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In the Bleak Midwinter

If Christmas isn’t Christmas without snow, then you’ll appreciate the following story. It’s from “The Holly Tree” by Charles Dickens.

It’s about a journey from London to Liverpool, made in the dead of winter, before railroads, when, to quote an old English carol, “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; / Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow / In the bleak midwinter, long ago. . . .”

THE HOLLY TREE, by Charles Dickens

The dead wintertime was in full dreariness when I left my chambers, at five o’clock in the morning. I had shaved by candlelight and was miserably cold, and experienced that general all-pervading sensation of getting up to be hanged which I have usually found inseparable from untimely rising under such circumstances.

How well I remember the forlorn aspect of Fleet Street when I came out the Temple Gardens! The street lamps flickering in the gusty northeast wind, as if the very gas were contorted with cold; the white-topped houses, the bleak, star-lighted sky; the market people and other early stragglers, trotting to circulate their almost frozen blood; the hospitable light and warmth of the few coffee shops and public houses that were open for such customers; the hard, dry, frost with which the air was charged and which lashed my face like a steel whip.

There was no Northern Railway at that time, and in its place there were stage coaches; which I occasionally find myself, in common with some other people, affecting to lament now, but which everybody dreaded as a very serious penance then. I had secured the box seat on the fastest of these, and my business in Fleet Street was to get into a cab with my large suitcase, so to make the best of my way to the station where I was to join this coach. But when one of our Temple watchmen told me the Thames had frozen over, and made a walk from Temple Gardens to the station possible, I began to question whether or not I wanted to be frozen to death seated outside in the box seat.

When I got to the station--where I found everybody drinking hot purl, in self-preservation--I asked if there were an inside seat to spare. I then discovered that, inside or out, I was the only passenger. This gave me a still livelier idea of the great inclemency of the weather, since that coach always loaded particularly well. However, I took a little purl (which I found uncommonly good) and got into the coach. When I was seated, they built me up with straw to the waist, and, conscious of making a rather ridiculous appearance, I began my journey.

It was still dark when we left the station. For a little while, pale, uncertain ghosts of houses and trees appeared and vanished, and then it was a hard, black, frozen day. People were lighting their fires; smoke was mounting straight up high into the rarefied air; and we were rattling over Highgate Archway over the hardest ground I have ever heard the ring of iron horseshoes on. As we got into the country, everything seemed to have grown old and gray. The roads, the trees, thatched roofs of cottages and homesteads, the ricks in farmers’ yards. Outdoor work was abandoned, horse-troughs at roadside inns were frozen hard, no stragglers lounged about, doors were tightly shut, little turnpike houses had blazing fires inside, and children rubbed the frost from the little panes of glass with their chubby arms, that their bright eyes might catch a glimpse of the solitary coach going by.

I don’t know when the snow began to set in; but I know that we were changing horses somewhere when I heard the guard remark that, “The old lady up in the sky was picking her geese pretty hard today.” Then, indeed, I found the white down falling fast and thick.

The lonely day wore on, and I dozed it out, as a lonely traveler does. I was warm and valiant after eating and drinking--particularly after dinner; cold and depressed at all other times. I was always bewildered as to time and place, and always more or less out of my senses. The coach and horses seemed to execute in chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” without a moment’s intermission. They kept the time and tune with the greatest regularity, and rose into the swell at the beginning of the Refrain, and with a precision that worried me to death.

While we changed horses, the guard and coachman went stumping up and down the road, printing off their shoes in the snow, and poured so much liquid consolation into themselves without being any the worse for it. It became dark again. Our horses tumbled down in solitary places, and we got them up--which was the pleasantest variety I had, for it warmed me.

AND IT SNOWED AND SNOWED, and still it snowed, and never left off snowing. All night long we went on in this manner. Thus we came round the clock, upon the Great North Road, to the performance of “Auld Lang Syne” all day again. And it snowed and snowed, and still it snowed, and never left off snowing.

I forget now where we were at noon the second day, and where we ought to have been, but I know that we were scores of miles behind schedule, and that our case was growing worse every hour. The drift was becoming prodigiously deep and marks were getting snowed out; the road and the fields were all one; instead of having fences and hedgerows to guide us, we went crunching on over an unbroken surface of ghastly white that might sink beneath us at any moment and drop us down a whole hillside. Still, the coachman and guard--who kept together on the box, always in council, and looking well about them, made out the track with astonishing sagacity.

