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What Scrooge Ate on Christmas Eve: Folk Belief, Folk Medicine, and Foodways in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”

Illustration of a man in a chair by a fireplace interacting with a standing ghost

John Leech’s 1843 illustration “Marley’s Ghost” shows the saucepan of gruel on the hob in the fireplace, and Scrooge’s “basin and spoon” for eating it on the table. The image was published in 1843 and is in the public domain. Find out more about the image here.

This post is part of an occasional series about ethnography and folklore in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  Find the whole series here!

In a previous blog post on Charles Dickens’s immortal story A Christmas Carol, I suggested than an ethnographic approach might reveal interesting dimensions to the story, dimensions we don’t often notice. Let’s continue reading the book ethnographically, exploring aspects of cultural context that stand out as different, surprising, and in need of explanation. In particular, this year we’ll examine unusual aspects of Dickensian foodways. In this first post, we’ll find out how to determine what Scrooge ate on Christmas Eve, and discuss supernatural belief and folk medicine along the way.

We’ll begin with one of the story’s most memorable scenes, in which Scrooge settles down by the fireplace with a saucepan of gruel, a basin and a spoon. (In this case, the word “basin” just means a bowl for eating.) In another classic Dickens novel, Oliver Twist and his fellow workhouse orphans carry their “basins and spoons” to be served gruel. In his notes to The Annotated Christmas Carol, Michael Patrick Hearn recalls this connection, and remarks:

Small wonder Scrooge thinks such institutions are sufficient for the poor: the old miser’s diet is not much better than theirs.

Hearn suggests here that Scrooge, like Oliver, eats gruel for his main meal of the day. But this is not what Dickens intended, as another surprising remark from Dickens makes clear.

Illustration of a child talking to a man while other children look on.

This illustration of Oliver Twist by James Mahoney shows Oliver with his “basin and spoon” asking for gruel. The image was published in 1898 and is in the public domain. Find out more about the image here.

The clue occurs in parentheses, as Scrooge surveys his apartment looking for intruders:

Sitting room, bed-room, lumber-room. All as they should be. Nobody under the table; nobody under the sofa; a small fire in the grate; spoon and basin ready; and the little saucepan of gruel (Scrooge had a cold in his head) upon the hob. Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his dressing-gown, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall. Lumber-room as usual. Old fire-guard, old shoes, two fish-baskets, washing-stand on three legs, and a poker.

The detail of Scrooge’s “cold in the head” should alert those reading ethnographically that something is afoot: what does Scrooge’s cold have to do with the gruel?

As it turns out, quite a bit. A little research reveals that in Dickensian England, gruel was considered part of a cure for the common cold. This was a folk remedy; but then, as now, many folk beliefs and remedies were also accepted by physicians. As a related example, Thomas John Graham, M.D., in his book Modern Domestic Medicine, published about 25 years before A Christmas Carol, explains (quite wrongly, as we now know) that the common cold was caused by “cold applied to the body.” It was a folk belief then, and is still a folk belief today, that you can “catch your death of cold” simply by being cold for a while, or going outside without a coat. More specifically, science in Dickens’s day thought that colds were caused by the “violent action of the heat” when a person returned too suddenly from “cold applied to the body” to warmth.  As Graham explained:

Colds are generally produced in the following manner:  when a person in cold weather goes into the open air, every time he draws in his breath the cold air passes through his nostrils and windpipe into the lungs, and, consequently, diminishes the heat of these parts. As long as the person continues in the cold air, he feels no bad effects from it; but as soon as he returns home, he approaches the fire to warm himself, and very often takes some warm and comfortable drink “to keep out the cold” as it is said. The inevitable consequence is, that he will first perceive a glow within his nostrils and breast as well as over the whole surface of the body. Soon afterwards, a disagreeable dryness and huskiness will be felt in the nostrils and breast. By and by a short, dry, tickling cough comes on. He feels a shivering, which makes him draw nearer to the fire, but all to no purpose; the more he tries to heat himself, the more he becomes chilled. All the mischief is here caused by the violent action of the heat.

This is, of course, nonsense. Now we know the cold is really caused by several different viruses, and that you can catch it without either chilling yourself too much or warming yourself too fast. The belief that you can “catch a cold” by playing outside without a coat still exists, but is no longer shared by doctors. In Dickens’s time, though, the folk belief about colds being caused by cold was also official medicine.

Similarly, gruel’s efficacy against a cold was a folk belief accepted by physicians in Dickens’s day. Graham tells us:

In the common cold, a little domestic repose in a very moderately warm atmosphere, diluting drinks, of a temperature not higher than lukewarm, and abstinence from animal food and fermented liquors, with a sudorific posset of treacle and milk, or some warm gruel at night, is usually sufficient to carry off the complaint.

Illustration of a sick man with a cold, dressed in a coat, with his feet in a basin or water and a bowl of gruel by his side.

This 1833 lithograph by G. Tregear of London is called “A Cure for a Cold.” The caption reads: “Here’s a go; I must keep my feet in hotwater 20 minutes take two quarts of gruel wrap my head in flanel and tallow my nose.” It shows the belief that gruel was believed to be part of the cure for a cold. Find out more about the image here.

