Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been filmed again and again, but one must read it to savor the chef’s cloves of exclamation points that spice the prose of the platterful Cratchit Christmas table:
“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
Yet this is nothing compared to Joyce’s engorging in “The Dead,” the last story in Dubliners. Here he sets the stage for a food fight good and large:
“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.”
Hemingway, reporting from Switzerland for The Toronto Star Weekly, in a piece entitled “Christmas on the Roof of the World” (December 22, 1923), tells how, after a day of skiing, they
“…hiked up the hill towards the lights of the chalet. The lights looked very cheerful against the dark pines of the hill, and inside was a big Christmas tree and a real Christmas turkey dinner, the table shiny with silver, the glasses tall and thin stemmed, the bottles narrow-necked, the turkey large and brown and beautiful, the side dishes all present, and Ida serving in a new crisp apron. It was the kind of a Christmas you can only get on top of the world.”
Meantime, at the bottom of the world, Faulkner’s people eat a Christmas dinner of “possum with yams, more gray ash cake, the dead and tasteless liquid in the coffee pot; a dozen bananas and jagged shards of cocoanut, the children crawling about his [Bayard Sartoris’s] feet like animals, scenting the food.”
We are neither at the top nor the bottom of the world this Christmas eve morning, but we are where we have chosen to be, with the smell of a fresh cut tree mixing with coffee and the sound of jazz and family filling the air – our platter is full.