arranging for a magnificent turkey to be delivered to the Cratchits, anonymously.

'It's Christmas Day!' said Scrooge to himself. 'I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!'

'Hallo!' returned the boy.

'Do you know the Poulterer's, in the next street but one, at the corner?' Scrooge inquired.

'I should hope I did,' replied the lad.

'An intelligent boy!' said Scrooge. 'A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? -- Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?'

'What, the one as big as me?' returned the boy.

'What a delightful boy!' said Scrooge. 'It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!'

'It's hanging there now,' replied the boy.

'Is it?' said Scrooge. 'Go and buy it.'

'Walk-er!' exclaimed the boy.

'No, no,' said Scrooge, 'I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I'll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I'll give you half-a-crown!'

There's something subtle going in Dickens' (and Scrooge's) substitution of the turkey "as big as me" for the goose. It's not just the size of the two birds, either. The turkey, even in Dickens' late nineteenth century London (A Christmas Carol was first published on December 17, 1843), was a bit of an exotic bird, one whose ancestors were imported from the New World. This ginormous turkey (or Turkey, as Dickens has it) is the larger of two "prize" birds hanging in the window of the poultry shop; this is the bird that, generally speaking, no one could afford to buy—but that would lure customers in to the shop for the more affordable goose. First, there's the ostentatious aspect of purchasing the "prize Turkey," an ostentation largely erased by Scrooge's anonymity, but there's also a subtle class distinction; Scrooge is from a different class than his clerk Bob Cratchit; Scrooge's father could afford to send him to school, and to leave him a legacy. Scrooge not only can afford the prize Turkey, it seems entirely appropriate to buy the best.

The Victorians standardized much of what we in both Britain and the U.S. consider a traditional Christmas, and much of that was in fact popularized by Dickens' A Christmas Carol, right down to the illustrations of the first edition.