Still, while he recommends a little gruel, he makes it clear that he thinks some other common folk beliefs about gruel are nonsense:

I do not think it a correct practice after a cold is caught to make the room the person sits in much warmer than usual, to increase the quantity of bed-clothes, wrap up in flannel, and drink a large quantity of hot tea, gruel, or other slop, because it will inevitably increase the feverishness present, and, in the majority of instances, prolong rather than lessen the duration of the cold.

Graham is taking aim at other folk beliefs which called for much more gruel. These were well known enough to be lampooned in the 1833 lithograph “A Cure for a Cold,” which you can see at right.

It’s easy to see why one might believe gruel–whether a little or a lot–cured a cold. The warm gruel is soothing to the throat, and eating gruel has the effect of placing your face above a steaming bowl, which can clear your sinuses as well. With a mild and short-lived cold, anything that mitigates the symptoms will seem to be a cure, since the cold disappears in a short time anyway. Sadly, though, gruel has no known effect on viral infections, so doctors today wouldn’t consider it a cure.

Nevertheless, Scrooge is clearly following the commonly accepted medical advice about gruel, for he arrives at home to find a small fire in the grate and gruel warming on the hob. Alert readers will also notice the interesting implications: before Scrooge arrives home, someone has been in his rooms to make up the fire, prepare the gruel, and leave it for him on the hob. Dickens’s contemporaries would conclude that Scrooge has non-resident domestic staff to handle these details. This is confirmed in Stave 4 when we meet a laundress (Mrs. Dilber) and a charwoman (whose name is never revealed). The two part-time servants discuss Scrooge’s miserly ways as they sell the items they stole from his rooms while his body was still there–suggesting they have keys to get in. Most likely, it is the charwoman (a woman hired to do domestic chores by the day or by the hour, as opposed to full-time) who has arranged things in Scrooge’s rooms before he gets home.

Dickens might, of course, have intended to evoke the feeling of meagerness conveyed by the word “gruel,” with its resemblance to “cruel” and its association with the poor. But by now it’s clear that Scrooge doesn’t live on it; his gruel is not a meal, it’s medicine. So we are still left wondering what Scrooge did eat that Christmas Eve.

Dickens doesn’t directly state the answer, but he does tell us that Scrooge eats in a tavern on the way home from work, and that this is his regular practice:

Scrooge took his usual melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book, went home to bed.

But this still leaves us none the wiser as to exactly what Scrooge ate. For that, we must read part of Scrooge’s later conversation with Marley’s ghost:

‘You don’t believe in me,’ observed the Ghost.
‘I don’t,’ said Scrooge.
‘What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Scrooge.
‘Why do you doubt your senses?’
‘Because,’ said Scrooge, ‘a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’

Illustration of a man sitting in a tavern booth looking at papers.

This is a detail from that 1910 illustration “Scrooge’s Solitary Dinner” by Harry Furniss. It’s one of the few illustrations of Scrooge in the “melancholy tavern.” The image was published in 1910 and is in the public domain. Find out more about the image here.

This passage is quite interesting to those who study the discourse around supernatural belief. Scrooge employs a common rhetorical technique, articulating what folklorist David Hufford has called a “tradition of disbelief.” It is one of the most common such traditions, going back as Hufford points out to Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 book Leviathan, which suggested in Hufford’s words “that supernatural beliefs arise from and are supported by various kinds of obvious error.” Scrooge’s tradition of disbelief runs also through David Hume’s Essay “Of Miracles,” in which Hume suggests that it is always more likely that anyone reporting a miracle is lying or deluded than that the miracle has actually occurred. Hume applies this logic directly to the situation of a ghost or revenant:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In other words, Hume’s reasoning process is to judge whether it’s more likely that the witness is lying or deluded, or whether the dead man has really returned. If it’s more likely to be a lie or delusion, Hume dismisses the supernatural claim.

Whatever we may think specifically of the supernatural, this is not a soundly reasoned way to decide whether an improbable thing has occurred. For one thing, there is no way to judge how probable it is that someone is lying to you or deceived. Even if you could, very improbable things like lottery jackpots happen all the time. If a person claims to hold a winning lottery ticket, it is arguably always more likely they are lying than that they actually have won; but this doesn’t mean that no one ever wins. For these reasons and more, Hufford cautions against relying on traditions of disbelief when studying folk beliefs.

Half-length portrait of a man in 18th century clothing.

David Hume (1711-1776) painted from life by Allan Ramsay. Scrooge employs reasoning popularized by Hume a hundred years before his time. The image is in the public domain. Find out more about it here.

It appears to be on same the faulty logic articulated by Hume that Scrooge decides Marley’s ghost is not real: Scrooge judges it more probable that he himself is deceived by his senses than that Marley has come back from death to talk with him. Deciding exactly HOW he is deceived by his senses, Scrooge employs yet another common tradition of disbelief: the assumption that he is hallucinating based on having ingested a psychoactive substance in the form of spoiled or tainted food. As Hufford points out on page 49 of “Traditions of Disbelief,” this same assumption is still traditionally applied to people who believe they have experienced the supernatural:

When actual experiences are involved at all [in supernatural belief], they are generally thought to fall into one of four classes. First there are hallucinations […] [including] under the influence of psychotropic substances.