When we came in sight of a town, it looked, to my fancy like a large drawing on a slate, with abundance of slate-pencil expended on the churches and houses where the snow lay thickest. When we came within a town, and the church clocks all stopped, the dial-faces choked with snow, and the inn-signs blotted out, it seemed as if the whole place were overgrown with white moss. As to the coach, it was a mere snowball; similarly, the men and boys who ran along beside us to the town’s end, turning our clogged wheels and encouraging our horses, were men and boys of snow; and the bleak wild solitude to which they at last dismissed us was a snow Sahara. One would have thought this enough: notwithstanding which, I pledge my word that it snowed and snowed, and still it snowed, and never left off snowing.

We performed “Auld Lang Syne” the whole day; seeing nothing, out of towns and villages, but the tracks of hares and foxes, and sometimes of birds. At nine o’clock at night, on a Yorkshire moor, a cheerful burst from our horn, and a welcome sound of talking, with a glimmering and moving about of lanterns, roused me from my drowsy state. I found that we were going to change horses again.

They helped me out, and I said to a waiter, whose bare head became white as King Lear’s in a single minute, “What Inn is this?”

“The Holly Tree, Sir,” said he.

“Upon my word,” said I, apologetically, to the guard and coachman, “I believe that I must stop here.”

Now the landlord, and landlady, and ostler, and the postboy, and all the stable authorities, had already asked the coachman, to the wide-eyed interest of the rest of the establishment, if he meant to go on. The coachman had already replied, “Yes, he’d take her through it” --meaning by “her” the coach--if so be as George would stand by him. George was the guard, and he had already sworn that he would stand by him. So the helpers were already getting the horses out.

BY DECLARING MYSELF BEATEN, after this parley, was not an announcement without preparation. Indeed, but for the way to the announcement being smoothed by the parley, I more than doubt whether, as an innately bashful man, I should have had the confidence to make it. As it was, it received the approval even of the guard and coachman. Therefore, with many confirmations of my inclining, and many remarks from one bystander to another, that the gentleman could go forward by the mail coach tomorrow, whereas tonight he could only be froze, and where was the good of a gentleman being froze, I saw my suitcase got out stiff, like a frozen body. I wished the guard and coachman good night and a prosperous journey; and, a little ashamed of myself, after all, for leaving them to fight it out alone, followed the landlord, landlady, and waiter inside the Holly Tree.

My bedroom was some quarter of a mile off, up a great staircase at the end of a long gallery; and nobody knows what a misery this is to a bashful man who would rather not meet people on the stairs. I thought I had never seen such a large room as that into which they showed me. It had five windows, with dark red curtains that would have absorbed the light of a general illumination; and there were complications of drapery at the top of the curtains, that went wandering about the wall in a most extraordinary manner. I asked for a smaller room, and they told me there was no smaller room. They could screen me in, however, the landlord said. They brought a great old Japanese screen, and left me roasting whole before an immense fire.

It was the grimmest room I have ever had a nightmare in; and all the furniture, from the four post bed to the two old silver candlesticks, was tall, high-shouldered, and spindle-waisted. Below, in my sitting room, if I looked round my screen, the wind rushed at me like a mad bull; if I stuck to my armchair, the air scorched me to the color of new brick. If I stood with my back to the fire, a gloomy vault of darkness above and beyond the screen insisted on being looked at; and, in its dim remoteness, the drapery of the ten curtains of the five windows went twisting and creeping about, like a nest of gigantic worms.

I am emboldened to mention, that, when I travel, I never arrive at a place but I immediately want to go away from it. Before I finished my supper of broiled fowl and mulled port, I had impressed upon the waiter in detail my arrangements for departure in the morning. Breakfast and bill at eight. Fly at nine. Two horses, or, if needful, even four.

In the morning I found that it was snowing still, that it had snowed all night, and that I was snowed in. Nothing could get out of that spot on the moor, or could come at it, until the road had been cut out by laborers from the market town. When they might cut their way to the Holly Tree nobody could tell me.

IT WAS CHRISTMAS EVE. I should have had a dismal Christmas of it anywhere, and consequently that did not so much matter; still, being snowed in was like dying of frost, a thing I had not bargained for. I felt lonely. Yet I could no more have proposed to the landlord and landlady to admit me to their society (though I should have liked it very much) than I could have asked them to present me with a piece of plate. . . .


This is where we end the story. There is more. Our traveler is trapped at the inn for another week. He spends his time alone in his room reminiscing about all the inns in which he has stayed that has nothing to do with Christmas and is not all that interesting anyway.

What has a lot to do with Christmas and makes an appropriate ending is a holiday feast, as described in the movie “The Shop Around the Corner.” The meal, served in Budapest, Hungary is as follows: chicken noodle soup, roast goose stuffed with baked apples, fresh boiled potatoes with butter, some red cabbage on the side, cucumber salad with sour cream, and for dessert a double portion of apple strudel with vanilla sauce. When do we eat?

Wishing you the warmest of Holidays.

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