As it turns out, although Scrooge may sound reasonable, he hasn’t in fact applied any kind of reason–he has merely appealed to a set of longstanding folk traditions common among intellectuals, which when combined argue that experiences that seem supernatural must actually be psychotropic-induced hallucinations.

The main weakness of this approach in Scrooge’s case is that there is simply no evidence that any of the foods he mentions has caused him to hallucinate. Logically, he might as well have blamed his perception of Marley on his head cold, or on spontaneous hypnotism brought about by the flickering of the fireplace and candle, or on lack of oxygen caused by insufficient ventilation of the fireplace, or on a stroke, or on the onset of dementia. There is no specific evidence for any of these explanations–which is to say, exactly the same evidence as there is for the explanation he chooses, which is the psychotropic action of food.

Because of this weak reasoning, Scrooge’s explanation of Marley’s apparent presence in his rooms is entirely unconvincing, even to Scrooge himself. For us, however, it is convenient that Scrooge seizes on this particular traditional explanation involving psychotropic substances. In order for this tradition of disbelief to be applicable, Scrooge must be aware of having recently eaten the foods he blames for his hallucinations. After all, he can’t even pretend to believe that Marley’s appearance is a hallucination caused by undigested beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato, or gravy unless he has actually eaten those things recently enough that they are still in his system.

Illustration of a man in a chair by a fireplace interacting with a standing ghost.

“What do you want with me?” by E. A. Abbey. Initial illustration for A Christmas Carol, “Stave One: Marley’s Ghost.” in the American Household Edition (1876) of Dickens’s Christmas Stories. The image is in the public domain. Find out more about the image here.

From this, we can reasonably infer that beef, mustard, cheese, potatoes, and gravy are at least some of the foods Scrooge has eaten on Christmas Eve. We can conjecture that he might have had cheese with mustard and perhaps (unmentioned) bread for lunch in his office (where he does not have a kitchen to prepare anything hot), and beef with potatoes and gravy for his melancholy dinner in the tavern.

It’s also interesting to note that Scrooge doesn’t mention gruel as a possible cause of hallucinations. One would think that the gruel, as the last thing he seems to have eaten before seeing Marley’s ghost, would be the most obvious suspect as the cause of his purported hallucinations. Returning to the text, however, we find a surprising fact. Although Scrooge sits down “to take his gruel,” he then almost immediately exclaims “Humbug!” and leaps up to walk across the room. He takes several turns around the room before sitting down again. At no point is he described as actually eating any gruel. I think we can reasonably conclude that he does not actually eat any gruel in the scene. If he had, he would also have mentioned the gruel as a likely cause of hallucinations.

Illustration of a party. One man in the center is blindfolded.

Fred’s Christmas party, as illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Although as Scrooge remarks, Fred is “poor enough,” he still lives a much grander lifestyle than his uncle, including a house with a kitchen, a dining room, and a staff. The image is in the public domain. Find out more about it here.

As we’ve seen, folk beliefs and foodways can interact. In this case, we’ve seen how beliefs about gruel caused Scrooge to order the charwoman to prepare some. By interpreting his expression of folk disbelief, we’ve seen that he was probably interrupted before he could eat it. Meanwhile, the same rhetoric of disbelief also allowed us to determine at least some of the things he did eat that day: beef, mustard, cheese, potatoes, and gravy.

One last element of Scrooge’s eating habits may be surprising to most readers: despite being universally considered a miser, Scrooge (as we’ve already noted) eats out every night. His nightly visits to the melancholy tavern, though, begin to make more sense when we see the rest of his lifestyle. Consider his visual survey of his apartment, which I quoted above. He has three rooms: a sitting room, a bedroom, and a lumber-room (which is an old name for a storage room). He does not have a kitchen. In surveying all the places someone might hide, Scrooge does not check behind the stove or in the oven, because he doesn’t have either. The house also does not have a communal kitchen for him to share with other apartment-dwellers; in fact, we are told that Scrooge is the only resident of the building, and that the other rooms are all rented out as offices. As a man who lives in a small apartment with no kitchen and no neighbors, the only way Scrooge could cook at home would be in a pot hung directly in his fireplace. He can, in other words, prepare gruel, but little else.

Scrooge’s habit of eating out nightly allows him to avoid the expenses of a larger home and domestic staff. It surely saves him money compared to others of his social class, including his nephew, Fred.  Despite being less wealthy than Scrooge, Fred has a house with a kitchen, dining room, and parlor, and apparently enough servants to keep them running, although we only see one maid.

Scrooge’s lack of kitchen facilities was his own choice, but many poorer Londoners weren’t so lucky. They couldn’t afford kitchens OR meals in a tavern, and thus had to live even more frugally than Scrooge. We’ll examine some of these in our next post, “Cooking the Cratchits’ Goose.”

In the meantime, you can always read a lovely illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol at this link.


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